Lost in the excitement of the general election is the fact that three-and-a-half years after we voted to do so, and 47 years after we joined, this country will leave the EU in 2020. For all that the prospect was a slogan in the campaign — “get Brexit done” — no one could truthfully say it was the principal issue.
Nor should anyone counterintuitively claim that the process of leaving has been some sort of national triumph, another example of our “great history of always muddling through to the right place”. Executing the vote to leave has been handled disastrously by the British state.
Brexit was mismanaged — by the law, the bureaucracy, the party system and parliament. This failure has been systemic and colossal. Courts, politically neutral civil servants, strong, cohesive Westminster model parties and parliament, from the purportedly non-partisan Speaker downwards, have all disgraced themselves.
No false comfort should be taken from the way we did Brexit. We have stumbled out, almost did not, and arguably will only nominally have left when we do finally, formally depart. The hard work is still to be done. But even when or if it finally happens, what will Brexit do?
What will Brexit do for a civil service which recruits itself as ours does, and displays the inertia, lack of institutional memory and failures of expertise that have characterised it for at least half a century?
What will Brexit do for the courts, which invented an entirely new understanding of our constitutional order, placing themselves at its apex, and to which bemused or indifferent politicians have offered no resistance? What will Brexit do for universities, whose distance from learning is measured by their self-obsession, politicisation and almost farcically incoherent rage at the possibility of entertaining dissent within their ranks?
What will Brexit do for a society which, being almost entirely unchurched, is only offered the morality and prejudices of an elite which openly flaunts its contempt for the vulgar, unfashionable and ill-educated?
What will Brexit do for a high culture which affects a democratic loathing for talent, craft and effort, while simultaneously privileging exclusion, self-satisfaction and arid, hand-me-down conceits that had already become wearisome a century ago?
What will Brexit do for the tastes and habits of the British people? Such were the claims made for EU membership that even the avocado was purportedly a fruit of it. Will popular culture be in any way affected by our departure from a multilateral Zollverein with pretensions to political union and a pressing insistence on a common, if not sacred legal order?
What will Brexit do for something which was an issue at the recent election, as it has been at every one since its birth, namely the NHS? Plainly for much of the Corbyn project to have been delivered would have required the hardest of Brexits. But what will the Brexit we’ll actually get mean for the NHS? Will it really mean anything?
What will Brexit do for the BBC, other than presumably lose it its EU funding? Will our dominant source of news be chastened by the way it has reported both Brexit and everything that led up to it? Could the BBC be anything other than the envy of the world? What will Brexit, a quintessential public policy proposition, do for lesser-order categories such as defence or foreign policy?
Will we insist on maintaining the capacity to engage in wars of our choice? If so, will we provide ourselves with the means to satisfactorily do so? Will the foreign policy which that, hopefully theoretical, freedom ultimately provides for be one which continues much as it was, save for the formality of EU membership, or will leaving the EU constitute change? Will we make a choice between Brussels and Washington (or even Beijing)? Is there a choice to be made?
What will Brexit do for public policy issues voters might be expected to vote on, such as fundamental matters of monetary policy? Will the chancellor loosen up further, taking advantage of cheap credit while it lasts to provide a “Brexit boost”? Will an exchange rate policy emerge in which the competitiveness of sterling is a goal rather than a by-product of everything else? The opportunity will exist for an industrial strategy. Will it be taken?
What Brexit will do, in theory, is make this all a matter of what we choose to do. We chose to leave the EU. That was almost frustrated and has certainly been hollowed out to a point unimaginable in the distant summer of 2016. No control has yet been taken back — but even if it is what will be done with it?
The case against the EU was simple to make. The case for what Britain should do after it has left the EU, even in name only, has not yet even been attempted.
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