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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