1 April 2017

Brexit means an end to Britain’s excuses


The European debate has, until now, been suffused with passion and principle. But now, a third p-word takes over: process.

On Wednesday, Britain delivered its formal notification of withdrawal. The European Council has now unveiled its response – which, as Open Europe point out, is a great deal more constructive than some had expected, given the wilder noises that had been coming from that quarter.

The two years of negotiation that follow will not be drained of political tension: far from it. They will be suffused with the stuff. But there will also be a great deal of inevitable wrangling between David Davis and Michel Barnier about the placement of this or that comma, about this regulation or that agency. And, of course, there will be the running commentary about who is seen to be winning and who to be losing.

And there is a real danger that, in the process, we lose sight of the point of Brexit.

Yes, Britain wants to regain control of its immigration policy. And yes, Britain wants to be able to sign its own trade deals. But there is another effect of Brexit which is more subtle, and perhaps more important.

Tim Montgomerie argued on CapX this week that Brexit cannot be all Theresa May’s Government is about – that people voted in June for change, not just in Britain’s relationship with Europe but within Britain itself.

Indeed, for the long years that people complained about the EU, they mostly did not talk about trade deals or even – until Tony Blair threw open the borders – immigration. They talked about the kind of things it prevented us from doing. Ministers and advisers, of all parties, would moan endlessly, in both public and private, about the compromises forced on them by Brussels.

Sometimes, this was justified. But often, it was a way of shifting blame. They would love to do X or Y, they would say, but those blasted Eurocrats wouldn’t let them.

So one of the most welcome effects of Brexit is that it will rob our governing class of excuses.

No longer will blaming Brussels be a convenient scapegoat or safety valve. Where Britain is broken – the collapse in home ownership among the young springs to mind – the onus will be on those in Westminster to damn well fix it.

It is possible, of course, that this is a foolish hope. That as Remain transitions to Return, those who opposed Brexit will decamp to the sidelines, blaming every last problem on our decision to leave the EU. And that some of those who supported it will, if things turn in any way sour, blame the EU-27, and Jean-Claude Juncker, and Remainiac fifth columnists within Britain itself.

Yet if Brexiteers want continued buy-in for Brexit, they have to show that it works – to follow the greatest diplomatic dislocation since the Second World War with the same kind of efforts to build a better country. And Remainers, if they are to be relevant in a post-Brexit age, will similarly have to adapt to a new reality.

Brexit has long felt simultaneously inevitable and impossible. Even as the chorus of complaint about the European Union grew, even as concern over immigration bubbled up and then boiled over, it was hard to believe that we’d actually make the leap.

So when Sir Tim Barrow handed over that letter on Wednesday, it was a moment of genuine rupture – and also of genuine bravery. It was a statement that we think we can do a better job of things outside the EU. And if we get things wrong in that new Britain, at least we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX