Sure, let’s “move on” but to what?

Since the referendum a constant bleat from the Brexiters is “you lost, get over it, move on”. This would be fine if we knew what we were “moving on” to. Furthermore, since the 1975 referendum anti-EU individuals and groups never “moved on” to accepting Britain’s EEC/EU membership and argued throughout this period that we should leave. This includes, for example, the Labour Party who for most of the 1980s fought elections with the commitment to leave without a referendum. In the Tory party the Powellite rump always maintained we were “lied to” in 1975 and refused to accept the result, increasingly objecting to newer EU treaties in parliament.

All we know is that on June 23rd the majority of voters voted to “Leave”. Nowhere was it defined what “Leave” meant and certainly the various Leave campaigners did not make it clear what Leave meant. In fact, they conveyed inconsistent and irreconcilable visions of what Leave meant. In some cases they made promises that could not be delivered: for example maintaining single market membership without freedom of movement. Others did assert that we would be outside the single market, able to control immigration and regulations, but then went on to say that the EU would then not impose tariffs or reciprocate on the control of freedom of movement for UK citizens. They made assumptions about how the EU , and other countries, might react to Brexit which are very likely to be naive at best, reckless at worst.

Far from being a revolt against the socalled “out of touch metropolitan elite” it was one group of that out of touch metropolitan elite taking any axes to grind they could find to instigate a coup against the rest of the out of touch metropolitan elite.

As a very experienced and qualified project manager in software development, had I taken a project plan to my employer (IBM for 28 years) and told them “I have no idea what the specification of the product will be, how much it will cost to develop or when we expect to ship, but trust me it will be fine” I can be certain I would not have lasted long and certainly such a project would not be funded. Even if I had a plausible project plan but my colleagues in sales and marketing said “we have no idea what markets this product will succeed in, what potential customers are prepared to pay for it, how much revenue we expect to make, nor how it should be marketed beyond ‘trust me, it solves all known problems’ and the competition will simply melt away”, again, the company would not invest in such a proposal. But this is, by analogy, what Brexiters are meaning when they say “Brexit means Brexit; move on”. This is how the real world works, but it’s pretty clear that most of the Brexit leaders (Farage, Gove, Hannan, Johnson etc) have no experience of the real world – journalism and being a professional MEP don’t count.

Each Leave advocate is picking and choosing from the various claims about Brexit and asserting “of course, the electorate voted for xxx” when it actually isn’t at all clear that all, or even most, of the 52% voting Leave voted for “xxx”. Some claim “of course, this means leaving the Customs Union” when the government is far from clear about that (including what that means for Northern Ireland). Some say “Of course this means leaving the Single Market” when the government appears to be exploring all possible options to remain within the Single Market.

What we do know is that there is no possibility of an arrangement with the EU which maintains the UK’s position in the single market, allows it to control EU migration, allows it to set its own regulations, and does not contribute to the EU budgets. Some of these goals must be compromised on. UKIP and some Brexit leaders would accept trade with the EU and the world on WTO terms in order to control migration, eliminate the EU budget contribution, and set our own rules of trade via bilateral agreements with other states. At least they are not trying to have their cake and eat it, but few believe this will bring about the promised “sunlit uplands”, at least in the short to medium term. In the long term, even if “sunlit uplands” do materialise it will be impossible to causally attribute to Brexit and, in the meantime, an entire generation of Brits will have suffered some economic hardship.

We elect governments to advance the national interest, not to blindly follow popular demands. Democracy is a process to decide policy for the best interests of the nation not a justification to do stupid things on the grounds they are popular. We wouldn’t, for example, have much human rights law if we simply listened to the atavistic wishes of the majority. This government has the difficult, perhaps impossible, task of reconciling the Leave vote with doing what it thinks is best for the national interest. It knows that the economic interest is best served whilst remaining part of the EU single market. Mere “access” to the single market (which any WTO member has) is not enough for the complex supply chains that are now in place throughout the EU. Yet Leave disingenuously, even dishonestly, treated “access to” and “part of” the single market as synonymous.

At a simple level, the government could decide to negotiate EEA membership as a way of implementing the Leave decision. Whilst not ideal, it would maintain single market membership. What it would not do is control  EU immigration, save money on the EU budget, nor restore the ability to set rules by ourselves. But the voters on June 23 were not asked about any of these questions, nor which they would trade off against other goals. They were merely asked if the wished to Remain or Leave the EU. This approach would implement the Leave decision. It would also probably satisfy the Remain voters and many Leave voters as the best arrangement possible outside of full EU membership. Were a referendum to be held between this version of Leave and any other version of Leave it would probably get a majority.

But Leave leaders would argue that the majority of those voting Leave voted against freedom of movement (at least for EU citizens coming to the UK: many didn’t think this was a vote against UK citizens having freedom of movement to the EU). They also voted for spending £350m a week more on the NHS by reallocating the GROSS EU membership (and not spending it on farming subsidies, science, and the regions) and not having to accept EU rules. In other words the Leave voters didn’t vote for an arrangement like the EEA. In fact what Leave promised was that we would be able to keep all the benefits of the EU Single Market without any of the obligations, an impossibility. Since that is impossible, the government has to work out an approach that can be realised and is acceptable to the EU and its members.

Leave leaders cannot subset these irreconcilable promises and assert that compromising on some of them is not what Leave voters voted for. We have no idea what the majority of leave voters would accept. Already we hear of Cornwall, Wales and NE England (recipients of EU regional aid) demanding that the government protect the grants they voted against (and presumably retain protected status for the Cornish pasty too). The leave voters truly did want their cake and eat it.

Some Leave leaders recognise this and advocate unilaterally leaving the EU without negotiating under Article 50. The Daily Express claims 98% of its readers want to Leave (“cut all ties”) as soon  as possible. This is the same Daily Express that was outraged that “bitter” EU countries were cutting UK scientists out of grant EU proposals, an inevitable consequences of a “cut all ties” approach. Were we to “cut all ties” quickly, then the immediate consequences are that we exit the Single Market and trade under WTO terms (though some point out we need to rejoin the WTO first), that the status of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU becomes unknown, and that the status of Northern Ireland and Scotland within the UK become open. This really is a “be careful what you wish for” option. In many ways, I want those who voted Leave to get what they wished for and not like it. However, like the government that really is not in the national interest.

Maybe there is a way in which some deal can be reached that maintains membership of the EU Single Market whilst giving greater control over immigration. Otherwise there are two choices:

  1. A Norway like deal. This will not satisfy anyone who wanted to control immigration, save money and restore notional sovereignty. However, when told “move on”, if this is what we move on to (and we retain full access to EU Scientific programmes on current terms), then I agree to “move on” to such an arrangement as the best of a bad job.
  2. A WTO like deal. This would address immigration (or allow it to be), save the EU subscription, and restore notional sovereignty but at huge economic cost in the short to medium (and probably long) term, and high risk to the break up of the UK. If this is what you want to “move on” to, and exclusion from EU scientific programmes, a new border in Ireland and likely Scottish independence, then, no, I won’t “move on” to accept this and will continue to challenge such arrangements and claims from the Leave camp that this is what Leave voters meant.

The electorate needs to decide which is worse and whatever the choice, we are in for a decade of turmoil and instability. What concerns me is that the triumvirate of Johnson, Davis and Fox do not appreciate the enormity of the (highly predictable) task facing them and the almost certainty of failure to meet the expectations they set prior to the referendum. The recent letter from the Japanese government conveys the massive challenge they have exposed the country to. Then there’s the current reputational damage that’s already been done to Britain’s international standing and the likely further damage they inflict as they go forward. From being known for centuries as a well governed country, the international community now perceive us as having inflicted enormous injury on ourselves and for no good reason.

Politics is primarily about reconciling the irreconcilable: finding practical solutions to a set of requirements (imposed by or promised to the electorate) subject to a set of constraints (imposed by the real world). In the case of Brexit the constraints are so imponderable and intertwined that it will be almost (and most likely certainly) impossible to find a viable solution that satisfies the country. Remain voters, and many Leave voters, will not be happy should the economic cost turn out to be high (Remainers can legitimately say “we told you so” and some Leavers could say “but nobody told us”). Leave voters will not be happy if there are concessions on sovereignty and immigration needed to mitigate economic consequences. An account of the issues the May government faces in negotiating is described here: 

In my long career in IBM I also learnt that building IT products is about meeting a set of often irreconcilable requirements and constraints. Products that address computing requirements of large complex businesses (usually with deep pockets) have quite different design, delivery and price requirements to IT products aimed at consumers who invariably do not have deep pockets and focus on ease of use and simplicity. Being successful in the first is not going to mean you can succeed in the second, even if it is faster growing. Usually the most profit comes from keeping those customers you already have, and going after other markets without a demonstrable means of satisfying those markets usually ends in disappointment and loss. Like IBM, Britain’s core markets are in wealthier geographies with more sophisticated requirements and more disposable income (but lower growth). Assuming we can quickly and easily shift our value proposition to higher volume, but lower margin, markets in the developing world is a high risk strategy with lots of competition (primarily China and India). In the business world a company only does that if it has no choice (such as Apple in the 1990s, but they were led by a visionary) and success is rare (there is no visionary leadership in either government or opposition). Analogies between a nation state and a global company only go so far and Britain does have entrepreneurs and a skilled workforce that can overcome the constraints an established company has in opening up new markets. But only so far: just as IBM’s business model is optimised for certain markets, British companies cannot ditch lots of the regulatory environment of a rich country in order to compete on price with the likes of China and India.

Fortunately my children are eligible for Irish passports (my wife’s and one son’s have arrived) so will continue to have EU freedom of movement.  I could move to Scotland and vote in the almost certain second Independence referendum. In fact, the majority of skilled and educated people (who predominantly voted Remain) will continue to have opportunities to live and work abroad and may well choose to exercise those opportunities should Brexit limit them in the UK. That leaves the “sunlit uplands” to be built by the less skilled, less educated, and in many cases gullible, who took a less than critical view of the promises made by Leave. Good luck with that.