19 March 2019

The real missed opportunity of Brexit

By Rebecca Lowe

I’ve lost track of the ways in which the opportunities of Brexit have been squandered. Perhaps the biggest of these missed chances is the failure of people from opposing sides to choose to come together for the common good. That was always going to be difficult in terms of Leave versus Remain, notwithstanding those one-time Remainers who now accept and in some cases even strongly support the Leave vote, on democratic grounds.

But what about the other dividing lines? Here, there was always greater chance for progress. Many of the older splits have become increasingly irrelevant. The most interesting — and important — of these divisions is the one between ‘right and ‘left’. For years, these terms have been called outdated; many have predicted their extinction. Even now you could certainly overstate their demise, as they remain broadly useful signifiers of someone’s economic views.

But, in spite of all the big dividing lines between the major parties, I increasingly find that I — a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, but no longer a member of that party, or any — have more in common with my ‘lefty’ friends than ever before. Not all of them, of course. But, in many cases, as much or more so than I do with some of those who see themselves on the centre right.

And the things I find myself agreeing on with some people on the left are the things I find most important. We still disagree about tax (I think it’s far too high) and state involvement in industry (inefficient, at best), but the reason we care about those things tends to be premised on something deeper. That deeper thing might be freedom, equality, justice, or a combination of these and other fundamental things. We still disagree about how best to attain or protect these things, but we care deeply about them.

The clearest example of this, for me, has been the new alliances I have made through shared support of democracy.

Democracy is the process that enables to us to share our differing views. It is the process that allows us to find consensus. And it is the process that legitimises our organised society by entailing the right for each of us to participate as equals and to hold other participants to account. Often, this process is flawed — by purpose, by those, like gerrymanders, who seek to corrupt it; or through neglect, or simply happenstance — but that is not to do it down. As a necessary but insufficient part of a good society, it is not enough to complain at democracy’s results, or to claim that it’s too difficult to fix its institutional flaws.

For too long, our political focus has been technocratic. It has been solely on consequences. On outcomes. On metrics. There is, of course, a place for those things. But they cannot be everything, and they cannot be the reason we act. These things help us as a means, not an end. Technocracy might seem easy but it is democracy alone that can tell us what the questions are we need to answer, and what the values are we need to press together.

Brexiteers have often been derided for choosing principle over pragmatism, for not caring about the short-term, for risking the economy. This stings. It feels deeply unfair when it comes from those on the left who have claimed virtue in spending profligately, and have long called the centre-right cruel for attempting to balance the books. And it feels dangerous when it comes from those in positions of power: is there never a time for principle? Is there never a time when cost cannot be the primary concern? This is not about Brexit, but Brexit emphasises all this more clearly than any other example.

There are values that can and do bring us together. Values that are simply right and true; values that bind us together and are shown through democratic deliberation. The aim, as ever, is to work out together, over time, what these might be, and then to work, with those from all sides, wherever we can, to bring them about. That’s what we have done before, and it’s what we need to do again. Maybe technocracy has worked well for you; maybe it hasn’t. But unless you truly believe your voice counts for more than your neighbour’s, its siren call — in which ‘values’ are a given, and the best means to bring them about is solely the preserve of the scientific method — must be avoided.

Brexit represents many massive missed opportunities. But more important than the opportunity to free up our economy, or to scrutinise our institutions, or to decentralise power — or any of those many policy choices we seem to be squandering — is the opportunity to come together in the name of values. The new divisions are hard enough without clinging to the old.

Rebecca Lowe is the director of FREER based in the Institute for Economic Affairs