Speaking for England – a reply to Chris White

Chris White’s article “Speaking for England” rightly invited people to share their views with the Federal Executive’s review of party governance but wrongly made a number of express or implied criticisms of the English Liberal Democrats that are incorrect and unjust.

Chris writes “most members think they… can vote for the committees which look after campaigning”. Indeed, they can. Local parties are chiefly responsible for local campaigning. National party strategy is constitutionally the responsibility of the Federal Executive, of which both Chris and I are members.

The FE has not directed party campaigning and certainly did not in the 2015 general election. This was because Nick Clegg said it would be directed by “the Wheelhouse” and this was accepted by others as a fait accompli.

The FE does not discuss campaigning at sufficient length. This is partly because the FE meets for only 2.5 hours per month and often does not complete its agenda. The English Council Executive meets for an entire day per month. I have suggested that FE follow ECE in doing this so we have more time to complete all our business.

The English Party created, and deserves credit for, an incentivisation scheme where local parties received money for new members recruited. It has been successful but expensive. The Treasurer’s view is that there is not enough money for it to go on in its present form. This can be debated at the English Council on 21 November.

There is nothing to stop the Federal Party creating such a scheme. But FE exercises no real say in allocation of Federal Party money. We should correct that before having a go at ECE.

The English Council is 150 reps from Liberal Youth and the Regions. Seats are divided proportionately according to how many members each Region/LY have and are filled by election. The form of the elections, whether OMOV or something else, is decided by each Region/LY.

One of the democratic advantages of English Council is that there is financial assistance for anyone who needs it to attend. Cost is not a barrier to attendance, which sadly it really is at Party Conference.

Chris notes that Local Parties have been asked to elect Conference Reps, in spite of Conference voting to move to OMOV. This is nothing to do with the English Party. ECE feels similarly about it to Chris. It has come from HQ and is a Federal Party act.

England, Wales and Scotland have their own rules for disciplinary matters and candidate approval. There may be scope to improve these. There is definitely scope to better support day-to-day implementation of the rules at a local/regional level. Some disciplinary cases suggest we need more rigor in deciding who we approve as a candidate. None of the problems we face will be cured by the Federal Party taking more power in this field.

As a member of FE in my first year, I feel the FE needs to better at fulfil its existing Constitutional role and not take over additional roles from others.

* Antony Hook is a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England and has practised as a barrister since 2003.

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41 Comments

  • Austin Rathe 5th Nov '15 - 2:06pm

    Anthony,

    I’m afraid I need to correct just one point you’ve made here. The English Party did not “create” the membership incentive scheme. It adopted the scheme (and was very much supportive of it), but it only adopted it in the same way Wales and Scotland did.

    In fact the scheme was “created” (such as these things ever are, they evolve over time) during a conversation myself and Caron Lindsay were having over a curry in Edinburgh. We then developed the idea, got input from people across the party and the scheme was adopted by all three states and the federal party.

  • Grace Goodlad 5th Nov '15 - 2:21pm

    I really strongly disagree with you Anthony, and think your argument is fundamentally flawed.

    Much as FE is not perfect – and there have been occasions where I have been very cross with them, I have never had a problem in finding and FE member or two to lobby and discuss my concerns. Turning your guns on FE does not make the EP any less appalling – it just highlights why FE needs to be more professional and assertive and never allow staff and the Leadership to derail them again (c/ref Wheelhouse).

    I am a London member and have absolutely no information as to who the London reps on EC are, or how to get in touch with them, or if any London reps are on ECE.

    I find your note re financial assistance interesting – as a former member of the EC (who decided that it was an impotent talking shop when I was a member of it!), no-one ever told me there was financial assistance available to attend. it would have been helpful given that I was made redundant during that period. says a lot for how well it works when members don’t know about this, never mind people who may be considering standing.

    As someone who has been a member of the EC, and has to live with the craziness it generates I can see no reason to continue with it. It is not transparent or open. Members have no way of knowing what is to be discussed and lobby their “representatives”. Most members have no idea at all about the English Party and how it is structured. I have never seen any will from the English Party to be more transparent, to rationalise and to educate members in order to make themselves responsive or valuable. Indeed when I have tried to discuss this with former Chairs/Treasurers of the EP I have been quite firmly told to but out.

    The Labyrinthine structures are confusing and secretive. It is not fit for purpose. I can see very little that could not be devolved to Regions and/or re-federalised.

    In my opinion the current structure, operation and activities of the EP are pretty much the opposite of all that we advocate in terms of freedom and openness – these are words that the English party appears to have never even heard.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Nov '15 - 2:47pm

    Grace,

    “I am a London member and have absolutely no information as to who the London reps on EC are, or how to get in touch with them, or if any London reps are on ECE.”

    Yes they could be listed on Regions’ websites or somewhere on the federal party website. I think that would be helpful.

    Perhaps LDV could list them?

    Your Regional Chair is of course, like all Regional Chairs, a member of ECE and I would think a good point of contact for you.

  • Grace Goodlad 5th Nov '15 - 3:11pm

    Personally I think the entire culture is rotten – have you tried googling “English Liberal Democrats”?? I suggest you do.

    This is the first hit – http://www.libdems.org.uk/england – it doesnt even name the officebearers of Chair etc. Very poor.

    Second is this – http://www.libdems.org.uk/english_council_executive – far more illuminating – it does list the officebearers – and now I understand your spirited defence of the EC and ECE as you are listed, and your membership of FE is as the English Council rep!! It does offer a vague form to fill in – but no details of how to contact a specific officer about an issue.

    And finally – the final google hit is Wiki.

    Nowhere is there information for members about how to communicate or influence the EP. Nowhere is there guidance on how to work with them. It operates in a vacuum and ordinary members have no information about what they are doing or mechanism to communicate with them.

  • Chris White 5th Nov '15 - 3:16pm

    Where to start? Leaving aside the obvious point that you don’t make a case for the English Party by attacking the Federal Executive (one part of the Federal Party):
    1. Campaigning. I don’t think anyone on FE accepted the ‘Wheelhouse’ as a fait accompli. There was anxiety from the beginning and some strong criticism about the existence of and nature of this parallel and unaccountable structure.
    2. I proposed when the new FE was formed that it have longer and more appropriate meetings. The second day long meeting since the General Election is in December. I presume you will be there?
    3. I note that EC is debating the membership incentive scheme. Can you send me details of the consultation undertaken with local parties?
    4. English Council may well have 150 reps. How many of these reps are elected by and from councillors?
    5. The issue of why we are still electing conference reps is an interesting one. I received this email when I protested: ‘The English Party is the only state party yet to ratify OMOV. Scotland and Wales did this ahead of Federal Conference. Unfortunately until the English Party ratifies it, OMOV will not take effect for internal elections in England, despite the wishes of Federal Conference.’ Are you saying that the person who sent me this is somehow mistaken?
    6. As for disciplinary matters, you may recall that we now have someone employed by the Federal Party as pastoral care officer, in the wake of problems with at least one disciplinary case being dealt with by the English Party. Are you saying that appointment was inappropriate?

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Nov '15 - 3:32pm

    Grace,

    I’m sorry you should stoop to implying I act out of personal interest.

    For your information, I was elected to FE both as English Republic for 1yr and as a directly elected representatives for 2y. I chose to take up the former seat and let the latter, more secure seat, go.

    Moreover, I have proposed on the Governance Review making FE smaller by abolishing a number of seats including my own.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Nov '15 - 3:42pm

    Chris,

    Please don’t write to me in the style of an interrogator.

    Although, on your 4th question, you well know that many councillors are elected to EC.

    It seems to me clear that both FE and EC could work better. But it seems to me your case for abolishing one imperfect body and giving much of it’s role to another imperfect body is not well made.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Nov '15 - 3:43pm

    Grace,

    I’m sure you’ll appreciate that Republic is an intervention of my autocorrect and should read Rep.

  • Grace Goodlad 5th Nov '15 - 3:58pm

    Antony, personally I am rather sorry that you didnt declare an interest as an officebearer of the ECE when you wrote your original post. It is pertinent to understanding your views, and a perfectly normal thing to do in the circumstances – you were very keen to mention your FE membership but your ECE involvment for some reason escaped the final draft.

    I note you reduce the analysis of internal party structures and their fitness for purpose to what provides “safe seats”.

    I note you have totally failed to deal with the issues re the lack of transparency and accountability apart from advising me to talk to my regional chair. I don’t understand why the EP does not publish agendas and seek input from members, and your rebuttals confirm this attitude.

    I cannot see any persuasive argument for the continuance of the EP

  • Chris White 5th Nov '15 - 4:04pm

    Well. There are some important questions in relation to 3, 5 and 6 and I think they do now need answering.

    You said I had ‘wrongly made a number of express or implied criticisms of the English Liberal Democrats that are incorrect and unjust.’ Not sure why an interrogatory approach is any worse than a ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ approach.

    And there is a key difference between someone who is elected to EC to represent councillors and someone elected who happens to be a councillor.

    In relation to where the functions might go I said in my original article: ‘Much can usefully be performed by the Regions – such as the supervision of candidate selection, localised campaign support.’ It’s the Regions and not just ordinary members who lose out while the English Party exists.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Nov '15 - 4:27pm

    Grace,

    You are right. I should have mentioned that I am the EC’s rep to FE.

    Your suggestion of putting Agenda’s of EC and EC online is attractive to me. We could do the same with FE, although that might assist our opponents too.

    Having said that, I don’t think most LPs publish their Agenda nor do schools governors publish their Agenda’s or limited company’s their’s.

    I think you can ask to be circulated with papers. I know a member in my region who asks for and gets regional exec papers.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Nov '15 - 4:31pm

    Chris,

    I used to take that view too. But when I was a regional officer I saw there was a benefit in a layer where the regions come together to do some things jointly.

    I think the Federal level has enough work already to do.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Nov '15 - 4:34pm

    Austin,

    That sounds like a very productive curry!

    The party is highly fortunate to have individuals like you who come up with good ideas.

  • I agree with Grace. The English Party is secretive, inaccessible and therefore, by definition, not transparent and open and furthermore authoritarian.
    PS I am still awaiting any substantive response to my repeated emails to the Party President and Party Leader and a response which actua lly answers the queries I have raised from the Chair of the English Party, emails which highlight these issues.

  • Absolutely agree with Rae

    How can we claim to be a federal party when there is no visible leadership or elected leader of the English Party to sit alongside our Welsh and Scottish leaders, under our Federal party leader.

    Personally I would prefer the English party split into the regions and Cornwall, each with their own elected leader and really don’t see why we can’t to it straight away in London and Cornwall. I accept the other areas might take longer but the current structure of the party is not acceptable. We need to reflect a vision of how a federal UK should look, not the horrible system we have now.

  • Liberal Neil 5th Nov '15 - 6:10pm

    It would be very useful if there could be a discussion between key people from these different levels to agree a way to keep the incentive scheme (or a form of it). I’m sure that is possible if reasonable people can work together.

  • Phil Rimmer 5th Nov '15 - 6:38pm

    Sorry Antony but when you are at the bottom of a hole stop digging. The English structure clearly isn’t fit for purpose and it’s tendency to secrecy makes that more worrying than it needs to be.

  • Mick Taylor 5th Nov '15 - 8:26pm

    Anthony, as you say there is an EC on 21st November and I, as an EC member, would very much like to go, but EC has been fixed for the same time as ALDE Congress, despite me writing to the chair some months ago to tell him. (He refused to countenance changing the date) As I am the FE rep to ALDE Congress I have to go and both my wife and I (and at least 1 other to my knowledge and may more), both EC members will be unable to attend and vote. This is in a party which allegedly believes the EU is vital for UK interests!!! It is yet another example of the uselessness of EC and EC exec that they can’t be bothered to check that their meeting doesn’t clash with an important meeting of the European Liberal Democrats and ignore that fact even when told about it.

  • Stephen Hesketh 5th Nov '15 - 8:45pm

    On balance, I too would go with a region-based Federal English structure. All to often ‘English’ has, in practice, a tendency towards London bias.

    If we had a visible national leader “to sit alongside our Welsh and Scottish leaders, under our Federal party leader” as Anmaw states things might be different but right now the English party appears to need a massive overhaul or abandoning altogether. In fairness however I do admit to not speaking with any great knowledge or experience.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Nov '15 - 11:34pm

    Mick,

    To be fair the English Council date was set before ALDE Congress. The same clash occurred last year. I agree it is unfortunate.

  • Andrew Hollyer 6th Nov '15 - 8:20am

    I’ve had the misfortune to witness the party’s processes first hand over two different issues in the past year or so (although connected as the second was as a direct result of the Party’s inaction over the first).

    On both occasions the experience has been appalling.

    Nobody seemed to want to take charge when either issue first arose, they were left to fester until they could be ignored no longer. When they were finally recognised as needing action they have taken far too long to resolve (and made issues worse because of the delay).

    Of the processes then followed, only the absolute minimum amount of information has been provided (which often proves contradictory). The process followed seemed arbitrary and appears to have been made up as they went along. Requests for clarification of which process is being followed or even what is being investigated are ignored by the people you expect to have responsibility for them.

    I don’t know where the fault lies in the system, the labyrinth of committees and councils, the unclear structures, the unaccountable people making decisions behind closed doors…but it reminds of the line in Crimson Tide where the submarine captain, facing a mutiny says (to paraphrase) “we’re here to preserve [liberal] democracy, not to practise it”.

  • Firstly I want to thank Antony Hook for actually doing a response. The English Party is often attacked but rarely defended. The English Party is not open enough. Regional Parties should list their members of English Council on their websites. The English Party should list all the members of the English Council Executive on their website. It should have taken steps to remedy this, this year.

    It would be possible to re-create an English conference, but as Antony has said there is financial help available to attend English Council but none to attend Federal Conference (nor my own regional conference). (I don’t understand why Grace Goodlad didn’t know about it, as when I attended EC the expense form was sent out with the EC papers. When I was a member I think that everyone had to pay the first £10 and maybe London members would be expected to get to the London venue for less.) It would be interesting to know how much time the Federal Conference spends discussing English only matters? How would we get media coverage if it was done at a two or three day English Conference? I think at least one of the English Conferences was held in either Scotland or Wales!

    At the moment the English Party has two representatives like the Scottish Party and the Welsh Party on many Federal bodies, if the English level was abolished and each region became a State Party this number would increase instead of 2 there would be 22 (as I think we have 11 regions).

    It would be interesting to know how many ex-Regional Chairs would like the English Party abolished, because I would expect that these people find the English Party generally useful and supportive, even if there can be issues with it from time to time.

  • I’m not sure what to say in reply to this passive aggressive article other than: at least the author is bothering to reply, albeit in the same style.

    I agree with Grace: English Council is unaccountable, opaque, and pointless. I see nothing in the article or the comments below that dissaudes me of this view

  • Nigel Jones 6th Nov '15 - 9:38am

    Many local parties are in dire need of rebuilding themselves and some are doing just that. To have both an English Council and a Federal Executive on top of regional executives must surely be the worst use of people’s time. When I was on our regional executive, I was surprised to learn of the English Council and the amount of time it took certain people who would have been better spent in the region or their local party. As a party that is supposed to espouse the principle of decisions being made at the lowest possible level and when our new leader rightly says our priority is community politics, having all these layers of committees is counter productive.

  • Alisdair McGregor 6th Nov '15 - 10:01am

    I said in Bournemouth & I’ll say it again here: the only thing the English Party achieved in the 3 years I sat on the English Council was to convince me that it shouldn’t exist.

  • Like Grace, I am a member of London Region, but I have no idea who represents me on English Council, how they are elected/selected, or what they do. As a Regional Conference Rep I can’t ever recall being asked to elect anyone to English Council, and no-one had ever reported back to me.

    And, as an editor on LDV, I don’t know where to find any of that information (although thanks to Grace for the link to the Executive’s membership).

  • Simon Foster 6th Nov '15 - 10:55am

    I would echo what Neil Fawcett has written – the membership incentive scheme is absolutely key and hopefully a way should be found to keep this. I’d be particularly interested in review of this which takes into account all of the benefits of new members and the income they provide over a 5 year period. Its pure investment politics.

    Austin and Caron – please go out for more curries 😉

  • I have a list of English Council membership as at July

    Can I post a link to that file here?

  • Given the admissions by Antony and Chris about failing to perform their responsibilities as FE members (when it comes to campaigning etc) it may be time for a motion thanking them for their services……

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 6th Nov '15 - 1:02pm

    Antony,

    As a newly elected member of English Council, I take up the position on 1 January, I look forward to the brave new world of the English Party that you imply is there awaiting me.

    Actually, I expect the same attitude that has applied for too long, a “we know what we’re doing, don’t worry your pretty little head about it” approach to governance that has little to do with transparency and openness and rather more to do with operating in glorious isolation from the reality of Local Parties or, indeed, any other part of the Party.

    As an example, English Candidates Committee determined that a written examination was required for potential PCC candidates. One might argue about the wisdom of that decision, but nevertheless one might wonder why it wasn’t available until October this year, sometime after it was announced that every county should field a candidate and thus delaying selections. As a PCC Returning Officer, I am given a very real sense that the English Party is an obstacle to the performance of my duties, not an enabler.

    I am also told that, due to an error in notifying the Party of our Officers, my Local Party will not receive its membership rebate for the last three quarters of 2014 unless the Chair and Treasurer of the English Party agree to its release. Despite a request as to where that authority is laid down, I am yet to receive an answer – I am the Treasurer and file our PPERA reports.

    These are just two of the things that frustrate me about the English Party and its works. Others have touched upon issues of openness and governance far more eloquently than I could, but on one final note, you talk about representatives being elected to English Council. In my experience, there is seldom an election – there wasn’t for the eighteen places in the East of England this time, as only sixteen nominations were received.

    You are defending, if not the indefensible, the extraordinarily hard to love…

  • Matt (Bristol) 6th Nov '15 - 1:59pm

    As a largely armchair member, I am finding the process of this debate as it sloowly unfolds over multiple fora absolutely fascinating …

    I think the general headline I would give it would be:

    “Everything You Might Be Surprised To Discover You Needed To Know About The English Liberal Democrats But Were Too Blissfully Unaware To Either Ask Or Be Afraid To Ask (And You Should Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid)…’

  • Grace Goodlad 6th Nov '15 - 8:44pm

    Quite Matt. I think the more the armchair membership learns the more horrified they shall be.

    In that sense at least we should welcome this ill argued “defence “.

  • Simon McGrath 6th Nov '15 - 10:42pm

    @Mary -“As a Regional Conference Rep I can’t ever recall being asked to elect anyone to English Council”

    did you not get a) the Nomination papers for (among other things EC reps from London and b) the recent e mail about the elections telling you who had been elected ?

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 7th Nov '15 - 11:10am

    Mary,

    I think if LDV could carry a list of English Council members that would be beneficial.

    The Secretary of each Region should be able to provide that.

    Most regions do not seem to put these on their websites and perhaps should. Although, to be fair we do not normally expect LPs to list conference reps on their websites.

    I am presently Returning Officer for South Central region where there is a contested election for English Council and for a number of regional posts.

    The elections will complete next month and I will send LDV the election results. ROs for other regions may be able to do the same.

    South East region’s election results were read out at our AGM last week.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 7th Nov '15 - 11:20am

    Mark,

    I don’t for a moment assert the English Party is perfect. In fact, it has made decisions that I disagree with too.

    My main point is that it is not the only part of the party that needs reform. The Federal level needs that too. I think we need to reform the English Party rather than put more work on the FE which is already over-obligated in my view.

    One can say “give it to regions” but most regional chairs find coming together to do some things jointly at a state level to be useful.

  • There was, of course, in the early days of the Lib Dems, an attempt at “full federalism” with an English Conference appended, usually, to the Federal Conference. This was dropped after a very few years, being generally regarded as a rather unsuccessful experiment. In certain circles (within the party) our efforts with federal and quasi-federal structures have been regarded as “shadowing” trials with what could happen in reality, if a form of federalism were introduced in UK governance. Unfortunately the views of many here – in the Lib Dems (the only party with pretensions to a federal structure!) – doesn’t give much cause for hope. The only other interpretation is that there is some kind of jealousy of others’ influence within the party afoot.

  • As a PS, I can understand people’s frustrations at some things, eg those spoken of by Mark Valladares, but it seems to me that would be down mainly to personal failure, and I know that other examples can be found at other levels in the Party, as in any system.

  • Antony Hook -‘One can say “give it to regions” but most regional chairs find coming together to do some things jointly at a state level to be useful.’

    Isn’t that the whole point of a Federal system?

    Tim13 – ‘Unfortunately the views of many here – in the Lib Dems (the only party with pretensions to a federal structure!) – doesn’t give much cause for hope.’

    Agreed.

    There is no reason, within the current political structure of the UK, why the London LDs are/should be part of the ‘English’ party. I thought we seriously want to create a Federal Britain? The London LDs should have their own elected Party Leader on a par with Kirsty and Willie. One who automatically stands for election as Mayor and is number 1 on the assembly list. It’s really not rocket science. Greater London would be a state in any sensible structure of a Federal UK. So why don’t we lead? Are we just too afraid?

  • @ Anmaw

    For a region to become a state party all they have to do is pass a motion by a two-thirds majority at their regional conference.

    I suggest you do it at your spring conference so any necessary Federal and Regional constitutional amendments can be made in the autumn so the new state party of London would be fully operational by the following year. And the new state party would have time to decide and negotiate which services it wanted the Federal Party to run on its behalf, like membership.

  • Michael Hall 9th Nov '15 - 12:10pm

    It seems to me that the Federal Executive when considering the Constitutional Amendment known as OMOV (Motion F28 on the 2015 Bournemouth Conference Agenda) should also have looked at the Committee Election Regulations (to be found on page 52 of the Constitutions of the Liberal Democrats (free download from http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitution). These regulations include various anachronisms – Libdem News, Cix Conferencing, and “Voting Conference Representatives” who may submit nominations for membership of Federal Committees. The Federal Constitution of course still provides for “Conference” to elect members of Federal Committees, which I assume will mean all those members who registered for the Federal Conference, whether or not they were elected as voting reps.
    However I wonder if the delay in implementing OMOV is due to the realisation that the Committee Election Regulations need to be brought up to date and that, in the meantime, it is unclear who can nominate candidates for election to Federal Committees. Members of “Conference” are entitled to nominate candidates, and “Conference” elects them, but what exactly does “Conference” now mean? Answers on a postcard please.

    Also I would point out that the English Party Constitution provides that one annual meeting of the English Council is the Annual General Meeting of the Liberal Democrats in England, and since it is a “General Meeting”, every member of the English Party is entitled to attend, and put forward motions for debate etc. This is an opportunity to change the Constitution of the English Party. Every member of the English Party must be sent notice of the time and place of the meeting. I have never received such a notice and so the AGMs of the English Party have never taken place in accordance with the Constitution.

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