1 February 2020

Does Brexit really mean Brexit?


With Brexit now finally upon us, we can indulge in some brief reflection on the tumult of the last few years. It’s been a period characterised by Britain’s political class staggering about towards a resolution, with steps missed, obstacles hurdled, court cases ruled on and, ultimately, Brexit done – up to a point.

In years to come people may look back at the efforts of Continuity Remain and wonder what on earth they thought they were doing. In the relief of post-election clarity it’s been easy to forget just how large the prospect of another vote has loomed.

As our Deputy Editor Frank Lawton has noted, the arguments for a second referendum ranged from the disingenuous to the downright nonsensical. Brexiteers and sensible Remainers alike could see that not following up the result would have been a catastrophe for the already weak relationship between Parliament and polity.

Let’s hope that Brexit means moving on from the sheer silliness that has characterised our recent politics, a silliness which reached its apogee in the last few weeks with debates about bonging bells and 50p coins, debates as intense as they were inane.

And let’s hope too that arguments about who did what in the Brexit battles of 2016-19 will fade into irrelevance as the focus shifts to life not just outside the EU, but without the dead weight of the Brexit debate itself.

In that spirit, triumphant Leavers should take their cue from Steve Baker, a champion of the Brexit movement who rightly called this week for Eurosceptics to show magnanimity in victory.

That same open-heartedness should apply to our continental neighbours, many of whom were very disappointed to see us leave.  Particularly for pro-market voices in Europe, the departure of arguably the bloc’s foremost voice for a liberal economic approach is a serious blow.

Indeed, there’s a decent argument that the biggest consequences of Brexit will not be for us Britons, but for the rest of the continent. With a powerful dissenting voice removed, the push for ever more integration may gain renewed impetus.

This is the argument made by the Cambridge historian Brendan Simms, who was a guest on our podcast last week. To his mind Brexit is a “necessary condition” for a federal Europe, if not a sufficient one. One of Brexit’s great ironies is that the thing many Eurosceptics feared – a truly federal Europe – is made more likely by the campaign they have now finally won.

For the UK, I suspect that the biggest outcome of Brexit will be the rethink occasioned by Boris Johnson’s victory. Of course, EU membership did not stop the government from reorganising Whitehall, making the state more responsive, investing more in infrastructure and so on – yet without the watershed moment of the referendum it’s quite possible the kind of root-and-branch reform this country has long needed would not be on the agenda. Here at CapX we will continue to make the case for freer markets, better regulation and more competition to be at the heart of that agenda.

In a sense, then, Brexit itself is not a necessary or sufficient condition for national renewal, but a trigger. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things we will be able to do better outside Brussels’ regulatory ambit – though we have 11 months to find out just what those things will be, and where we will choose to remain closely aligned to our European neighbours.

In any event, though Leavers are entitled to their moment of catharsis and triumph, they must be wary that Brexit itself is “not a silver bullet”. And if they’re wondering which Remoaner said that, it was Nigel Farage back in 2016.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX