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Brexit: only the end of the beginning

2017-04-11 07:42:17

In one of those flashes of insight that come when you are not concentrating on the issue at hand, it occurred to me that we've been looking at the outcome of the referendum in entirely the wrong way, inflating out expectations to an entirely unrealistic level.

The essential error we're all making is to assume that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit. But, as Mrs May is finding for herself, leaving the EU is a far more complex task than she imagined and she is not going to make it in a single leap.

There is a sort of working analogy here, if you treat government as a fly-by-wire aircraft. In the old days, the pilot's controls were directly linked to the control surfaces, so when he yanked back on the stick, things happened immediately.

In modern systems, there is no direct connection between the controls and the business end of the machine. In between are complex and sophisticated computers which treat pilots' inputs as requests, rather than directly actionable instructions. The computers take the input and then work out the best way of actioning them, even over-riding instructions if they put the aircraft in jeopardy.

This can have unintended effects, as with Air France Flight 296, an Airbus A-320 which did a low pass during an air show at over Mulhouse–Habsheim Airport in 1988. According to legend, the fly-by-wire system refused to let the pilot pull out, judging this to be an unsafe manoeuvre. Instead, the aircraft skimmed the trees at the end of the runway and crashed into the ground.

Whether or not this is actually true, the analogy stands, as we see government reacting to the EU referendum, and now in the process of working out how to action the "request".

Now, the point at issue is that leaving the EU amounts to a fundamental change in policy, over a very short period, affecting virtually every department and requiring a huge amount of labour to put it into effect. And, in short, this is entirely beyond its capability. It will not execute its instructions, simply because it cannot.

In a fly-by-wire sort of way, then, it will go through the motions of Brexit. But, in fact, the great machine of state is heading for the trees. Soon to come is that dreadful plume of smoke which attends such events, signalling another disaster in the making.

Our mistake, in this context, was to think it was ever going to be any different – our belief that the government actually had the capability to take us out of the EU in the time period allocated. This isn't possible and never was possible.

Guiding me to that conclusion is a hugely important book by Alan S Milward, published in 2002 under the title: "The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy, 1945-63", which I acquired when Booker and I were writing The Great Deception.

The author's thesis is that the UK came out of the Second World War determined to avoid entanglement with the developing plans for European political integration. He then charts the progress through the next 18 years, which is the time it took for successive governments to come terms with joining the European Community, arguing that it took that long to achieve a change of strategy.

Prior to the referendum, this government had no intention of leaving the EU, and that the result of the referendum was unexpected – for which it had done no contingency planning. For it then to cope with a complete reversal in the long-term national strategy is simply too much to ask.

What we are now seeing, therefore, is the inevitable consequence of a forced change, for which the government is unprepared, where the speed of change is beyond its ability to accommodate.

The machine of state is seen to be blundering through the brush, lacking as ex-Treasury Minister Lord Jim O'Neill asserts, "strategic perspective". In fact, it doesn't have a strategy to cover this new scenario, and it is far too early to expect one. It will be at least a decade, and more likely two decades, before the machine is comfortable with its new role.

In the meantime, it will blunder, making innumerable false moves, dragged by the gravitational force of "Europe", which will do its best to prevent us reaching escape velocity.

If one understands and accepts this, it effectively redefines the role and the priorities of the leavers. Rather than treating the referendum as the final victory, we need to be looking at it as just one battle in a prolonged war. It is to us what the second battle of el Alamein was to Churchill – not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. We have a lot more battles to fight, and our Normandy is yet to come.

Given that we must expect a prolonged timescale, our task is to stop the government doing anything that would arrest our progress towards independence – locking us into a formal association with the EU, from which it is as hard to break free as was our original membership of the EU.

Here, to would be naďve to expect the EU to sit back and let events take their course. We have known for many years that the "colleagues" (or some of them) harbour ambitions for a new treaty, bringing with it more powers to manage the euro. But embedded in one version of that treaty is a form of associate membership, about which Andrew Duff is so keen.

As it stands, we are looking at two years to complete the Article 50 process and possibly another five years of transition before we finally extract ourselves from the EU – and even then remain bound, in the manner of Gulliver, by the multiple threads of EU law.

Those seven years give the "colleagues" the opportunity to work up their new treaty and if, as is widely expected, Brexit proves unduly traumatic, the associate membership could be tailored to the UK's requirements and offered as a relief from the pain of Brexit.

Almost certainly, a referendum would be required before any UK government could make this move. But after seven years of pain an uncertainty, it would be a brave man who predicted that the nation would refuse to grab what would be positioned as a life line.

The great danger is that the associate membership would merely be a back door to re-entry as a full member of the EU, reversing the verdict of the 2016 referendum. No one can predict that this would happen, but it would be unwise to rule out the possibility. And that means, of course, that the fight goes on, with the biggest battles yet to come.

On the other hand, we have the likes of Zoe Williams characterising Brexit as "so boring even Farage has lost interest". Therein lies the further danger. As the leavers rest on their laurels of their "great victory" and Ukip looks for pastures new, never more have we needed troops organised and ready for the fight.

Our immediate task must be to craft a better alternative to "associate membership" – which is precisely what Phase three of Flexcit has on offer - while gearing up to win another referendum.

This will not be cast as a second referendum, but as a fresh decision to determine the shape of our long-term relationship with the EU. This is a battle that we could find hard to win. For a start, therefore, we need that intellectual leap to redefine the 2016 referendum as our el Alamein and to accept that the hardest battles are yet to come.