Richard North, 28/04/2019  

Insofar as any single opinion poll has any value, this one for the Observer makes for uncomfortable reading.

It tells us that more than half the public – 55 percent – now think it would have been better never to have held the EU referendum "given the difficulties of reaching an agreement on Brexit". Strikingly, more Conservative voters (49 percent) now think the referendum was a bad idea than believe it was the right thing to have done (43 percent).

Taking in all the caveats, this poll is still bad news, although hardly unexpected – an inevitable consequence of the lack of planning which has brought us, three years into the Brexit process, with no certainty or even the promise of a resolution in the foreseeable future.

It is ironic, even to the point of being tragic, that all the clever people in the now defunct Vote Leave campaign were airily telling me that an exit plan was not required. My insistence on a plan was merely an illustration of my lack of political acumen, with my sneering "betters" so confident that they could dispense with such boring technicalities.

Yet, in May 2008, before even the Lisbon Treaty had come into force and eight years before a referendum was to become a reality, I was warning of the need for an exit plan if a referendum was to succeed.

There, of course, I was wrong in asserting that such a plan was necessary to win the referendum, but it was a close-run thing. I might have been better advised to argue that, in order to see us safely out of the EU, we would need a plan.

Nevertheless, I defy anyone to have predicted the sort of impasse with which we are now confronted, but I think the fear was always in the back of my mind that the leaving process could be stalled if we did get bogged down and didn't have the answers.

In that piece which I wrote just one month short of eleven years ago, I was unequivocal in stating that few people even begin to realise "the depth and complexity of our entanglement with the EU".

At that point we had the experience of 36 years of membership of the organisation with its ever-changing names. During that period, I wrote that we had imbibed fifty years-worth of integrationist measures, to the extent that:
… our administrative and legislative systems are so interwoven with the EU that to remove them would be equivalent to dealing with a metastatic cancer with a surgeon's knife. In theory, it could be done – but it would almost certainly kill the patient.
To put this in context, we were still at that time pushing for a vote on the Lisbon Treaty. It was to be six years before Flexcit was written and published, and I was arguing that we were not ready. Such would be the complexity and political capital expended, I wrote, "it would neutralise the political process for years to come, entirely frustrating any attempts the Conservatives might have to develop a distinctive domestic agenda".

Prediction is always difficult but, looking at where we are now, I cannot see anyone seriously arguing any different. We've had three years of exactly what I suggested might happen, and it is indisputable that the Brexit process has been responsible for "frustrating any attempts the Conservatives might have to develop a distinctive domestic agenda".

As to the complexity of leaving, I was confident that it could be addressed and overcome. But, I added, the word means what is says – thus writing:
Complex is, er … complex. To come up with a well-founded strategy for leaving the EU – and thus replacing the web of EU policies with distinctive national policies of our own – would take a massive amount of work, requiring a huge team of experts familiar with every aspect which the EU touches.

That work has not been done – there is no likelihood of it being done in the immediate future. Yet, unless and until the British public (and the politicians) can be offered a reasoned and better alternative to the EU, like it or lump it, TINA (there is no alternative) lives.

For sure, we can continue telling everybody how ghastly the EU really is. But those who care enough about the subject know that already, or believe it even if they do not know it as fact. The majority of people, though – confronted with the reality of leaving the EU, and what that entails – would accept the status quo, simply on the premise that any (unformed and unspecified) alternative could only be worse – and infinitely perilous.
So here we are, eleven years down the line. People are being confronted with the reality of leaving the EU and what that entails, and they are opting for the status quo, "simply on the premise that any (unformed and unspecified) alternative could only be worse – and infinitely perilous".

That is not to say that we are going to abandon Brexit, but the sentiment expressed in the Observer poll is hardly irrational. One could also argue the case that, if the government was on top of its game, and was easing us into a trouble-free EU departure, we wouldn't have 55 percent in an opinion poll telling us that the 2016 referendum was a bad idea.

At the end of 2015, though, with the referendum just over six months away, I was writing again about the need for an exit plan. Then, I recalled that the great genius Cummings (as he was later to be styled) was asserting that, after a successful vote to leave, the government would produce the exit plan, followed by a second referendum to approve it. This, he held, would "de-risk" the choice and thereby remove the fear factor, telling us:
… as a matter of democratic accountability, given the enormous importance of so many issues that would be decided in an Article 50 renegotiation – a far, far bigger deal than a normal election – it seems right to give people a vote on it.
At the moment, we seem to be hearing rather less on this subject from Mr Cummings and his former Vote Leave colleagues but, on Tuesday, the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party is to decide on whether such a referendum is to be included as part of the Labour offer in the European Parliament elections.

Perhaps Mr Corbyn might consider quoting Cummings, just for the fun of seeing how the ERG "ultras" react. He might also recall something else that the great sage was saying:
… in market research I have done it is clear that 15 years after the euro debate the general public know nothing more about the EU institutions than they did then. Less than one percent have heard of the EEA. Few MPs know the difference between the EEA and EFTA or the intricacies of the WTO rules. The idea that the public could be effectively educated about such things in the time we have seems unlikely.
But the true agenda was actually tucked away at the end of Cummings's little dissertation. He argued that voting "no" in order to leave did not mean that we leave the EU tomorrow. The "no" vote would mean that a new government team would have to negotiate a new deal with the EU and they will have to give us a vote on it. Thus:
If you want the EU to keep all the power it has and keep taking more power as it has for decades, and you're happy paying billions to the EU every year instead of putting it into the NHS – then vote yes. If you want to say "stop", vote no and you will get another chance to vote on the new deal.
What a "no" vote "really means", said Cummings, "would depend upon what the political parties say they will do and this remains unclear as these issues have not been explored yet". Thus, this great strategic thinker took us into the referendum with the outcome of a leave vote quite deliberately remaining "unclear". They simply had not been explored.

That was written exactly a year before the referendum – nearly four years ago. And, if anything, the issues are even more "unclear" than they were then. We entered the campaign in a fog of ignorance and we've stayed there ever since – which is why 55 percent of voters now say they think the referendum was a bad idea.

Perceptive readers, however, will have noticed a small inconsistency in Cummings's arguments. If, after 15 years following the euro debate, the general public and MPs remained so ignorant about EU issues, and it was "unlikely" that the public could be effectively educated about such things in the time available, why did he think that the period between the first and his proposed second referendum would be enough to complete their education?

Clearly though, in order to vote on a leave plan, Cummings demands an educated electorate. It would be interesting to ascertain – from as many sources as possible – how long such an education process might take, how we should go about it, and how much it would cost.

comments powered by Disqus

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Buy Now

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few