A Pair of Brexit Thought Experiments

It’s been a little while, but I’m afraid this is another Brexit post. However, it’s not going to go in the direction you might think. I want to run through a couple of inter-related thought experiments. I’m going to run through some events and it’s going to be clear who I am talking about, but I want you to ignore any pre-conceptions you may have and go with it.

So first up I want to rewind to the pre-referendum time, back when your pound was still worth something on the global stage.

Now, imagine you’re a relatively senior member of the Government and you back Remain. You back it wholeheartedly. You expect Remain to win. You can see Cameron and Osborne campaigning and don’t think they’re doing an especially good job, but you’re still reasonably confident. However, you know there’s a chance of losing the vote.

Either because you know something or because you have read your boss well, you think that should Leave win then the Prime Minister will resign, leaving a gap at the top which will most likely be hotly contested by those on the Leave side. They would have won the vote and see that as a mandate to take control of the Party and the country. You believe these people to be, let’s be diplomatic, ass-hats, and can’t stomach the idea of them taking charge and destroying the country because it appears they know nothing about what they’re doing.

You believe, rightly or wrongly, that being an outspoken Remainer will not win any more votes over to the Remain side, but more importantly, you know that if you are on the frontline then you basically rule yourself out as the next Prime Minister. With all that in mind, you decide to keep quiet in the lead up to the vote. Some could see this as wanting to make a grab for power, but that’s not necessarily the case. You want what’s best for the country and, looking around, all the other options are bad. Should the unthinkable happen and Leave wins, you view yourself as the only steady, reliable hand. The only person who would have a chance of being Prime Minister who would have a chance of getting the country out of the mess it’s in.

Is that why Theresa May did what she did in the run up the referendum? Who knows, but it’s a compelling narrative. But does it also chime with what has come since? That leads me on to my second thought experiment.

So, all that was laid out in the first half of this post has come to be and you are Prime Minister. You are tasked with taking the Uk out of the EU, something you think is an unholy mistake. You think it will lay to waste so many aspects of the country, it is a disaster of unparalleled proportions. How do you go about it?

You have a mandate from the country that you feel you have to follow through on. It is an unwinnable situation. Whatever deal you come away with at the end of negotiations will be a bad one. The ones that do the best for the UK – the soft Brexit options – will be seen as a copout by the electorate. They will involve us still paying into the EU and will probably do nothing (or, at most, very little) to get back our sovereignty, stop immigration, free us to cut our own trade deals – the things people were misguidedly voting for. If you manage to do one of those things you won’t be satisfying everyone who voted Leave. At best a soft Brexit probably meets the requirements for maybe 40% of Leave voters while the rest will feel screwed over because they didn’t get what they want.

On the other hand, if you go for the hard Brexit option you give those people what they want, but also a whole load of what they didn’t want. Added to which, the ramifications for the country will be catastrophic. And again, you’ll probably only please maybe 40% of the Leave voters. People will say “I only wanted to stop immigration, I didn’t want businesses to leave the country, we needed to stay in the single market”, etc and so on.

Basically, you have inherited a no-win situation. There’s nothing you can do that will please the country (and remember, 48% of the country didn’t vote for any of these options, and you didn’t want them either). So what do you do? How do you fix this mess?

First of all, you need to maximise the time you have to get the result you need while also making people think we’re moving forward. The initial Brexit discussions were about when Article 50 would be invoked. European elections meant we couldn’t delay for ever, but equally we needed a plan before we started negotiations. Sometime in the new year seemed a fair compromise. Arguably March 2017 is about as long as it could be left. Announcing that at the Tory Party conference gives a 6 month window to come up with a plan.

The next thing is to build a case for either the softest of Brexits or not having one at all in your 6 month window. How do you do that? Well, if you announce that we’re aiming for total removal from the EU, that the UK will go it alone, it’s likely that people will freak out. The pound will dive. Businesses will get scared and start openly talking about how they plan to leave the UK. Foreign investment will dry up. Fewer jobs will be created. The cost of living will start to rise as the UK imports far more than it exports and even the things produced at home are often produced using foreign parts, so all these things will become more expensive to the regular consumer. In the run up to Christmas this would be a nightmare. Wallets will feel the pinch. People won’t be able to afford to go abroad.

Many of those who voted to Leave fall into two categories – the older generation and the poorer households. Many of the older generation rely on state pensions which now won’t go as far. Some winter abroad and now will find that more expensive. Poorer households will struggle to make ends meet.

Suddenly the reality of what Brexit might mean will hit home. The discussion will shift to “And this is all happening before we’ve even left – things will only get worse”. People will panic. Then it becomes possible to raise the prospect of not going through with it. Whether or not that can be followed through is a different matter, but at least it brings the conversation out in the open. It gives us a chance of staying.

I think it’s notable that the policies regarding Brexit that caused the most fuss at the Tory Party conference came from remainers – Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd. Their speeches sparked debate about how we treated people from other countries, and how much we rely on them. The NHS can’t be truly self-sufficient in terms of medical staff. It’s outrageous and impractical for all businesses to publish the number of foreign workers they have (this has, of course, since been taken back and was “never an official policy”).

Of course, the three Brexiteers will continue to talk their guff. Guff which isn’t aligned with each other. And guff which is rapidly dismissed by various EU politicians. But it all plays a part.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see further announcements and proclamations which spark debate and outrage around the country in the coming weeks and months, and the debate starting to take a different shape in the new year. Now, whether that debate will be enough to prevent Brexit from actually happening is a different matter, and there are questions as to whether a soft Brexit is even possible (European Council President Donald Tusk certainly seems to have ruled it out). To be fair, it’s difficult to see any deal that gets signed off by all 27 states and the EU Council, so the options probably are limited. Shaping the debate to all-or-nothing might be beneficial.

Of course, this is all speculation. I have no idea. Maybe Theresa May really is moving the Conservatives into the UKIP space in a bid to appeal to the modern xenophobe. Maybe she doesn’t care about the shape of the country and her legacy. But right now, her moves are the same as those I would make if I were trying to shift the debate and keep the UK in the EU.

Trying to make some kind of sense of the Brexit

[This post was originally published on Facebook at about 1:30am on Saturday June 25th, 2016]
Today has brought a range of emotions. Is one a range? It’s mainly been rage. I suppose disappointment is in there too, that’ll do for a range. But I’ve talked it through and I feel calm enough now to try to sit down and compose something to try and make sense of this mess the country has made for itself.
I was woken by my baby daughter at around 5 or so this morning. I thought I would check the results coming in before heading back to sleep, but 20 seconds later there was no chance of me sleeping. I couldn’t believe what I saw, and at various points today that has been repeated. But I’ll come to that.
First of all, let me say that those of us on the Remain side should probably follow Mark Rylance’s character in the recent Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks asks him if he’s worried about what the American government might do to him, a Russian spy who has been caught. Rylance replies, “Would it help?”. It can feel very cathartic to get wound up, shout and scream, to abuse those we feel have betrayed the country (more on them soon), but in the grand scheme of things, “Will it help”? The answer is no. It won’t. And besides, there’s still too much we don’t know.
First things first, technically the result isn’t legally binding. The Government could still decide not to go through with this. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s possible. An even greater outside chance is another referendum, which is being demanded already. If the first of these two options holds a 1% chance, the latter holds about a 0.01% chance as far as I can see but, to quote Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber (an apt film for this situation), “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”
Secondly, we don’t know what kind of deal will be done in negotiating out exit. There are a number of options and I’ll list them in no particular order, though starting with the least likely. It’s possible that whoever replaces David Cameron (more on him soon, too) could go to the negotiating table with the rest of the EU and eke out a deal which is acceptable to sell to the British public and keeps us in the EU. Beyond that, there are the Norwegian and Swiss models. Both are shitty deals but, from where we stand right now, but better than not being in at all. I’ll not go into details, I’m just saying they’re options which offer a little light at the end of this dark tunnel. We could get some kind of hybrid deal which isn’t either of those models but is something new entirely, giving us some access to some things and not others. Diffocult to pin that down to how good or bad it would be.
The final option, and the one everyone is assuming right now, is effectively the nuclear option – we go it totally alone. This is the one we should be really afraid of as I believe it leads along a path to irrelevancy. But let’s not worry about that just yet. Whoever takes over, and who knows, we may have a general election coming too, so it may not even be the next leader of the Conservative party, will have to gauge the mood in the country and come up with a deal that is palatable. There seems to be a pretty clear mood in a lot of the country and it may become clearer in the next few months as it dawns on a lot of the Leave voters what this really means.
But the point is that there’s an awful lot still up in the air so let’s not panic too much just yet. It won’t help. We need to approach this with clear heads.
So now I want to momentarily dwell on the aftermath. As the day has gone on, it has appeared that a significant chunk of the country is having buyers remorse. There are seemingly ever more stories of people saying they didn’t expect Leave to win and if they had known what it meant they would have voted to Remain. This highlights a couple of things. Firstly, that Leaving perhaps isn’t what the majority actually want. But also, the political naivety of a large number of voters in this country. As I mentioned earlier, I doubt we can get a second referendum, but this may be the one thing that we can cling to on that front.
So then we have to focus on the electorate. Not only are there a multitude of stories of people regretting the choice they made, there was also a message from Google today that the second most searched for term in the UK SINCE THE POLLS CLOSED was “What is the EU?”. People were voting on something they didn’t understand. The Leave campaign was successful because they made this vote an emotional one, not an intellectual one, and that has been the problem with British politics (and global politics, to be fair) for too long. You prey on people’s fears and you appeal to their hopes and you hope you can lay blame at someone else’s door. People don’t like to engage with facts. They’re not fun. Cold hard numbers don’t get the pulse racing. So people vote because they are told a bad thing will happen or because they are promised a good thing, but they don’t look for evidence. You can see this everywhere – the MMR vaccine scare, climate change – people don’t want to listen at an intellectual level.
I hope that if one good thing can come out of this sorry mess it’s that people will start to engage again. That people will set aside emotional arguments and look for the information they need to make a decision. And that parties may realise that they need to address the concerns of everyone.
The sad fact is that everything the EU has been blamed for should actually be laid at the door of the government. This one, the last one, anyone that’s been in power. This has been a slow downward slide with each successive government knocking another few bricks out of the wall and causing ever more disillusionment. With the majority of politicians agreeing that a Brexit was a bad idea and now trying to recover from the shock, we can only hope that this is taken on board by a lot of them. Anecdotally, a number of Leave supporters were keen to give the Government a bloody nose, without realising that in doing so they were also managing to cut off their own arms and legs.
So those railing against the rise in NHS waiting lists, the fall in availability of school places or housing, blamed immigration and, by extension the EU. That is the primary factor this has boiled down to. However, it is government policies of austerity that led to each of these things, not immigration. I’m not going to go into dissecting this too much, but safe to say that by failing to invest in things which “the common man” viewed as essential, they looked for a scape goat. The government had told them that austerity was important right now, despite the fact that you should always pay for your essentials and only try to pay off your debts when you;re making a profit. So if what we were doing was essential, it must be someone else’s fault, and so the myth of the evil immigrant began. This horrible people, coming over here, working and paying more into our tax system than they took out, taking our jobs but by dint of earning and spending money they also generated more income which generated more jobs and on and on. But the government couldn’t blame themselves so immigration it was.
This hotbed of unrest has been bubbling around for some time and was always going to come out some way, some how. A few years ago it was the riots in London, but that was seen as perpetrated by scum rather than a symptom of a wider malaise within the country. That could have been addressed at the time, but instead it was pushed back under the carpet and written off, ignored. And now it’s come home to roost.
In the run up to the 2015 election, the Conservative party, working under the assumption that they couldn’t win outright, made a manifesto promising all sorts of things they knew they couldn’t deliver. It was packed with promises that could be rolled back should they end in coalition, as they expected. But of course, the wild promises were taken at face value (much like the wild promises of the Leave campaign which are already being walked back – see spending £350m a week more on the NHS), leading to a majority for the Conservative party and a need to fulfil promises they never had an intention of keeping. The reduction in immigration was one of those, still lingering from the days of coalition, and the referendum was another. Now they had to go through with the vote – they had promised it after all (why it couldn’t be a forgotten promise is a matter for the Conservative backbenches and whips) – but felt confident it could be easily won. But they had no plan. When they talked to people they started to realise that their own policies were what led to people’s concerns and the Tories weren’t going to come out and say “Hey, it’s not the EUs fault, don’t blame them, we did it!”
What was more concerning was that the Labour party didn’t take this line. I have no idea why they felt they needed to join with the Conservative Remain campaign. They could have fought this battle with truth and scored some vital political points for when an election came calling. If they had started calling the Tories out, telling people, reminding people, that their stretched services were due to Conservative austerity measures, how exactly do they lose?
I like Jeremy Corbyn and the bulk of what he stands for, but it’s clear that there are significant problems with the way he is running his party. He is a great voice to have in Parliament, offering exactly the kind of voice the disenfranchised in this country need, but he’s failed to be a leader when it mattered most. It’s possible he can turn it around, but I have my doubts.
So with a complacent Remain campaign, the emotional narrative was seized by Leave and now we find ourselves where we are. We already had a lame duck Prime Minister – Cameron had already said he wasn’t going to lead his party into the 2020 election, but now he has walked away. Perhaps that is right – he led an incompetent campaign for something he was supposed to be passionately in favour of. But he also said that he didn’t “walk away from the big decisions” precisely as he was walking away from perhaps the biggest decision in this country’s history since 1939 and the decision to go to war with Germany.
This should come as no surprise. He was never a great leader. He was a man who could deliver a vacuous sales pitch and nail it more often than not (though not when it mattered most), but he had never distinguished himself as a leader. To my mind he was always the palatable face to the sinister evil that lurked behind George Osborne’s eyes of a serial killer. (I use the word palatable merely in relation to Osborne, and not to suggest that I find the man palatable). The one great thing that he can hang on his mast is the legalisation of gay marriage, but that was a gimme for whoever was in power, it was not his own work. Beyond that, what can he truly say he did for this country in the 6 years he led it? In a positive sense I mean. There’s plenty he could say he did, but I imagine he wouldn’t want it on his resume.
So where does all this rambling leave us? I don’t know. I just feel I needed to try to work through that story, see if I could make some sense of it. Hopefully there’s some kind of logical procession going on there. Hopefully it’s contextualised a few things. I think it has in my mind. I hadn’t thought about the riots and some of the other elements of this until I tarted typing, but I think it’s an important part of this story.
I guess now I look forward. I don’t think we have a great time ahead of us. The pound will bounce back up. Not to the level it was at (not for a while, anyway), but it won’t stay as low as it fell today. Same goes for the stock markets. I feel it’s inevitable jobs will be lost. Business will move elsewhere. Eventually some small shoots of recovery will come, but they will be longer in coming than the apparent majority believe. There will be pain. Not for all of us, but for enough, and those of us who are lucky enough to avoid most of it (and who knows if I will be one) should remember that not everyone will be that lucky.
And this country will go on. We’ll produce a surprising amount of writers and artists and musicians and scientists for a nation so small (though I feel scientists in particular may drop off significantly), but we will not take our place on the world stage in the way that we previously did. No longer will we be the gateway to Europe for America (and vice versa). I don’t know what that diminished role will feel like, no one does. I’m no great patriot. This country has done great things and it has done terrible things, and I feel that patriotism is probably best left for the sporting arena (though maybe not football given the behaviour or many of our fans in France right now). Our island status has left us insular as a nation and that means we often don’t appreciate how we are seen by the world. Instead we have this image of ourselves as the all conquering Victorians with the Empire stretching as far as the sun can see, but that country is long gone. I have often lamented (to myself mainly) that the biggest problem we have as a country is we don’t understand how we fit into the world, that we’re puffed up with self importance and the world is passing us by a little. If that wasn’t the case before, I certainly feel it will be now.
This morning I was afraid for the future. It seemed bleak. It was all gone. You maniacs. You blew it up. God damn you all to hell. But it’s not that bad. I mean it’s bad. But it’s not world-ending bad. I viewed myself as a citizen of Europe, grateful for all that it had to offer. I may never take advantage of the right to work or study in any of the EU nations, but my daughter could have (and maybe she still will have those rights). I believe we’ll all be poorer for these events, but then I feel we’re all poorer for having voted in the Conservatives in 2015, and we’ll be poorer for a number of other choices we make as a nation. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes you lose big. But as every casino knows, you’ll keep coming back. And in the lottery that our political system has become, we’ll take another shot at electing a decent government in a few years time, or maybe sooner, and perhaps this week’s events will shorten our odds of finding a good one just a little.
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