Roll Up! Roll Up! The Great Brexit Show Is Now about to Begin!

Human Wrongs Watch

Get it over with? Whatever happens over the next few months, Brexit has only just started.


Anti-Brexit protesters in Manchester | Robert Mandel, UK | CC BY 4.0

24 January 2019 (openDemocracy)* — There is a revulsion with Brexit and a growing desire across Britain to ‘Get it over with’. This impatience can be seen in the growing support for ‘No Deal’.

“We did not vote for a DEAL, we voted for LEAVE” tweets one angry Brexit supporter. ‘Just do it’ is a growing sentiment – its hopes captured, ironically, by the report that quarter of the supporters of ‘No Deal’ think it means the UK will stay! Which grammatically at least makes sense, but emotionally is about just getting the whole damn thing over with.

Historically speaking, responsibility for the understandable impatience is rooted in the bad faith of the Westminster politicians who offered a simple, in or out decision. Opponents of Brexit warned it would be damaging. No one warned that a Leave vote would drag on for years

But even recent history is not the name of the game in today’s Britain. Instead, a compulsive desire to make Brexit disappear, whether by ‘doing it’ or ‘reversing it’, suggests that for more than two long years we have been trapped in a culture of denial. The intensity of the denial now means the penny is starting to drop. Finally, Brexit is for real.

Up to now it has been a phoney war.

Brexit, in other words, starts here. And it is going to go on and on and on.

If you don’t believe this is possible, let me prove it.

There are four possible outcomes. In order of likelihood,

  1. A version of May’s Deal
  2. Postponement, putting it off, asking a Citizen’s Assembly to come to a view.
  3. A People’s Vote.
  4. ‘No deal’ and crashing out.

In reverse order:

No deal’ and crashing out

It is a mistake to think of this as coming about only because of the balance of forces in parliament. Dark money and influence (charted by Adam Ramsay, Peter Geoghagan and their openDemocracy colleagues, the Observer’s Carol Cadwalladr and Byline’s Peter Jukes) has poured into a ‘hard Brexit’.

This now takes the form of a ‘No deal’ outcome backed by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, which has never yet backed a losing cause. The White House is seeking to use the UK as a battering ram to smash the EU and is actively encouraging a hard exit.

Trump’s anti-EU National Security advisor John Bolton apparently “regularly phones” Cabinet Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Chris Grayling, an astonishing breech of protocol if true. Most worryingly there are signs that EU leaders think Britain needs the lesson in reality that will accompany ‘No deal’, confident that it is unsustainable.

While the government has encouraged the idea that if there is a People’s Vote there will be civil unrest, no one has discussed the popular response to lorries lining up and food supplies running out.

But millions of us will take to the streets to put an end to such folly – to prevent the destruction of our civic, urban open-minded life and a UK alliance with Trump. A Prime Minister clearly incapable of commanding public support will fall. A unity government will have to be formed to prevent civil war. It will restore relations with the EU and, what else, start the real debate about us and Europe.

Thus a so-called clean-Brexit will prove to be a very dirty one, and will be far from the end of it

A People’s Vote

Much as I want a People’s Vote, it needs the Prime Minister’s support to happen, and everyone says she can’t now endorse one. But were it to be called, a huge, passionate argument will follow for months, and continue afterwards even if voters back EU membership with the necessary 60/40 majority.

Some Remainers are sufficiently detached from reality to believe that if our side wins a new referendum then everything will return to being as it was. This is nonsense.

Postpone and discuss

By far and away the most rational thing to do. The campaign for a Citizens Assembly advocates such a move, as does Yanis Varoufakis and DiEM 25, although Varoufakis wants to take it to the line first.

Yvette Cooper MP’s proposal for a delay has a similar effect. The methods may be different, the aim the same: to step back, draw breath and… well, start the debate about what Brexit really means.

A version of May’s deal

Which brings us to the final alternative and the most likely outcome: May’s Withdrawal Agreement. If you think this will at least put an end to it, you’ve been hoodwinked (like most of us).

The rows about the Irish border distract from the reality that as good as nothing has been agreed about our future relations except for the tragic loss of our right as UK citizens to travel and work and live freely across our continent.

I asked a Foreign Office official what was the difference between the Chequers proposals of the summer and what has been agreed. The breakthrough, he explained, was to agree to disagree and draw up the Political Declaration in which all options are left open.

In other words, Britain will stay in the EU without voting rights from the end of March this year for at least two years while it negotiates with Brussels what relationship it will have after that, with respect to trade, regulation, services, access to the customs union, how much to pay for this and how we will apply common regulations which, as Martin Donnelly put it, must also include “a system of shared redress”.

Or to put it simply, nothing has been agreed. As Femi tweeted, “I’m picturing a UK 2 months after Brexit actually happens… where the people of the UK see EU-UK trade negotiations on the news and collectively think ‘I thought this would be over by now’ and when it dawns on us that it will take years”.

He’s right. You just need to dip into the short Political Declaration Setting Out The Framework For The Future Relationship and count the number of “shoulds”:

“The future relationship must ensure open and fair competition. Provisions to ensure this should cover state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environmental standards, climate change, and relevant tax matters, building on the level playing field arrangements provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement … These commitments should combine appropriate and relevant Union and international standards, adequate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement… The Parties agree that the scale and scope of future arrangements should achieve an appropriate balance between rights and obligations… It should reflect the commitments the United Kingdom is willing to make that respect the integrity of the Union’s legal order, such as with regard to alignment of rules and the mechanisms for disputes and enforcement including the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the interpretation of Union law… It should also reflect the Union’s and its Member States’ commitment to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union…”

Should, should, should…

In effect it is an agreement to negotiate… Brexit.

And then there is the fact that Brexit is not about Brexit or relations with the EU, but is a reworking of British politics, identity and role in the world. In June last year I warned that a full spectrum conflict was developing akin to a civil war. Now, the mainstream echoes with similar warnings.

Beth Rigby, Sky News deputy political editor has just published a post on its website called, “Brexit isn’t just a crisis, it’s far more than that.” She foresees the realignment of party politics around the divisions it generates: “This is an existential crisis about the very tribes to which our politicians – and we – belong”. Not the opinion of a lefty or right-wing alarmist but the report of a regular broadcaster recounting what she is seeing in front of her eyes.

Roll up! Roll up! The great Brexit show is about to begin!


About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness

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