Bored of Brexit

I’m bored of Brexit. I think most other people probably are too. It is of course the biggest task facing the government for the next few years and how it happens or doesn’t happen could have huge implications for us all. But that doesn’t stop it being quite dull. 


(apologies to Allan Ahlberg and Fritz Wegner for mucking around with this picture)

Brexit is dull for the same reasons that prior to last year’s referendum the EU was dull enough that most people didn’t really know or care very much about what being in the EU meant in any detail. Which is why so much of the debate was about simple elements like “taking control of immigration“, getting back the old midnight blue hardback passports we used to have, or whether there were other things we might or would do with the money we currently sent to the EU. That’s not to say that there weren’t better and more informed reasons for leaving or that even those things weren’t important enough to justify a vote to leave. They were certainly more compelling than arguments to stay based on things like the importance of the Single Market and Customs Union which to the majority of people might as well have been in Sanskrit for all the obvious impact they had on their lives as they are lived. 

This doesn’t mean that things like the UK’s trading relationship with the EU are unimportant. They’re incredibly important. But just as the way in which the Single Market operates, the framework of laws and regulations, the institutions involved in determining and enforcing those laws and so on were of little interest to most people prior to the referendum, I think that the immense and intricate detail of what will follow will be too. The vast majority of people are, I believe, not ultra keen on either extreme of the leave/remain debate. They’d think it wrong if the government decided to ignore the referendum and just stay in the EU and they’d think it wrong if the government ended up leaving on obviously bad terms just for the sake of leaving. Quite where the line should be drawn in between those extremes? Most don’t really know. We can have preferences on individual issues but as an overall position? Put that in the box marked “meh”. This is probably a better explanation for why the UK economy hasn’t collapsed (and indeed has grown more than forecast) than “well that’s because Brexit hasn’t happened yet, just wait and see when it does”.  It is only those at the extremes who have a clear view and for them either Brexit will always be too “Hard” or too “Soft”, depending on whether they were rampant Remainers or Leavers. 

I think where we’ll end up, boringly, is with something in between which will have those at the extremes still unhappy. We’ll be out of the EU, so those who believe that we shouldn’t under any circumstances leave will consider any form of leaving to be terrible. We will however not just rip everything up so it’ll be too soft for the most foam-speckled Ukippers.

I think it is almost certain that despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the rights of EU citizens currently in the UK to stay (and about Brits abroad in the EU not to be repatriated) the status quo will be preserved. It is also quite likely that whatever restrictions are placed on future movement between the UK and EU they won’t be so onerous as to prevent those who are genuinely moving to work or study from being able to do so, even if it might not be quite as simple as waving a burgundy passport. If anything, I think economically there could be benefits for much of the rest of the EU if there isn’t completely free movement of people with the UK – once outside the EU, ending free movement would restrict the UK’s ability to have a competitive advantage in attracting workers from elsewhere, driving up wages and costs in poorer countries and reducing them in the UK. That’s why even with “control” over immigration, the UK probably wouldn’t want to shut its borders regardless. 

As long as we can see that the government has the power to control immigration and is using it to stop obviously harmful people coming, the actual numbers won’t matter so much any more because people will assume that the numbers coming and going are controlled. The perception will be different even if the substance is not very. In the absence of lots of new states acceding to the EU there isn’t another bow wave of EU migrants like in 2004 to come in any case. 

In other areas, I don’t think there will be any real appetite to “punish” the UK by making life hard in trade, just as I don’t think this government, or any of the ones we’ve had since 1979 would want to depart from the idea of minimising trade barriers between the UK and the rest of the world. I suspect that the Great Repeal Bill which will enshrine existing UK implementations of EU law in UK law post-Brexit will end up with a very leisurely pace of actual repeal and replacement and often strong reasons in the future to shadow what is happening at an EU level on uncontentious topics. Relatively few implementations of EU regulations by means of the power to implement using Statutory Instruments were ever put to a vote and this reflects how uninteresting they were. Their replacements will not magically become more interesting in post-Brexit Britain or Westminster. Similarly, while formally remaining in the Customs Union will probably not happen, does anybody here or in the EU really want to start putting up tariff barriers and working out what they might be? It would be easier not to bother rather than to generate some new tariffs the effects of which would not be predictably to the benefit of either side.

One of the reasons why the EU is slow at negotiating trade deals is that they need to be approved by all Member States – so putting in a tariff on say, new cars, which might benefit German car manufacturers in competition against UK ones might also inadvertently benefit German manufacturers against French ones who would suddenly find that their domestic market had less competitive constraint coming from imports from the UK and the Germans were better placed to exploit it. Nobody knows and I think, however much the Commission might want to preserve the purity of the EU and dissuade anyone from breaking ranks, the Member States will reasonably quickly conclude that it’s a game not worth playing. Similarly, in Financial Services, could anyone predict with any certainty that damaging the City of London would benefit Paris and Frankfurt equally rather than make one or other become dominant? Leaving things be would be more likely to appeal to EU national leaders than giving London a “punishment beating” and finding that it ended up harming their own country.

Now, I agree that these also sound like good reasons not to bother with changing anything so why bother leaving the EU at all? Personally I took the view that most if not all of what the EU provides can be done by the UK alone and so from an abstract perspective we don’t absolutely need to be in it. At the same time, there weren’t so many things about the EU which upset me so much that I wanted to leave in order to achieve them and that there were lots of things which I’d really rather the UK never did which they would be able to do if we did. But that is where I think there is meaning in “Brexit means Brexit”. Leaving the EU will allow for changes in the stuff that people do care about and it will make little difference in the end to the boring and specialist stuff that they never busied themselves with before and have probably already glazed over reading in the previous couple of paragraphs. It is the EU’s failure that it didn’t understand how little it needed to change to have kept the support of the UK’s population and so gave Cameron not even that. 

I’d have been more concerned about Brexit had it been pushed by a government which was likely to want to make big changes to those “boring” bits and to depart from the broadly economically liberal underpinnings of the EU to become much more protectionist and interventionist. But, thankfully, we don’t look like we’re going to get Jeremy Corbyn and his ilk anywhere near power and his concept of a “different, social Europe” is almost certainly likely to be even less appealing to the rest of the EU than any plausible actual post-Brexit Europe. If we think that getting to have relatively free access to the EU Single Market while placing restrictions on free movement of people is a difficult task then doing so while restricting free movement of capital and goods and freedom of establishment instead would be positively Herculean. 

So, while it will probably be a massive balls ache in practice for the government and civil service to negotiate the implementation of Brexit, and as an EU lawyer, one that made me shudder enough to vote for remain, it is a boring process balls ache rather than one that will make much difference to the vast majority of people. Which is why Brexit is itself boring and in particular, why those making ultra-technical legal arguments about things like the revocability of notification under Article 50 TFEU are beyond boring to anyone who is not either professionally interested or intent at all costs to prevent it from happening.

Winning the Peace

A week and a half has gone by since the people of the UK voted by a margin of over a million in a referendum to leave the EU. Even though it seems longer as so much has gone on since; the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigning, a campaign to replace him having seen the former favourite, Boris Johnson pull out after fellow Leave campaigner, Michael Gove stood citing Boris’ unsuitability, and frankly incomprehensible chaos surrounding Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, losing half of his shadow ministers after he sacked his shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn and finding that more than three quarters of his MPs voted for a motion of no confidence in his leadership.

Now, the real focus is on who will or should replace Cameron as Prime Minister and how they will effect the changes that should flow from the Referendum result. Cameron resigned because, having campaigned for the UK to Remain in the EU, he did not believe he was the right person to negotiate the terms for the UK’s exit. While I think he could have done so, perhaps by appointing prominent Ministers who had campaigned for exit (such as Gove, fellow leadership contender Andrea Leadsom and Boris) to run the negotiations while he and the rest of his ministerial team continued to deliver the domestic programme of government they were elected for barely a year previously, the decision to hand over in the Autumn to a successor makes sense.

The question is, what should the next PM do and who should it be? Many from the Leave campaign insist that the next PM can only be someone who campaigned to leave the EU. In particular, this is to disqualify the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who was a quiet part of the Remain campaign and who has a commanding enough lead on the first round of MPs’ votes to make it near certain that she will be one of the two MPs put to a vote of the entire Party membership.

However, I think this is based on a misunderstanding of where we actually are today and what the Referendum result means. Many on the Leave side have taken the result literally as one of Leave meaning Leave, with the detail being relatively unimportant. That perhaps explains why there was no single unifying answer to the question posed during the campaign of “what would Leave look like?” (an alternative view on this is that Gove and perhaps even Johnson believed that Cameron would be responsible for what came next so they didn’t need to plan for it – oops). From this perspective, the only thing the UK wants is to be out of the EU so all that is needed is a PM who will pull the trigger on the process by notifying the EU under Article 50 TFEU (though what the process actually entails is somewhat controversial and there’s a respectable school of thought that the longer that passes after 24 June 2016 the less likely it is ever to happen). That would then mean that after no more than 2 years, whether a deal has been struck or no, the UK would no longer be a member of the EU. Job Done.

This approach is based upon seeing the campaign to leave as a war which will not be won until the UK is out of the EU. I believe this is a mistake and one which ironically goes against the accompanying reminder that its adherents have that “the people have spoken” by voting 52% to 48% in favour of leaving. It does so by relegating that decision in the Referendum to being the winning of a battle in the war rather than, as I think makes more sense, to see it as the winning of the war itself. The people have  decided, and the opposing general has conceded defeat.

It is therefore better to consider what comes now as the peace process following the war. For any peace process to be successful it needs to take into account the views of everybody, both victor and vanquished. Otherwise it ends in a Treaty of Versailles situation where there remains a tension which could ultimately lead to arms being borne again (hopefully in the present scenario, only metaphorical ones!).

That is why it is not essential that the next PM be someone who was on the Leave side during the “war” of the Referendum but should instead be whoever, whether on the Leave or Remain side, can secure the best and most lasting solution for the most people. Going too far in the direction of one or other extreme – appeasing just the 52% who voted to Leave or doing what the large minority of 48% who voted to Remain won’t do this.

Thankfully, the reality, as I see it, is that while the Referendum had a clear binary split because there were only two options available, people’s views about what they actually wanted covered a much broader spectrum. There will have been very few people who voted to Remain who thought that the UK’s relationship with the EU or indeed the nature of the EU itself were perfect, whether on the basis of what they are now, the relatively limited package of reforms negotiated by David Cameron ahead of the Referendum or some other measure (such as Corbyn’s “campaign” to remain in a social EU which does not exist and is almost entirely inconsistent with the one which does).

Similarly, while there is a sizable proportion of Leave voters who simply do not care to have anything at all to do with the EU and would like to tear up everything the EU ever touched in the UK, I’m not sure they even form a majority of the 52% who voted to Leave. Instead, significant proportions of them would favour retaining the UK’s position of access to the EU’s single market, whether as members of EFTA, the EEA or some other means. Some of those would not be averse even to retaining the free movement of persons which are currently guaranteed by EU membership, provided that it was something which was chosen by the UK government and capable of being changed in the future were there to be a government elected with that aim.

This spectrum of opinion can be seen running from Cameron (who obtained a degree of renegotiation) through May (who had been among the leading critics of the related but separate impact of the ECHR, albeit that one of the first things to go in her leadership bid was a pledge to exit the ECHR) to Leadsom (who only a few years ago argued that leaving the Single Market would be economically disastrous)  and Gove (who argued during the campaign that the best approach would be to have trade with the EU regulated only by WTO rules). Apologies to Stephen Crabb, the other contender for the leadership, who unfortunately seems to have been forgotten in all this by everyone, including me. Fewer apologies to Liam Fox who I don’t think should be running at all because of the circumstances of his resignation as Defence Secretary (we can’t have someone who didn’t see there was anything wrong with having his mate hanging around the Ministry of Defence without any formal role or security clearance as PM). [Since writing these words about Crabb and Fox and going off to give my son his tea (he’s northern), bath and bedtime story, the first round of MP votes has led to Fox being eliminated, Crabb ending his bid and lending his support to May and Leadsom and Gove remaining to fight over who would come second and compete for the votes of Conservative Members – told you events were flying thick and fast!]

The question is now which of these candidates to replace Cameron can best come up with a solution which balances out the requirements of enough of those who voted either way in the Referendum to be acceptable to the highest proportion of the public. And can they also demonstrate that they have the skill , diplomacy (so anyone appointing Farage to any role is immediately debarred in my view) and persuasiveness to ensure that their solution can be accepted by the EU and implemented by Parliament, whether by maintaining complete discipline among Conservative MPs with a small majority or by seeking a new, larger mandate following a General Election.

My hunch is that Theresa May will win on all of these grounds. Both Leadsom and Gove’s pitches on the EU issue have been at the more extreme/pure end of the spectrum, Leadsom having gained the probably unhelpful endorsement of many connected with UKIP (who won’t have a vote) and Gove taking his typically idealistic/intellectual stance which makes compromise more difficult. Each would therefore find it more difficult to stay true to their stated position while being palatable to enough of those who favoured milder forms of exit or would have preferred not to leave. Gove also has the handicap of being (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) a totem of unpopularity outside the Tory Party for his largely successful battle against the education policy establishment as Education Secretary as well as having generated a degree of resentment within the Party for his ruthless destruction of Boris Johnson’s bid for the leadership. May on the other hand is clearly tough enough (described today approvingly by Ken Clarke in an off air moment captured by Sky News as “a difficult woman”) to be able to do the job without being obviously too much for either Remain or Leave.

The other consideration that comes in here is that the whole process must be done while continuing with the everyday work of government and working towards being capable of winning the next General Election. There’s no point for any Conservative to choose a quick, painful and unpopular Brexit which would ultimately lead to the worst of all worlds consequence of electoral defeat to an opposition which had suddenly been given a whole load of new powers to reverse what the governments of the past nearly 40 years have done. At the moment the threat of serious electoral challenge seems dim given the civil war seemingly about to take off within Labour, but I’d prefer not to rely on that (and as Cameron put it in PM’s Questions last week, it’s not in the interests of the country even if it is in the interests of the Conservatives – for heaven’s sake, man, go!). What about UKIP? Well, I think that Nigel Farage has by resigning its leadership agreed with me that the war is won and should only be re-entered in the event of “betrayal” by the government. Under new leadership it can decide whether it would like to pivot to make a concerted push to build on its gains of support from disaffected Labour voters in the North and Midlands who’d never consider voting Conservative.

Most people are almost certainly very close to being sick and tired of the whole topic so it would have to be a very clear and egregious betrayal to make it worth restarting hostilities. Reasoned practical delays probably won’t get the blood of activists pumping while the stated government intention is to exit (eg to pass legislation, to formulate a detailed plan for what we’d like post-EU Britain to be like, to focus on any short term economic shocks, to put Brexit on hold if the EU starts a more general Treaty change process, perhaps even to wait for the outcome of next year’s elections in France & Germany to make the negotiating environment more stable over the 2 year process, etc…).

Brexit & Immigration

Immigration, concern about immigration, control over immigration, seems for many to be one of the very biggest issues in the EU Referendum. As a second generation immigrant, I have something of a personal interest in the way that immigration is dealt with, although that doesn’t mean that I or indeed immigrants of any generation in the UK must automatically support “uncontrolled” immigration or have no “concerns” about immigration. Historically indeed it has tended to be the last wave of immigrants to any country who have been most concerned about the impact of future waves of immigration (there’s an interesting room in the Ellis Island museum of immigration in New York exploring this phenomenon).

As Sartre put it, hell is other people, so it is not surprising that anything involving increasing the number of other people around will inspire concern for most people. Most people are somewhat resistant to change even if that change is intended to be or turns out to be for the better. At a time when we’ve been told for many years that “there is not enough” of many of the things we need and value, it is quite reasonable for people to take the view that “if there is already not enough to go round, how can it be any good to spread what there is more thinly across more people?”. So ignoring either of those reasonable sentiments to steer the debate away from immigration entirely, or to claim that there is no good reason to discuss it at all, will immediately lead to the conclusion that people are not being taken seriously. These are concerns which can and do legitimately arise even in respect of migration within this country by people from this country: the joke in the 90s posters for the Manchester nightclub “South” (“Students, why don’t you F*** off down South this weekend?”) or the embarrassment felt by some at the reaction to their regional accents when they first move to London illustrate this.

However, while agreeing that it is not per se racist to have concern over immigration, I do sometimes feel that focusing on it allows for a relatively polite screen against uglier underlying sentiments.  In this blog I’ll try to explore what I think are the broad arguments about immigration and also whether in fact a vote to leave the EU will address those arguments. At a high level, the answer to the latter is that of course it could, but as in my previous blog, I take the view that the better approach in deciding on how to vote in the referendum involves at least sketching out a plausible and appealing vision for how it would be dealt with in fact. What I won’t do is drill deeply into numbers and statistics. This is because it is too easy to get bogged down in claim and counterclaim about precise numbers and models for predicting movements of people and because I think that most people’s reactions to immigration are not based on data but on personal experience and perception. Which is not wrong when we have to remember that this is a debate about real people and their lives rather than lifeless numbers. That doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore numbers entirely, just that I hope that the discussion won’t stand or fall on where a decimal point can be placed in a table. The main discussion is focused on migration other than for the purposes of asylum, which while related, ought to be distinct and so I’ll deal with that in a separate section.

What are the concerns about immigration, or some of them?

My impression is that there are four main aspects to immigration which motivate people to think that this is a significant issue in the context of the UK’s membership of the EU. I’m not putting them down in any consciously intended order of merit or significance or otherwise. Each of them will interrelate with the others to some extent.

  1. The impact on public services and quality of life.
  2. The impact on employment and wages.
  3. The fact that as a nation it should be up to us and nobody else who may come to the UK to live and work.
  4. The impact on local and national culture of people who may not share it or might even be in many ways opposed to it.

The first two aspects can broadly be described as economic ones. How important they are in referendum voting decisions will depend more on how they are perceived by individuals than on the aggregated economic data. If someone has noticed a worsening of access to the health service when they themselves have tried to get an appointment with a GP, have found themselves ever further away from being able to get the home they want or a place for their child in a local school while seeing immigrants appear to get ahead of them in those things it will be unpersuasive to throw data about waiting lists shortening etc at them. Similarly, if in fact someone has seen their ability to get a job or to get a pay rise reduced, they won’t be convinced by any number of statistics about employment rates and wage inflation.

The third one is a sovereignty argument – if this is of paramount importance, even if in fact there has been no adverse impact from immigration as it has been or even if it can be clearly demonstrated to have been positive, it won’t matter, because the principle remains the same. It is difficult to argue against as a point of principle if you place sovereignty above all else. Many of the most committed supporters of Leave start and finish here, but I think most of those who will decide on practical grounds would see it as the icing on the cake if Brexit delivered more visible change on whichever of the other three aspects they found most personally impactful, rather than the whole cake itself.

The fourth is a more nebulous one to define but still very real as a perception. There have been many discussions about what Britishness, Englishness, Scotsness, Welshness, Northern Irishness actually mean without any clear and uncontroversial conclusion. That is sometimes, mistakenly used to conclude that there is no such thing or worse, that those are mere petty nationalisms principally for “little Englanders”. I think it is more that the fourth aspect of the debate is a general feeling of discomfort about rapid change across the spectrum of life combined with a belief that even if we can’t quite put our finger on what it specifically comprises of, our local environment as it was some time up until the recent past was pretty good in terms of how we got on and related to our neighbours and communities. It doesn’t need nostalgia to the extreme of the Daily Express’s world view (although this is perhaps its epitome). It is for me a negative nationalism to an extent because it is at best merely sceptical about the possibility that change and incomers could assimilate into society let alone be positive. I don’t think it is specific to the issue of EU immigration but immigration more generally. It is a position which if strongly held would not be persuaded at all even by there being big economic benefits to immigration on any basis, in or outside the EU. One manifestation of it was seen in the erstwhile BNP and its open opposition to foreigners, but it is more prevalent in a quieter “very nice, but we’re happy as we are, thank you”, spoken to by Nigel Farage and UKIP.

So where does this leave the EU Referendum debate?

In my next couple of blogs I’ll look into these four aspects. My impression is that all four of these sets of arguments have two angles, a technical one and an emotional one. The Remain campaign started trying to focus on the technical one by bombarding us with data and opinions of the global great and good. The Leave campaign has been very successful in understanding the power of the emotional one. Remain’s response has often been to play on the strong emotion of fear that runs in these emotional angles – fear of change, fear of impotence, fear of failure. But that is a negative line and so not an attractive one. However, Leave hasn’t been very successful in rebutting “Project Fear” with a coherent and  unifying “Project Hope”. Had it been able to do so, I think we would already be very clearly heading for Brexit.