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The inquiry industrial complex

What, if anything, do our investigations accomplish?

Artillery Row

When somebody makes excitable claims that a topic is taboo, you can bet it is often talked about — if mostly because you are already bored of their pet subject and have remembered something urgent to attend to.

I was reminded of this on hearing that Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse believes Brexit has “become a bit of a political taboo”. As with the self-styled iconoclastic newspaper columnist, the claim was rather undermined by the fact she was saying it in parliament, broadcast live over the internet and with a Hansard reporter jotting everything down.

A majority of the British public now regard our leaving the EU as a mistake

What I guess Hobhouse meant is that neither Labour nor the Conservatives find it politically expedient to discuss Brexit. The complaint would be more forceful if it weren’t like noticing that an estate agent is reluctant to acknowledge the mould creeping out from under the wallpaper.

Tory shyness is motivated by the recent memory of David Cameron hoping to stop his colleagues “banging on about Europe” and instead detonating several tons of explosives beneath his party and the country. As for Labour, there is little desire to remind voters that a section of the party considers the public idiots for lighting the fuse.

Yet Hobhouse finds herself amongst friends who want much more banging on about Europe. Her own party and the Greens want a public inquiry into Brexit — as do the SNP, despite the inconvenient parallels with their own separatist aspirations.

It’s not just politicians, either. Going by the petition that prompted the parliamentary debate on such an inquiry, some 200,000 people agree that we should be “told the truth about Brexit, good or bad”. Petition organiser Peter Packham argues that, “This can only be done by an independent public inquiry, free from ideology and the opinions of vested interests.”

Given Packham’s membership of the national council of the European Movement, which regards Brexit as “a historic national mistake”, you might suspect that there are particular ideologies and interests he hopes to exclude from framing the inquiry.

Such suspicions would be confirmed by contributions to the debate, which indicated that an inquiry would be a show trial for the evident stupidity of Brexit. Even the debate leader, the SNP MP Martyn Day, was obliged to admit discussions had been “rather one-sided”.

You can see why from his opening remarks. “The more I learn, the more I realise that there is no such thing as a good Brexit,” he said. “I think we are all seeing that clearly.”

To be fair, even as a Leave voter, I think Day is right — to a point. As the infamous experts predicted, Brexit has not been good for us economically. It’s harder to put a number on the damage to our international reputation, but were this a grand strategy game we’d be operating with a serious handicap. 

For me, these were the trade-offs in achieving self-determination and improved democratic accountability. Nonetheless, it is surely such downsides that have led a majority of the British public to regard us leaving the EU as a mistake. UnHerd polling from December 2022 showed 54 per cent saying Britain was wrong to leave the EU, with only 28 per cent disagreeing.

Our relationship with the EU has rarely escaped news editors’ attention

Such a shift from the referendum result follows near endless discussion of Brexit. Even amidst the cost-of-living crisis, war in Ukraine and the usual American political hijinks, our relationship with the EU has rarely escaped news editors’ attention.

What would be achieved by a public inquiry, so much public inquiring having already been done? Certainly it would mean a few more million for those who work on inquiries, which have been a growth industry of late.

In October last year the Times estimated that £110m a year was being spent each year on them, with a third going to lawyers. Even this is likely an under-estimate, with the Covid-19 inquiry already generating an £85m bill for taxpayers as government ministers and departments lawyer up before proceedings even begin this summer. 

Given that many argue Brexit will have a more profound effect on the UK than Covid, it’s reasonable to guess its inquiry would be a similar windfall for the legal trade. Even those sympathetic to the investigation acknowledge that you may not get much for the money. As Labour’s Stella Creasy noted in parliament, “there is no formal mechanism for following up on an inquiry”. Governments can simply ignore the conclusions, as shown by the current government’s dismissive response to Packham’s petition.

Time is also likely to erode any impact an inquiry may have. The Edinburgh Tram Inquiry is an amusing case in point, set up to investigate delays in building a tram network in the Scottish capital. It has now run for nine years without publishing its final findings. With one anonymous source telling the Edinburgh Evening News that it’s “the first inquiry in history which has turned into a bigger scandal than the one it was set up to look into in the first place”, perhaps the next inquiry will be into an inquiry.

As for an investigation into Brexit, that looks less likely. Advocates’ motivations were naked in the parliamentary debate and clearly spelt out by Conservative MP Adam Holloway. “In reality, we are arguing today about whether we should have voted to leave the EU or whether we should rejoin,” he observed.

Both of these are legitimate subjects for debate. What is illegitimate is for Remainers to expect the British public to fund a publicity campaign for their views. Instead, if they want to reopen the argument over our EU membership, there’s only one person that needs convincing — the former champion for a second referendum and likely next prime minister, Keir Starmer. Best of luck with that.

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