30 March 2018

Brexit’s anti-climax


Is Brexit a good idea? It sounds odd to ask so straightforward a question about such a well-worn subject. We are leaving. In a year. The referendum was two years ago. We are quite some way past weighing up the pros and cons.

So why ask the question? Because there’s long been a collective notion that once we have left the EU, and the transition period is over, the facts about our circumstances will offer up a definitive answer, that one side will be proved right, and that the debate will be settled.

Remainers convinced that Brexit will be a disaster take solace in their conviction that when the economy crumbles, it will be blindingly obvious that they were right all along.

Leavers, buoyed by the failed predictions of Project Fear, wait with excitement to say “I told you so” when the sky doesn’t fall in.

Even for the vast majority of us, who see Brexit as neither an unmitigated good or an unparalleled mistake, there is a temptation to switch off – to tell yourself that there’s no point arguing about who was right now because we’ll soon find out.

But I have some bad news: the Brexit question will never be settled. There will be no satisfying finale to the saga.

The first reason for this is that partisans on both sides have inoculated themselves against inconvenient facts. If the economy takes a big hit when we leave, and the upsides of taking back control appear limited, Leavers will say there is nothing wrong with Brexit per se, just this particular form of it. Even if their economic doom-mongering doesn’t come true, Remainers will tell us we would have been even better off had we never left. There will never be a mea culpa moment.

The second, deeper reason is that the differences between Leave and Remain are not just analytical. What you think of Brexit depends on more than your prediction of what sort of deal we will get from Brussels. Its about values and priorities.

Some see national sovereignty as symbolically and practically essential to good government. Others think it illusory. Some value the ability to live and work anywhere in the EU over the ability to keep foreigners from doing the same. Others don’t. In other words, we aren’t all marking Brexit according to the same scoring system.

It’s easy to despair at the prospect of no conclusive ending to Brexit. The thought that we could be stuck in a never-ending cycle of rows about passports, out-of-touch speeches from Tony Blair and nonsensical pronunciations from Nigel Farage doesn’t exactly lift the spirits.

But there’s a more optimistic interpretation. It might help us appreciate that the true significance of our decision to leave is not something hidden behind a curtain, waiting to be revealed when we’re out. It’s that Brexit is what Britain makes of it.

The truth about Brexit is less remarkable than either side claims. It is neither the end of the world nor the solution to all our problems. And if there is nothing intrinsically disastrous or miraculous about Brexit, that means the sort of Brexit we choose is incredibly important.

Take immigration, a major factor in our decision to leave. As Philippe Legrain argued on CapX this week, the current system isn’t fit for purpose. What we replace it with when free movement comes to an end matters hugely. The political, social and economic consequences will be huge. It is a conversation the government keeps putting off, but our immigration system will, one way or another, be a defining feature of post-Brexit Britain.

It is on this and numerous other issues – the regulations we keep and repeal, the taxes we raise and lower, the laws we make and amend – that the battle for Brexit will really be fought. And those who are waiting to see how it pans out are missing their chance to shape it.

This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing email. Sign up here.

Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.