How to fix Brexit

A flawed book by a Remainer may offer a crucial answer

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Peter Foster and I first met in a Belfast coffee shop. It was to play a minor role in Brexit history. Managing to combine Remainer sympathies with being the Daily Telegraph’s Europe editor, he kindly set out Theresa May’s three-point plan to get the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — of which I was director of policy — to support the first sea border inside the UK, the backstop. 

First, Northern Irish business organisations were to bully the DUP and cut off their donations (that they were scarcely donors at all immediately sets the scene for how politically well-informed May’s team was). Second, our mouths would be filled with gold in return for the confidence and supply (C&S) terms with which the DUP helped sustain May’s minority government at Westminster. 

But, I wearily explained, there were no core principles compromised by C&S, whereas creating a border inside the UK was a big deal for unionism. Was this really so hard to understand? 

Finally, the dread spectre was raised of Jeremy Corbyn — but May’s policy flip would make the Provo coat-tailer’s stated position in parliament more Unionist than hers. 

Our quick coffee turned into a couple of hours. The DUP leadership was immediately informed of the plan and in the subsequent months each of the three approaches was deployed. My prediction to Peter that it would fail, because of its basic political ineptitude, proved accurate.

Throughout our contact we each knew one another’s leanings. I was the former Director of Vote Leave in Northern Ireland while he was, and still is, a chief stenographer for the Remain establishment. He gained a middle management source. I got a contact outside of my bubble. Bubbles make for poor analysis and poorer advice. So, each got something from the relationship. 

In keeping with my anti-bubble tendencies, I read his book What Went Wrong With Brexit And What Can We Do About It? with interest.

If it were a play, it would be a Brexiteer monologue written from a Remain perspective

As an analysis it has several key flaws. It tells essentially a single-actor story. If it were a play, it would be a Brexiteer monologue written from a Remain perspective. All other participants would be no more than rare off-stage voices. Yet the 2017 election made the entire process akin to three dimensional Chinese chequers, not solitaire. 

It adopts an almost Year Zero approach to history. Little before 2016 matters: it was all a groundless populist aberration that appeared from nowhere. It is fundamentally Eurocentric and for Foster the EU is simply the Single Market and present circumstances are treated as perpetual.

It’s a vision that is deeply frustrated that neither rejoining the EU, nor Single Market or Customs Union membership is a realistic options. The straw is clutched that a Starmer government seeks everything short of these objectives in the 2026 renegotiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) whilst admitting that there is no identifiable reason for the EU — with its own problems to surmount — to be interested.

However Foster asks the right questions and identifies legitimate areas for future action: focus on specific Brexit freedoms; better negotiation preparations; civil service reform; the science superpower opportunity; and concentrating on the core issues of lacklustre growth and poor productivity. 

he rightly refers to Brexit as a revolution. It was a twenty-first century version of the Disraeliesque alliance of the working and upper classes against the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie are always well-placed to launch a counter-revolution. 

Politically, support for Brexit was a public mainstream position but a minority position within the political establishment. It could win a referendum, but faced immediate problems of lacking a vehicle within the party system to deliver it. The Conservative Party offered to become that vehicle, but the 2017-19 parliament broke the party. 

The 2019 general election result did not heal internal wounds. Numerically, the right should have been predominant, but the Tory intake shattered into a collection of single-issue groups and a gaggle of leadership candidates. When the natural party of government is fully dysfunctional, you get a fully dysfunctional government. 

The stark reality is that unless the Tory right unites and regains control then Brexit will lack a party political vehicle within the parliamentary system. The drift to rejoining will speed up.

The referendum victory coincided with the collapse of the “consent of the defeated” in Western democracies; this notion in modern American politics that an opponent’s victory can’t be legitimate for various nefarious reasons. At first, Brexiteers thought the old rules applied and a delivery vehicle had been found, only to discover this was not so. 

The nature of politics had changed too. Securing the political mandate for governance became almost a daily battle. So Brexiteers need to identify specific opportunities and campaign for them to be implemented. What can Brexit do for someone’s everyday life and what could rejoining threaten? VAT reduction campaigns seem an obvious place to start. 

Northern Ireland was a prime example of the failure of the UK’s negotiation preparations. The founding basis of the EU is recognition of the territorial integrity of a state. This principle was ignored by the EU. Irish myths about what the Belfast Agreement mandated were embedded in European capitals before the UK’s negotiators had started. Northern Ireland was the EU’s chosen pound of flesh for Brexit, but it was also sold the lie that the abolition of Northern Ireland was imminent. This assumption is why Brussels sees little need to be flexible; it wrongly believes there will be a full border with Great Britain soon enough. 

The civil service needs reform. Too many civil servants were used to a system of waiting for the email from Brussels. Policy implementation is one part of government getting in the way of another. We shouldn’t create — as Foster promotes — yet another board or body further embedding the watchdog state that spends all its time marking each other’s homework. The Institute for Government is not a source of answers on civil service reform; it is part of the politicisation problem. 

The purpose of taking back control was not for a greater inertia but for a new bureaucratic and political impetus to use the full range of powers that the UK has regained. The bruises of the Brexit battles contributed to a deep level of paranoia. Hence the Brexiteer rush to embed as much change as quickly as possible. However, the attempt to do everything was undermined internally. In less frenetic times a more focused and sectoral approach would have been sensible. 

So Brexit is a process not an event. Anyone who hears retired civil servants boasting about how they cried over the Leave vote — while still serving bureaucrats — and pretends this didn’t matter should be ignored. It’s simply intellectually unserious. Actions have consequences. 

The most obvious place where we need a sea-change is national infrastructure. A stronger nation is built by building it. It is the prime example of how we govern against ourselves. In 2000, Norway built the world’s longest road tunnel for £100m. Just the planning application for the far smaller Lower Thames Crossing has cost £267 million so far,without it being constructed, thanks to a watchdog system perpetuating and spreading itself to sustain bureaucratic and middle-class grift.

At one point, Foster states, “this isn’t first and foremost about undercutting the EU, it’s about fixing problems at home”. An arch-Remainer has managed to sum up why I supported Leave — not to simply regain sovereignty but to do something with it. 

What was achieved in the last seven years was the removal of the external barriers and potential impediments. Next should be ending the sense of permanent entitlement exercised by those who have presided over the maze of our own weed-strewn state. 

Foster pines for a re-engagement between the EU and UK. A successful UK will achieve that more than any TCA renegotiation. The EU respects strength: so should we. Economic power is the real diplomatic power: let us get on with creating it. 

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