Brexit and the contest between process and publicity

1st March 2018

When historians one day seek to make sense of Brexit what will be the most useful documents for them to look at so as to understand the respective approaches of the UK and the EU?

For the EU, it will be straight-forward.

To understand how the EU approached the UK’s departure from the EU, the historian will be able to look at position papers and other official documents.

Of course, these documents will need to be supplemented by other evidence not in the public domain.  But there has been a remarkable consistency between what the EU has said about Brexit and what has done.  One set of public statements has led to another.

For example, you can trace most parts of the draft Withdrawal Agreement back to the December joint report, and then in turn back to the position papers from the negotiation.

You can then trace the structure of those position papers back to the EU’s approach to sequencing, and then all the way back to the first press releases after the Brexit vote.

This is not to say that the EU’s approach is correct.

There are legitimate concerns that, for example, it may be over-reaching its hand on the Northern Ireland issue.

And if the EU does not end up with a deal at all, because what it offers is not acceptable to the UK government then all of this will have led to nothing.

But the one thing which is most apparent is that to understand the EU’s approach to Brexit means you have to understand process.

The EU is process-driven. That is why one can say that “Brexit by timetable” is taking place.

But what should the historian look at to understand the UK’s side?

It would not be many official documents. Most of the UK’s formal documents on Brexit have not been impressive.

There was, for example, a rushed and improvised white paper (published just so as to meet a Labour demand before the Article 50 vote).  The white paper has hardly been referred to since.

And the less said about the sector analyses the better.

Even the Article 50 notification went on for pages when only a couple of paragraphs at most were needed for the document to do its job.

The historian would have to look elsewhere.

The historian would have to look at Theresa May’s speeches – especially the Conservative Party conference speech, the Lancaster House speech, and the Florence speech.

The historians would have to look at newspaper articles, especially those by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

But most of all a historian would need to look at the rhetoric, on both sides, of the relationship between the government and its supporters, on the backbenches and in the media.

For, in contrast to the EU’s emphasis on process, the UK government’s emphasis has been on publicity.

This is not to say this is a bad thing: a government taking controversial decisions is right to mobilise and maintain support.

The problem is that this can lead to a mismatch: in their approaches to Brexit, the EU and the UK government are often like vessels passing in the darkness.

(And this is not an issue unique to Brexit.  In America, Trump and his political supporters seem to believe that tweets and memes are how to deal with the slow methodical march of Robert Meuller and the FBI.)

Process is not everything: a bureaucracy rarely wins over hearts or even minds.

And so when process prevails, as it usually will, the populists can seek to discredit it and blame it for the populists’ own failings.


Regardless of the outcome, what the UK and EU do not have on Brexit is any genuine engagement.

And this is so needless.

The UK has an outstanding civil service and diplomatic service.

UK officials have negotiated opt-out after opt-out with the EU.

It was even a UK (and Conservative) member of the European Commission who put in place the Single Market in the late 1980s.

UK officials are more than a match for their EU counterparts, but only if they are allowed to be so.

But on Brexit, the UK has thrown away this benefit.

David Cameron did not allow the civil service to prepare for the possibility of a “Leave” vote – even though that was one of two foreseeable outcomes of a binary referendum.

Theresa May created two new pop-up Whitehall departments for Brexit, both of which have not fared well, instead of using the inherent strengths of the Foreign Office, the Treasury, and UKRep.

She then carelessly lost Sir Ivan Rogers because she did not like what he had to say.

Just this week, Liam Fox has derided a former senior trade department official.

It is almost as if that UK ministers do not want to do well in the negotiations with the EU.  They instead just want to win support for their position.

But to do well against those who are process-driven, you need to be able to match them.  And on Brexit, the UK could have been the equal to the EU in the negotiations.

So if the UK does not do well with Brexit, it may well be that a fair-minded historian does not conclude that this was because the UK “failed” – but because the UK did not even engage.


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43 thoughts on “Brexit and the contest between process and publicity”

  1. The current government’s approach to advice is to ignore it and sack the adviser. This is dangerous. Real leaders take on board what experts have to say, even if they don’t like the information. I wonder if this is possibly what Corbyn is doing now with regard to Brexit as it slowly dawns on him that it’s a vote-loser.

  2. The historian might come to the conclusion that people who had to be given a prominent role in the negotiations to appease the leave voting public did not want there to be an agreement. And wrt the comment on the EU overplaying its hand on Northern Ireland, it is difficult (at least for me) to see how NI can leave the single market without there being some form of “hard” border.

  3. An American expat in Germany, married to a Polish national, what I find most interesting is that the EU27 has a host of members who would love to chip away at their terms of membership, just as the Brits have done. At the moment the former head of Polish government indicates his belief that the current Polish government would like to dump the EU once it is stronger economically. With one step-son successfully exporting to Germany what was imported to Poland from Asia, with my wife working here only as a member of the EU & another step-son laboring happily in Scotland, I note how long it is likely to be before the Poles will be strong enough to wave “bye, bye”. There are many other examples, some of which are not broadly publicized–and I will therefore not do so here.
    This of course means that the EU is not just negotiating with the UK, but also prospective UK’s.
    It is also obvious to me as a global business consultant that the EU is a wonderfully successful operation–of course with flaws–which make it the equal of either the US or China in global economic/scientific/engineering clout. Who wants to give that up?

  4. It is impossible for this government to “engage” in serious negotiation with the EU because any realistic British propsals would need to recognise that the U.K. will be worse off outside the EU than inside it. Mrs May’s government is politically and probably psychologically incapable of any such public recognition. She and her ministers are therefore condemned to look for ever new ways in which they can aspire to “have their cake and eat it.” Our EU partners are clearly losing patience with this merry-go-round.

  5. As ever, an impeccable analysis. However, you fail to adress the point that HMG’s abysmal performance to date is rooted in the fundamental differences within cabinet and the party at large as to what they “want” from Brexit. The vacuum of direction and the fondness for soundbites and headlines in certain quarters of the press are what is driving HMS Brexit onto the rocks. It shows an utter lack of vision and competence at the heart of government which is as demoralising as it is shocking.

  6. It will be supremely ironic if the posturing Brexiteers end up crushed under the Brussels bureaucracy they’ve reviled for so long.

    Pity they’ll drag us under the bus with them, it’ll make the schadenfreude rather hollow.

  7. It needs two to tango, and it is – to quote the Maybot – “crystal clear” that the HMG isn’t interested to engage at all.

    But there are additional facts historians will conclude:

    1. That the major opposition party wasn’t up to the task to hold HMG to account. Historians will conclude that Labour’s official Brexit cake might have had a different flavor and might have resolved the NI/RoI problem, but in the end, to quote Gertrude Stein:
    A cake is a cake is a cake.

    2. Most journalists, once considered to be the 4th pillar of democracy, were either complicit or not up to holding HMG and Brexiters to account. Historians will question why the most obvious, within 60 seconds fact-checkable falsehoods from HMG and Brexiters hadn’t been rejected each and every time they aired. (“German car industry, French cheese makers and Italian prosecco makers won’t allow tariffs.”)

    3. That 52% of the electorate were as much in an immature, ADHS child mental status as the HMG they elected. Historians will wonder if any form of epistocracy could have prevented Brexit.

    On the plus side for future historians, Brexit and this amateurish HMG will provide future historians gazillions of topics for their thesis.

  8. Is it possible at this point for the UK government to recover from these mistakes? How do you contain the damage? What would you do if you were the PM now? Thank you

    1. Process.
      There is only one refuge – a second referendum.
      We should seek to rejoin EFTA and adopt something close to the Norway model. This will allow us to leave the CAP and the CFP, ignore some EU legislation and negotiate free trade deals with other parties. We would keep free movement.
      This option has been talked down by both sides but if talked up it can be realistically presented as obeying the referendum vote to leave the EU.
      In itself this would not please anyone but as a temporary solution for a set period of say five years followed by a referendum to either go further or return (if possible) it offers a bit of carrot to both leavers and remainers.
      Doubtless there are problems with this as I am not an expert and offer it only as a suggestion.

    2. Exit Brexit. Show leadership. Tell voters they were wrong. Lose the election or leadership challenge(Perhaps). Retire with self-respect intact and the knowledge that Brexit was stopped.

    3. If she had the spine – which she does not – May would speak to Parliament and say Cabinet cannot find a Brexit model that is satisfying to all parties and that she is therefore withdrawing Article 50 and will call a general election. It would probably put the Tories out of a power for a considerable time, which is why she won’t do it. If she’d EVER had any spine, on becoming PM she would have immediately called for cross-party consensus on the approach to take post-ref rather than running with the most extreme option possible and ignoring not only the 48% but also moderate Leavers. However, I fear she has a visceral dislike of all immigrants, however beneficial they are to the social and economic health of the UK, and thought this was an opportunity to limit numbers – a task she never accomplished at the HO due to a: the impossibility of the task and b: her own incompetence.

  9. I agree. The EU is a process-driven construct.

    Having witnessed, and endured, the EU / IMF bail-out in Ireland, I am certain that the EU will do exactly what it says it is going to do.

    I also see a mis-match between the incoherent UK government approach, typified by a constant effort to keep the Conservative party factions together, and the unified, monolithic and coherent approach of the EU Commission.

    The UK really does need to up its game in this matter, for the UK’s, Ireland’s, and the EU’s sake.

  10. So the real question is why, or if you prefer: why not? Why has HMG not mobilized the vast resources at its disposal? Just as it previously did not use the powers it had to limit non EU immigration and even EU immigration.
    I do not think that legal historians will be able to answer this question. Will they find the necessary expertise by consulting cultural experts or will they have to go to the psychiatrists?

  11. Future historians will revel in the stupidity of Brexit as they did with Harold and the Battle of Hastings when a walk in the park turned out rather differently. I suspect this will be another one in the eye for the English by the Europeans.

    1. I think Harold was unlucky not stupid. He’d just marched all the way down from victory at Stamford Bridge, was successfully holding off the Normans, when his troops followed them down the hill… and then that arrow.

      1. The portrait of him in King Harald’s Saga suggests a man with more guts than sense, committed to ignore whatever risks were running.

  12. Future historians might well conclude that the speeches now being given by the Foreign Secretary, the ‘Maybot’ etc, are what should have happened before Article 50 was triggered, and perhaps before the referendum vote. They might conclude that nationwide referendums as a means of exercising party political control is a bad idea.

    And future historians will look with awe at how the circle of N Ireland being out of the customs area and single market while simultaneously having no border with the EU, and wonder how the government even tried to square it.

    And future historians will have to tussle with the question; was Cameron or May the worst British Prime Minister ever.

  13. You say: “The UK has an outstanding civil service and diplomatic service.”
    This may well be true but it is important to note that one thing this Civil Service – and to a lesser extent the diplomatic service, has not had to do is any kind of serious trade negotiation. As I know personally, the whole EU system is based on negotiation – within the Commission, among the Institutions, with the Member States and, sometimes, with third parties. You do not get anywhere in the Commission without training and practical experience in negotiation of all types.

    While I do not have direct experience of the British system it seems likely that it is much more top-down command-driven, which may – sometimes – be efficient but is not ideal for achieving consensus (Getting to ‘Yes’). Couple that with what is more than likely a profound distaste within the government machine for the whole Brexit concept, and the inability of the Government leaders to negotiate effectively with themselves, never mind anyone else, and you have the sleepwalk into the abyss, the SNAFU or however else you like to describe it that we are witnessing.

  14. I will be surprised if Mrs May’s speach tomorrow contains very much detail as to what the UK counter proposal will be- that is one that is viable.
    When the impact assessments were published there was apparently not one for the preferred option. This would suggest that at the time either nothing had been agreed within the cabinet or there was a severe risk that the preferred option (if viable) carried with it economic penalties.
    For party political reasons there seems no interest for the government to move beyond a fudge with the hope that something may eventually turn up
    The plan seems to be to appeal to nationalist instincts to such an extent that they trump the reality of due process.

  15. Interesting analysis. I think the big problem has been that the Prime Minister and her Brexit ministers just didn’t/don’t really understand the EU. I have by chance come across a cutting of a letter I had printed in the Oxford Times on 21st July 2016. I quote one paragraph: “The Northern Ireland problem does not seem to be receiving much thought, but it is hugely important. Leave want to “control our borders” but in the Northern Ireland context this threatens the Good Friday Agreement which assumes both Eire and Britain being in the EU. Cross-border cooperation is very much part of it. The EU has provided considerable funding to help the peace process and indeed has just granted E269m until 2020 in the context of its peace programme. Northern Ireland cannot just be brushed aside.”

    If I knew this in July 2016, why is it only being addressed now, it ought to have been either settled – or used as a reason to give up on Brekshit? Which is what a courageous Prime Minister would do.

  16. A pleasure to read and consider both the author’s analysis and readers’ thoughts. I look forward to the book (I hope it has a happy ending).

    I wonder whether a future student of history may, like me, wonder why a relatively small caucus of Conservative MPs is able to direct Government policy, yet the great majority of their parliamentary colleagues have been silent since June 2016, despite reputedly believing that policy to be misconceived?

    Does this imply that the great majority of Conservative MPs actually agree with the Government’s Brexit policy (assuming they can divine it)? Or that they are at odds with their Party membership, and prefer to avoid rendering offence to their membership rather than rendering unto us their opinion?

    1. I think the Tory party is remarkably efficient at cowing its MPs with the whip. I’m a member of The 3 Million and other action groups against Brexit and have had private dealings with many MPs on behalf of EU nationals in the UK, and they believe it’s catastrophic, but very very few can be persuaded to say so in public – Vaizey broke ranks recently but if you’re as upfront as Soubry, for instance, the venom and death threats meted out are highly offputting.

    2. I think much of the answer, Walter, is found in the Yougov poll of how people voted. Two thirds of Conservatives voted to leave and a similar large margin of over 50s voted the same way. This is the demographic who are Conservative party and Constituency Association members. They are more likely to draw their opinion from the Telegraph and Mail who have a run a consistent campaign over decades to denigrate and arouse suspicions and outrage of anything to do with the EU and never even praise them when they do succeed. They also do not inform their readership of how it works.

      1. So you read newspapers that are the voice of reason, but other people read newspapers full of propaganda?

        and as for the Mail; from Monday to Saturday it was pro-Leave, but on Sunday it was pro-Remain. How is that consistent with your thesis?

        1. The Sunday Mail and the Daily Mail take different viewpoints, as do The Times and the Sunday Times – they are not the same newspapers and it would be very naive to imagine they were. As a journalist, incidentally, I read around 12 newspapers daily, including the international press.

  17. Quite apart from the “process/publicity” aspect of Brexit, I feel historians will have to stress that what seems to have lacked entirely in the debate in Britain is that the EU is a peace project in the first place. The EU is an existential, not a transactional project. It is certainly not perfect but it certainly needs combined action to improve it.

    The Romans used to say “Absens haeres non erit”, the French “Les absents ont toujours tort”, the Italians “Gli assenti hanno sempre torto”. Brexit means that “the absentee Nation is always wrong”.

  18. Mrs May is still talking about the ‘deepest’ relationship with the EU in trade. If that is not delivered there would be bad short term economic consequences and would the Tories ever win an election again ? This is now a Tory project despite the MPs reluctance for Brexit, a UKIP policy not a Tory policy until the referendum.

    Our civil service is very skilled in delivering a ‘U turn’ based on ‘success’ in the negotiation. ‘Global Britain’ is just words, the EU knows that, as does most of the cabinet, this UK ‘process’ has been well exercised during the end of Empire and other ‘Global’ dealings. The normal UK process is to hold a detailed review with full consultation about now so still some cards to play, if we ask for an extension.

  19. One document for future historians to consult would be the European Commission Demographic reports. There was one for 2013 that was current at the referendum but has now disappeared of the EC web site, but there is this:

    The original report had the UK population increasing by 16 million (25%) between 2013 and 2050/60 over half of which was due to immigration. To give a guide on how many people 16 million people is, the population of The Netherlands is 17 million, Sweden 9.6 million, Belgium 11.2 million, so that is the UK and predominantly England accommodating a medium-sized european country, or alternatively needing to build two Londons in 40 years.

    I suspect future historians would do what so many commentators are refusing to do in the UK at the moment and join the dots to state that the only way the UK population could prevent a massive wave of population increase was to vote to Leave the EU.

    And don’t start on that “its because people are living longer rubbish”. Germany isn’t losing 10 million people in that same period because people are dying earlier. Try and break Remainer habits and actually think about your response before grabbing some irrelevant fact, some easily falsifiable argument, or dressing up your Remainer mate’s hysterical projections as economic facts.

  20. One thing that historians may wish to consider is the risk-reward for each participant. Of particular relevance is the risk-reward for Federalists. People like Juncker and Verhofstadt have nothing to lose as they have no constituency that looks to them for their daily existence, yet they have maximum reward for ramping up their power grab. The incentives this creates have been very bad for relations between the UK and the EU, so a question which may stump future historians is why sovereign states handed over their negotiations to an organisation which seeks to remove sovereign states from Europe.

    A good historian would also look at diplomatic traditions and protocols and how these were broken continually by Juncker and Verhofstadt. They are continually rude and dismissive of elected representatives, have staked a clear claim to rule part of the UK over the heads of the UK parliament and have openly stated a wish to rule the UK. These are not things that friendly powers do to other powers.

  21. One thing historians might ponder on is the almost casual and irresponsible way Parliament walked into this. if we take David Lammy as an extreme case, shortly after the vote he urged Parliament to overturn the referendum result. However, he himself had voted to hold the referendum. A historian might reasonably think that voting to put an option to the electorate that you thought was completely inappropriate was a recklessly stupid thing to do.

    Also, what historians write will depend significantly on what happens next. One particular unexpected feature is the way so many people have refused to accept the result, inventing all sorts of ridiculous and spurious reasons for wishing to overturn the result in spite of what was clearly stated at the time. There are quite a number of examples above. I can tell those making these kind of comments that they are not going down well amongst many in the country who think long and hard about their politics and are not happy to see others demanding their vote be taken away from them on trumped up reasons. to quote a friend of mine, for the first time in my life I understand how civil wars happen. Let’s hope future historians don’t find themselves having to discuss civil strife and violence as a result of attempts to overthrow democracy by a disgruntled minority.

    1. I think you’re on the wrong forum here – perhaps you’d be more at home on the Daily Mail. I will be frank. I am a British citizen and tax-payer and I was denied a vote in the referendum – the result of which materially impacts my life and that of my family. I will never accept the result of a process in which I was disenfranchised and I will not stop fighting Brexit for that reason alone, even if I didn’t think it was a catastrophically stupid move on the part of the UK.

      1. Do you want this blog to be just an echo chamber of your own views? Do you not want to know what other people are thinking?

        Personally I think the UK government should be offering decent terms to people from the EU nations here prior to the referendum as to do otherwise is effectively retrospectively altering the terms on which they came. By decent I mean a perpetual right of residence on the same basis as they previously enjoyed and their children should be able to become naturalised UK citizens if not already.

        I am sorry the French government is using you as a bargaining chip. I realise it must come as a bitter blow to find out that the French government only tolerates you whilst the UK is paying them to do so and the moment we stop paying they want you out. But I am not responsible for what the French government does.

  22. Thanks for the link, it is an interesting report.

    However, instead of cherry-picking random numbers from the report, perhaps you should put this into historical context.
    In the 50 years (the same timescale as the report projects over), 1960-2010, the UK population has grown by 10 mil (52mil to 62.2mil, so 19.6%); the report projects 2010-2060 by 16.8 mil (62.2mil to 79mil, so 27%).

    Also: ranking EU countries for cumulative migration 2010-2060 (projected), as a percentage of population, UK is in right in the middle of the table. The (projected) situation is supposed to be much “worse” in Italy, Spain and Belgium. (But I would take these numbers with a large dose of salt, see below.)

    You should also note that the report does not distinguish between intra-EU and non-EU migration. Given the pre-referendum proportions of EU/non-EU migration in the UK, and applying it to the report’s projections, you still get about net 4 million (during 50 years) of non-EU migrants. (Again, the salt remark, see below.)

    {Also, the “other half” of the projected population increase is UK-born. Oh the horror. So … perhaps forced sterilisation grassroots movement, anyone?}

    Now the salt: How did the report arrive at those numbers? They extrapolated from what they knew in 2012. So, for instance, the projected net migration figures for UK are rather low (e.g. projected 195 thousand for 2015). They also explain why the Germany “is losing 10 million people” – because the net migration to Germany then (and hence the projection) was very low. (Germany also had, and was projected to have, quite a bit lower fertility rate.) The situation is rather different already in 2018.

    By the way, the whole point of the report is that the EU population will *age* very much during the next 50 years, meaning that the ratio of non-economically active people to economically active will get *much* worse than what it is now. And one of the least-worst affected countries in the EU will be … drumroll … UK. Because of the migration and high fertility rate.

    1. So where are you going to build those two Londons? couldn’t find that bit.

      The government has chosen to build one of them between Cambridge and Oxford although they haven’t explicitly said as much. It is quite clear that is where the infrastructure money is going.

      “Oh the horror. So … perhaps forced sterilisation grassroots movement, anyone” I didn’t say or remotely mean that. If you have to make up things that people you are arguing with haven’t said in order to justify your case, then you probably don’t have a case.

  23. So we will Brexit because a succession UK governments failed to manage immigration from all over the world. After Brexit we will agree to increase the numbers of migrants that we take from outside EU so that we can get those mythical trade deals.
    If, given the facts, the UK still votes to persist Brexit then I will accept the will of the people. At the moment we are a long way from that and it looks to be slipping away. At least our xenophobes are out in the open now. Every cloud.

    1. Calling people xenophobes because they have views on limits of migration that differ from yours is just absurd. Insisting that people who disagree with you are lesser people is exactly the kind of naked bigotry that has resulted in Brexit.

  24. You have to admire a Brexiter whose team mantra was “Ignore the Experts” pointing us towards expert data to support his case. I’m more than happy to take the risk of upsetting a few Wetherspoons customers as we get our country back, most of them struggle to run up a George flag let alone any kind of sustained civil unrest worthy of historic note. What we can hear are the ironic cries of foul play as it all slips away from them. It will be buried in the long grass.

    1. … and we were right to ignore them as they were completely wrong.

      The stated report is a promise made by the EU on what would happen. We would be unable to put any limits on migration because they could reasonably point out that we had accepted these numbers when we voted to remain in the EU.

  25. Henry Vth is a man who has a reasonable claim to be the greatest of English kings. But what did contemporaries think of him? Successful he was no doubt but in his rigid piety and ruthlessness was he also a monster? 142 Greatest Man or Monster We have arrived at one of the most famous rulers of England. Who inspired one of the most famous and talented of historians, K B McFarlane to describe him, remarkably immoderately, as the greatest man that ever ruled England. Historians ever since have been picking away at that, because historians do so hate brave and definitive statements. And so the revisionist view goes all the way to Ian Mortimer, who as a historian is also not afraid of brave and definitive statements. So Ian basically describes Henry as a Monster. A monster undermined by his own pride and over whelmed by his own authority’; a wanton destroyer of lives’ and proof that a man may be a hero and yet a monster. Ouch. But maybe the main thing is that to contemporaries, both English and French, Henry was the model of kingship. Even to the French he looked better than their own lot.

  26. Nick: I understand your point about complacency; it is important and well made. Nonetheless, the obvious reason why many who have some understanding of what is happening find it hard to believe that Brexit will happen is the glaring lack of anything that could be described as a plan. Moreover there is the phase 1 default agreement for the Irish border. Whilst a Brexit that retains the Single Market and Customs Union is possible, what else is? I do not see anything, nor anything substantive proposed. In fact much of what I see amongst Brexiters are manoeuvres aimed at ascribing blame when attempts at Brexit collapse. I understand why you think Brexit will happen,but (correct me if I am wrong) I do not think you have an idea how. Of all possible scenarios, I would say the least likely is the EU Council and Parliament forcing a hard Brexit. At the very least, either some sort of extension of Article 50 or a transition period would be offered with a price tag. I think the biggest difficulty with an extension of Article 50 is representation in the Parliament. Possibly the UK could be given the option of choosing not to be represented, but I think this might be challenged. A transition extension without an endpoint has similar problems and would need more agreement on the UK side, which simply might not be available. I would put a fairly high probability, surely over 50%, on some sort of Brexit limbo, in which a lot is left unresolved.

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