The four tensions of Brexit

12th October 2016

The story of Brexit can be set out as four tensions.

How these tensions are resolved (or not resolved) will determine how (and if) Brexit plays out.


The first tension: words vs actions

The first tension is between what is said by the United Kingdom government and what is done.

On this, as I have suggested elsewhere, imagine a huge ledger with two columns.

The left-hand ledger is a record of words: of announcements, boasts, declarations of intent, and so on. This side of the ledger is already lengthy, and it gets longer every day. If words could create substance, as if by magic, then Brexit would already have happened.

The right-hand ledger is a record of actions. There is not (as yet) a great deal in this column. EU law applies in the UK as it did the day before the referendum; there have been two pop-up departments; the UK is foregoing its turn as president of the council of minister; and there has been a summit of the other EU member states without the UK. But there is not a lot else which is tangible.

For those interested in Brexit, it is the right-hand column which matters, not the left-hand column.


The second tension of Brexit

The second tension of Brexit is between an (almost) irresistible force and an (almost) unmovable object.

The (almost) irresistible force is the referendum result.

The vote to leave was the single biggest vote in British political history in a poll which, in turn, had the [add, second] biggest turn out in British political history. The vote was in a referendum set up by statute for the single purpose of determining the question of UK member ship of the EU.

The referendum result cannot be denied, or forgotten about. Unless (which is unlikely) there is a second political event to cancel out the significance of the vote (like a second referendum, or general election where there is a fresh mandate), the referendum result is not going to go away.

The (almost) unmovable object is reality.

Brexit will be the greatest and most complex exercise which the UK has ever undertaken in peacetime. Forty years of law and policy will need to be addressed and somehow unpicked and re-worked. A complicated array of current and ongoing relationships across scores of policy areas will need to be re-set. Difficult questions from the Irish border to the status of Gibraltar also need to be thought carefully about.  (I have set out some nineteen such hurdles here.)

And all this will need to be done in an age of limited government spending and budget cuts, and with a civil service one-fifth smaller than in 2010.

None of these difficulties can be wished away by Leavers, just as the referendum result cannot be wished away by Remainers.

What happens when an (almost) irresistible force meets an (almost) unmovable object?

We will find out.


The third tension of Brexit

The third tension is between the attractions of action and inaction.

There will be pressure to “do things” just to show things are being done. Some of these things will not be sensible – like the prime minister announcing an arbitrary deadline for the Article 50 notification.

On the other hand, there is a temptation for the government to not do things. Delay and procrastination is part of the genius of the UK constitution.  In 1911, the Parliament Act described the continued presence of hereditary peers in the upper chamber as a temporary expedient, and 105 years later they are still there. We will never see “part 2” of the Leveson inquiry.  A “British Bill of Rights” first promised in 2006 by David Cameron is no nearer enactment, even though he was prime minister for six years. And so on.

Even if Article 50 is invoked next March, one can only wonder how long the “transitional arrangements” will endure for.


The fourth tension of Brexit

The fourth tension is between competing notions of mandate, and of legitimacy.

The referendum was not legally binding but the mandate is plain: the UK is to leave the EU.

The government is taking this mandate to mean that as little as possible is now to be decided by parliament. There is to be no parliamentary vote on Article 50 and, it would seem, no vote on whether the government should be seeking a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.

But there is another mandate, of course. The current Conservative government was elected (with its small majority) on an explicit manifesto commitment to “safeguard” the UK in the Single Market. Whilst this commitment is not compatible with a “hard” model of Brexit, it is conceivable that there could be a Brexit with the UK still part of the Single Market.

And there is also a wider question of legitimacy. Do the combined powers of a plebiscite and the royal prerogative mean that parliament can be marginalised? Or should parliament be central to the endeavour of “taking back control” and asserting UK sovereignty?

The fundamental political question is: who decides?

The public have decided that the UK is to leave the EU: but who decides how and when this is done, and on what terms?


Nobody – nobody at all – knows what will happen with Brexit.

But whatever does happen, it seems to me that Brexit will be shaped by how the tensions described in this post are resolved – or not resolved.

Brexit is fascinating.


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25 thoughts on “The four tensions of Brexit”

  1. The fifth tension is between how the UK political class perceives Brexit vs brexit perception and anticipation by political and business elites outside the UK

  2. Fascinating, yes. And perfectly useless. But now that is has to be faced, the most interesting question related with Brexit is: Will executive power (the government) win over legislative power (the Parliament)?

  3. A further refinement in your clear and succinct outline of the tensions: there is yet a further contradiction – the attempt by the executive to marginalise Parliament when reclaiming parliamentary sovereignty was a pillar of the Leave campaign.

  4. The sixth tension would be the tension within the Leave camp. Brexit involves a move from a very complex ‘known’ relationship with the EU to an undefined ‘unknown’ relationship. The vote was won because those with many disparate interests – from preventing immigration to stopping the EU regulating the shape of bananas to getting 350 million more a week from the NHS – all thought they could get what they wanted from the ‘unknown’ relationship. Unfortunately, many of the things groups of Leavers want (and voted for) seem to be mutually exclusive (more controls on immigration, and membership of the single market, are the obvious ones) – and some of them just won’t happen (more cash to the NHS, anyone?). So there’s never going to be a real version of Brexit that keeps all the 52% happy – and so, in practice, a second referendum on any specific form of leaving the EU (and probably a vote in parliament) would likely fall. Which is why the Govt are desperate to continue with the undefined, unknown Brexit the referendum gave them, and not let the cat out of the box… and why Labour are now trying their best to pin them down.

  5. It is many years since I studied Constitutional Law but I argued from the outset that you cannot effect such huge constitutional change without a vote of Parliament – both Houses. We operate under parliamentary sovreignty ie not the say so of one person. I think (hope) that “they” are waiting to see until the reality sinks in to the general populace and then negociate a quasi brexit. Good to see Labour is getting its act together.

    1. Same here V, 1965/66 in my case as an LL.B undergrad, now aged 70 I have a passionate interest in the subject, notably absent when I was 19! JOK giving my aged “grey cells” plenty of food for thought…

  6. You say the poll “had the biggest turnout in British political history”. I think not.

    In the General election of 1992, the turnout was 33,614,074 or 72.3 % beating the referendum with just 33,578,016 or 72.2%

    Furthermore, might it be reasonable to point out that the vote to remain was the second single biggest vote in British political history, for context?

    1. You are quite right. For some reason I thought it was higher than 1992, but Wikipedia (whose figures match yours) says otherwise. Will amend.

      1. In fact, I too have made an error, for which I apologise. The turnout % for ’92 was higher than I had recorded. The correct figure is 77.7%.

        It is worth noting that in each General election between 1945 and 1992, the turnout % exceeded the % for the EU referendum, though I think you are more interested in the number of votes.

        I should have provided you with a source and do so now:

        This cites HofC research papers, you may wish to examine for background.

        Churlish of me not to have commended your essay. It’s very good indeed.

  7. Another Tension I would add is between Tory-party Brexiteers and voter-Brexiteers. Theresa May’s political future relies on satisfying both groups: they will inform everything she does. It was Tory-party Brexiteers who caused the referendum to be held in the first place; it was voter-Brexiteers who won it. Many Tory-party Brexiteers grew up in the shadow of the second world war where sovereignty was something to be defended at any cost (even death) and not to be traded for economic benefit. Politically engaged and comfortably off, they will force her towards a hard Brexit and make it difficult for her to govern if she seems to backslide. However in 2020 she faces voter-Brexiteers, many of whom decided on disparate and flimsy grounds (three million voters made their minds on the day). If hard Brexit is economically disastrous, the voters will surely punish her.

  8. What about the tension around ‘foul play’? Despite repeated criticism from the Office of National Statistics, Vote Leave continued to peddle the whopping lie of £350m pw for NHS on that big red bus and everywhere else right up to the Referendum. Then there were the other lies and distortions, and such as Turkey’s about to join the EU and the UK has no control – despite having a veto! Surely this calls into question the validity of the result.

    Vote Leave leading campaigners holding piblic office should be prosecuted for misconduct in public office and investigated for breach of Nolan Principles of truth and honesty.

    1. David, this a most interesting and informative blog.
      I agree with Martin Hughes that there is a question of the legitimacy of the result as Craig Oliver points out in his recent book, since it was at least partially based on untruths that were acknowledged by the Leave campaign (e.g. the £350 million, Turkey joining the EU, being forced to support an EU army, etc.). I note too that commentators are very, very afraid to question the vote’s legitimacy in public. Just as they are afraid to really talk openly about xenophobia and racism in the UK, most especially the rise of English nationalism. It also seems strange that there is not a proper constitutional change formula, as there is in Canada, for example. Thus, majority results in the devolved regions would have to be achieved as well as an overall result (which was too close to be legitimate, two-thirds would be more normal for constitutional change in other countries that have such a formula). Such a formula puts the onus on those seeking constitutional change to sell it right across the UK. In Northern Ireland, we voted to remain, but as usual there is no democracy for us ever apparently achievable within the UK framework. This is an important reason why so many Nationalists want out because here, we are at the coalface (EU border) and will pay the worst of prices. Scotland is faced with a similar prospect in terms of their strong mandate to remain with an economy that is more dependent on the EU than England’s. Where is the democracy for us?

  9. Interesting post.

    Parliament is sovereign. If a majority of MPs do not want the Prime Minster to issue article 50, all they have to do is have a vote of no confidence. Given the Prime Minster only has a majority of just 16 this would only take 8 Tory MPs. If a vote of no confidence occurs, the government would fall and a general election will be called unless the government can win a further vote of confidence within 14 days.

    Therefore the idea that the government can issue notice under article 50 without at least the implicit consent of a majority of the House of Commons is not tenable.

    In addition, legal experts are suggesting that the strongest way to issue article 50 is for both the House of Commons and the Lords to pass an Act of Parliament. It looks unlikely that the Prime Minster could get an Act through either House. In which case it’s far from obvious that she can deliver Brexit without calling and winning a general election.

  10. I contend that there is one certainty in all of this. Legal delay.

    Whichever way Their Lordships rule in the Areticle 50 challenge, leave to appeal will be sought.

    Unless the panel are willing to make snap judgments on the most critical constitutional case in recent English legal history (I doubt it), we’ll have to wait for the decision. After which, the clock starts running on the application to appeal the decision. If the application is granted (which would seem likely, unless Lord Thomas & co hand down a ruling more bulletproof than Luke Cage wearing Batfink’s wings) we have hearings in the Supreme Court, which cannot take place until the assorted parties submit their papers.

    Anybody taking spread bets on how long that’s all going to take? And more to the point, does the RCJ allow popcorn in the public gallery?

  11. A further tension is political dogma ( leaving the single market) versus economic damage and change in opinion. With a weakening £, low FDI, and job losses, so pressure will mount on the Brexiteers. And Parliament could withhold the triggering of Art 50, pushing the UK into an election in May, which would in effect be a second referendum. MP’s who are pro-EU membership, could sign up to a Cross Party Alliance for Europe so each voter knows where the allegiance of each MP lies despite Party. The Cross Party Alliance for Europe could hold the balance of power in the next Parliament and form the next government

  12. The referendum was won through a combination of lies, fear-mongering and the disenfranchisement of huge numbers of UK citizens. I find it hard to be that respectful of the result.

  13. Your piece brilliantly distils the tensions between the nebulous promises of Brexit (“Take Back Control”) and the constitutional and practical realities but exposes perhaps the greatest schism of all:
    Is it ‘immovable’ or ‘unmovable’ object?

    1. Immovable.

      If something is not currently in motion, it is unmoving. However, if something cannot be moved it is immovable.

  14. The missing variable is public opinion. It that changes the dynamic of the tensions shift.
    For example, Community Charge (Poll Tax) was a response to the unpopularity of the Rates, but this shifted during its implementation. At the time it seemed intractable, as the solution was to junk the tax but that required the removal of the PM.
    It should be noted that public opinion could go either way. If it hardens then a more stoic population will willingly endure the economic pain predicated around Brexit.

  15. As every, a most insightful post!

    Another tension is ‘panis et circenses’, perhaps the most important dive in politics. As the food manufacturers use up the futures they purchased, the next rounds will be 10% to 20% more expensive and that will be passed on to the consumer. The struggle between Tesco and Unilever over marmite is probably just a little spat engineered by the two companies to bring some reality to bear. Watch the price of bread over the next 12 months, 10 p to 20 p on a loaf will change politics.

  16. Why do the mods keep rejecting this reasonable and polite comment? You published something else of mine not so long ago? I’ll try again.

    All this sensible and thoughtful sounding talk about complexity and difficulties ahead are little more than people trying to delay and ultimately forestall the UK leaving the EU. That’s fair enough I suppose as long as they admit it.

    Secondly, why do people expect to see every i dotted & t crossed before we leave the EU? Some things just can’t be planned for. In fact, the more complex a subject, the less value there is in planning. That may sound counter-intuitive, but if you think about it, it is true. I don’t say there shouldn’t be any planning, but it will be easier and much, much cheaper to get out of the EU first, then tackle problems as they arrive. Most questions will resolve themselves quite simply and the rest will hardly matter. I realise people love to plan and not do, especially politicians and civil servants, and that is exactly what Remainers are banking on – it’s a giant filibuster.

  17. On lengthy transitional rules, the UK has continued to apply its VAT zero rates on a transitional basis since at least 1991 and arguably ever since it joined the EEC.

    The House of Lords Act 1999 went some way to removing the hereditary peers (remember when we once had a Labour government? 2010 seems like ancient history now, let alone 1997) but not to constituting the second chamber on a popular basis as was suggested in 1911. Perhaps it will be another 88 years before we get another reform of that sort.

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