The Prime Minister has given a speech. What I thought would be nebulous, non-committal and wishy-washy was in fact quite clear. The content, however, was less encouraging. Mrs May shows scant sign of understanding the scale of the task on which the country has embarked.
In a sense, I am glad that she has taken a position. Now we know broadly where we stand. I think that this was necessary and the timing is right.
I am surprised by the positions she has taken. The decision to proscribe particular approaches to exit before the negotiations have begun—and the EU has made its positions known—strikes me as extraordinarily foolish. Why set up such enormous hostages to fortune prior to beginning talks?
Mrs May talked vaguely about a transition, which makes sense, and she set a comprehensive free trade agreement as her end game. As I have argued for the past couple of weeks, the transition and the end game need to be discussed together because of the way in which the two are linked; certain objectives preclude other objectives while certain kinds of interim arrangement are practical and others are not.
To date, the question of whether a free trade agreement proffers the kind of end game that we really want is not even being asked. To me it suggests a somewhat shrunken view of Britain, and our place in Europe and the world. Is a free trade agreement with our nearest neighbours and many of our largest trading partners, countries with which we share the continent and the civilisational outlook that we call “Europe” and “European”, really appropriate? Might we be able to aim for something better?
Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, famously said of this sceptred isle that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”. Freeing ourselves from the supranational EU will allow Britain to play a unique role at the global level. We cannot match the USA or the EU or China in terms of market size, but we can compete in terms of ingenuity, agility and innovation, forging ad-hoc alliances and playing ‘honest broker’ to the other big blocks.
If the aim of the UK government is to be a champion of free trade and open collaboration then voluntarily erecting a mass of new technical barriers to trade with several of our biggest export markets sends out all of the wrong signals. Even if a free trade agreement with the EU is to be the eventual end game, the case for immediate withdrawal from the Single Market has not been made.
Indeed, the case for committing to not being party to the EEA agreement is almost always predicated on the notion that the appointed campaigns said so. As Dominic Cummings noted before Vote Leave was formed, campaign groups have no locus for negotiation. I have yet to hear anybody make the case for taking Britain out of the Single Market without an alternative framework for future co-operation to replace it.
Yet, I keep being told that the debate is over. That we had this fight and that people knew they were voting to leave the Single Market. Assertions such as these are false; the case was never made, and telling me to shut up because you cannot win an open debate really doesn’t cut it.
The referendum concerned the binary question of whether Britain should leave the EU. How we should leave the EU and what should follow thereafter was not addressed. People who think that it was are imagining things, inventing post-hoc rationalisations for their favoured outcome.
The fact is I don’t trust the Tories to deliver Brexit, and I find it unedifying to see a substantial proportion of “leave” voters becoming cheerleaders for Theresa May, treating critics with maximal intolerance. We have a way to go if we are going to make a go of this democracy lark.
To those who keep telling me “none of this matters, the decision has been taken”, why don’t you try arguing your case rather than telling me to stop arguing mine? Asserting that you know better than me is not an argument. This is not the end of anything, this is the start of the debate we never had.