The Debate We Never Had

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Debate We Never Had

  1. What is the polling on what people understood they were voting for a la Brexit and the SM? I’d wager most leave voters understood their vote was one to exit the SM and I say that as a supporter of Flexcit as an exit strategy.

    Good luck with your fight but from my eyes it seems a giant waste of energy. I’m not telling you to stop.. it’s your call of course. But the battle seems an awfully futile one. Such energy is too precious to waste shouting into the void – I’m now focusing it on other pursuits. I encourage the same of others but respect their right to chart their own path.

    And hey.. 20 years ago Brexit was itself a seeming moonshot. So what do I know? Maybe this’ll all change over the coming 2 years – I just cannot see it.

    Best wishes to you LL.

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  2. I think you are negating one issue, in that we don’t know what form the ‘Implementation’ period might take.

    Remembering at this point that we are domesticating the aquis, and that whatever agreement we reach for transition will require a body for arbitration, I’m not yet certain that we won’t get an EEA based period. (more the shadow EEA than a long term EEA /EFTA). It is possible even that the EFTA court could be contracted to be a third party arbiter. (Nobody has said we definitely won’t join EFTA either, but we don’t know what contacts have been made)

    What is significant, and was a point I think we lost in the campaign, is that any longer term or open ended SM participation is not politically possible without a great deal of resistance. Add to that, a pro remain establishment who are now trying to make that a permanent state, and you can see why it is now regarded with such suspicion. Simply put, the average leaver fears EU by the back door, leaving without freedom.

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  3. At the back of all this, I’m reminded of something Cameron was reported to have said a little after 23 June.

    Of EU withdrawal, to excuse his resignation he allegedly said ‘Why should I have to do all the hard sh*t?’

    One consistent thread of the Cameron years indicates he was thought of as intellectually lazy and that informed his Prime Ministerial style. So it’s probably reasonable to postulate what he really meant was ‘Why should I have to do ANY hard sh*t’. Link that up with Redwood as a good example, who interminably explains that the reason we need to throw off the Single Market is that it’s just so bewilderingly complex.

    Bringing that up to date with what we’ve seen this week is a Parliament (by no means am I excluding Labour or the LibDems) the host of which are either clueless, or alternatively shameless opportunists. (The SNP). Assisted by a Civil Service, large parts of which have been contaminated since the inception of the Blair years with an entitlement to political meddling and agenda building. The recipients of a political legacy going back fifty years where Parliament decided it no longer wished to be the custodians of the UK’s own powers. Like Farage, not only do they not ‘do’ detail – it would appear they can’t and won’t.

    So ultimately it leads us back to the problem – the problem of UK Governance and the inability of the electorate to hold politicians to account. Yes, the voter can eject them from Parliament but that’s about all. Blair – the grateful recipient of an open door held for him by a weak and incompetent Prime Minister – permitted to walk away from his responsibility for Iraq, Brown, walking away from the financial black hole for which he was responsible, Cameron walking away from Libya and the Referendum vote, and the same could be true for May – creation of a political catastrophe from which she can merrily wander with a nice gold-plated pension.

    If any of these people had believed at the start they could be held personally accountable for their mistakes, it might have concentrated their minds before they were ever permitted the reins of the powers they misused.

    As we keep saying. We need better Politicians, and we need a better political system for the UK electorate.

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  4. What the Brexit situation has done for me is to convince me of something which I have begun to suspect or believe for a very long time but which has now solidified into a more considered and reasoned view. In this fiasco much weight has been given to “Parliamentary Sovereignty”. It is now in my opinion essential that we need to revisit what that actually means from first principles with an intention to fundamentally reform our system of governance at all levels. The present Article 50 debate consists of dozens of MPs speaking for a few minutes after which it would appear the Bill will proceed. I do not really care if as it is said the voters did or did not understand what they voted for. Nobody really knows. What is clear is that very few people have any understanding of what the implications of that decision are likely to be. We are literally on a liner in the middle of the Atlantic, now about to get into a lifeboat and to then row off to an unknown destination and with no way back. And the choice and decision to do such a thing has already been taken by a public – largely uninformed about the true nature of international trade and its consequences.

    Some of the speeches and questions in the debate have been absolutely breathtaking in their arrogant and wilful idleness and stupidity. John Redwood sounded frankly – quite mad. Conversely some unlikely suspects – Stephen Kinnock and Caroline Lucas and a few others – at least appear to have a very good but very rare grasp of the detail.

    I despair. I really do.

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