A lecture in unflagging naivety

If you want your views of the wrongness of Brexit confirmed, this dull book will do so


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I do not know if it is really true that coalminers once took caged canaries underground as detectors of noxious gases. Still, it is a useful and well-understood metaphor for an early warning of danger ahead.

In Brexit Unfolded the first canary keels over on page 10, with only 273 left to go:

“The legal process for leaving the EU was defined in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This specified that an agreement for withdrawal would be negotiated ‘taking account of the framework for the [departing member’s] future relationship with the Union’. That future relationship would be agreed subsequent to the Withdrawal Agreement, and by a different process … During the referendum, the Vote Leave campaign actually promised that the future terms would be agreed before the Article 50 process even began. This was simply impossible given the terms of Article 50.”

In his best Joyce Grenfell voice, Chris Grey, a sometime professor of Organization Studies at Cambridge, then enthusiastic blogger, patiently lectures stupid Leavers for working themselves into a lather because they had not understood the detail. Yet, not only does Article 50 not say what he says it does, even the brief fragment he quotes implies the opposite.

Brexit Unfolded by Chris Grey, (Biteback, £14.99)

Article 50 does not prescribe a particular process, beyond a two-year deadline on exit talks. It does envisage separate Withdrawal and Post-Exit Trade Agreements — but it is rather difficult to negotiate Document A “taking account of” Document B, if you are not allowed to negotiate Document B until you have finished Document A. One might have thought an expert in organisation studies would appreciate that at the very least the two negotiations should run in parallel, but no.

As someone “trying to clarify the trade and regulatory issues”, he surely knows that in the Treaty on European Union, “framework” is used in the sense of “system laid down under a treaty” (see Preamble; and Articles 11.4; 12(c); 13.1; 20.1; 20.4; 21.1; 24.2; 41.3; 42.2; 42.5; 42.6; 44.1; 46.6). So, if the EU was irrevocably bound to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement “taking account of the framework” for the post-exit relationship, it would have been more in both the letter and the spirit of Article 50 to negotiate the post-exit treaty first, i.e. what Vote Leave suggested, and the exact opposite of how the EU decided to proceed (and which Theresa May’s government finally accepted).

Grey approaches this challenge with thoroughness, with confidence, and with unflagging naivety

The “stupid Leavers didn’t understand the rules” narrative is framed by this misreading. As Grey says, the UK wanted to play off the two sets of talks against each other, to secure better deals under both. Nobody can blame the EU for insisting on an interpretation of Article 50 which undermined that bargaining position, exploiting Theresa May’s parliamentary weakness. It would be nice if Mr Grey did not assume they were doing something else. Thus he does not appreciate that a too-clever-by-half EU actually scored an own goal.

Applying Article 50 to rigidly divide withdrawal and post-exit talks meant there could never be a second UK referendum offering a straight choice between Leave on negotiated terms and Remain. The People’s Vote campaign (Grey is a rare admirer) was scuppered by Brussels from the outset.

The divisive, amateurish and internationally humiliating manner in which Brexit occurred demands a formidable analyst, possessing insight and flair, to disentangle the many threads and reweave them into a coherent and illuminating account. Grey approaches this challenge with thoroughness, with confidence, and with unflagging naivety.

Fundamentally a System man, for Mr Grey, the System is always right. It is always the British who are distracted, disingenuous and dishonest. That might well be true. It never occurs to him that the patient, decent, and occasionally exasperated Europeans he portrays might have had an agenda of their own, and be causing trouble deliberately, especially over Northern Ireland. Politically, the EU simply could not allow the UK to escape punishment for its disloyalty, and in the EU politics always trumps economic rationality. They were always going to be difficult. But Mr Grey sees no serpents in the Eden across the Channel, and never wonders if the EU might be harming their own economic interests, too.

Domestically, Mr Grey is aware he is describing a “culture war”. It absorbs most of his attention. He genuinely tries to appear fair. He never succeeds. It is always the Leavers who are confused, contradictory, extremist (“Ultras”), untruthful and undemocratic. That may be true, but his handling of his material will not change any reader’s mind. The story becomes a repetitive drone. The effect is like watching Jaws and finding yourself rooting for the shark.

Our author enjoys pointing out inconsistencies in the “demands” (interesting choice of word) made by “Leavers”. All of which is quite true.

As Mr Grey notices, even in the referendum, there was never a single “Leave” group with a single voice. So it is odd he continually treats them as a single group. This is not very sophisticated political analysis. Neither is observing that Leavers tend to be older, less well-educated and non-Londoners compared to Remainers, as if that explains anything. Except that Mr Grey does try to explain everything, with psychobabble about self-imposed victimhood making Leavers prone to toxic unpleasantness. Remainers have no psychological flaws and are naturally less rude. Really?

We need a decent and dispassionate account of the whole withdrawal fiasco

The book is strong on the costs of Brexit, and all Mr Grey says about them could well be right. The correct question, however, is whether those costs outweigh the benefits. That is a question Mr Grey never asks. Apparently Brexit is a policy with no measurable upside — and membership of the EU has no measurable downside. Whatever your stance, that is facile. So too his belief that Tony Blair should have taken the UK into the euro, to force the British to love the EU and render Brexit impossible. This from someone who plangently condemns Brexit as an economically damaging symbolic gesture. Any reader who makes it to the end will find themselves buried under an aviary’s worth of deceased songbirds.

If you want your views of the wrongness of Brexit confirmed, this dull book will do so, but it only covers one third of the story. We need a decent and dispassionate account of the whole withdrawal fiasco. In theory it could be written by someone on either side in the original referendum. An author who regards John Bercow as driven primarily by a principled commitment to parliamentary scrutiny of the executive is neither mentally nor morally adequate to the task.

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