The F-word is becoming increasingly associated with Brexit. No less an authority than Nigel Farage himself has declared Brexit to have failed. Recently Professor Chris Grey, perhaps Britain’s leading academic authority on the topic, described Brexit’s “total failure”. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve was just the latest in the pages of The Independent: Rishi Sunak is in denial – proof that Brexit has failed mounts by the day.
End-of-year polls by Opinium and Focaldata to mark the third anniversary of Britain’s exit from the bloc show an overwhelming majority of voters agree. And in respect of trade, inflation, the NHS, economic growth, immigration, tax, and the many other misleading claims peddled by both the leave campaigns of 2016, it has undoubtedly been a failure.
But David Cameron had no idea his opponents would use those arguments when announcing the idea of holding a referendum in January 2013. He said it would “settle this European question in British politics” and against that criteria I would suggest Brexit has been a remarkable success.
Pro-EU sentiment is now higher both in the UK and continental Europe than it has been for years and crucially much higher than it would have been without Brexit.
Having experienced life outside the EU a clear majority in the UK now want a closer relationship and believe, in hindsight, that Brexit was a mistake. Last month a YouGov poll showed 57% of voters would support rejoining the single market even if this meant restoring free movement of people, with just 22% opposed.
In three short years, Brexit has achieved what the UK’s pro-EU contingent have failed to do in thirty or more. The sad truth is that, without Brexit, Britain would never be weaned off the exceptionalism that we’ve been addicted to for decades.
Nothing less than going cold turkey was going to do the trick.
The 2016 referendum was always inevitable
After 2010, Baron Cameron of Chipping Norton, as he now is, could have resisted his ultras but was that ever a real option? I don’t believe so.
It’s easy to forget now, but all the main UK parties had toyed at various times in the previous decade with the idea of holding a referendum on Britain’s position in Europe, recognising the rise of Farage’s UKIP and the fact we were not a wholly committed member of the European club.
In the 2015 general election, UKIP took over 12% of the vote and gained one seat. Cameron’s slim 12 seat majority meant he would always have been vulnerable to a challenge. Sooner or later, he would have been replaced by someone further to the right. Imagine a referendum led by a hard Eurosceptic prime minister and chancellor, with all the power and influence of the Treasury behind them.
Refusing to hold a referendum would also have been a gift to UKIP, consolidating and strengthening an avowedly Eurosceptic party at the centre of British politics. Assisted by the right-wing press, they would quickly have had a body of vocal MPs in the Commons in addition to MEPs in Strasbourg.
The mythical stories that did so much to colour public opinion about the EU in the years running up to referendum would have become turbo-charged. Every internal UK problem would have continued to be blamed on barmy ‘Eurocrats’. For Brexiters, the EU Commission’s handling of the Covid pandemic and the procurement of a vaccine would have been an easy target, as well as its response to Putin’s war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis.
A referendum would have come eventually like a pressure relief valve blowing off and under those circumstances the result whenever it came could easily have been far more decisive and much harder to reverse.
What if remain had won a narrow victory?
Of course, the pro-EU side would have preferred to win in 2016 but a reverse of the actual result, a slender victory for remain, would no more have ‘settled the European question’ than having no referendum in the first place.
You can imagine the banner headlines on 24 June 2016 in the The Daily Mail: ‘Cameron cheats his way to victory, Remain scrapes narrow win’. The right wing anti-EU press would have simply carried on, accusing Cameron and Osborne of scaring voters into accepting the status quo. Don’t forget Farage’s now famous words that a 52-48 win for remain would have been “unfinished business”. Never underestimate a fanatic.
You need only look at Holyrood and how the SNP reacted to losing the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, to see parallels. Or indeed, how the European Movement got an adrenalin shot after the actual 2016 result when hundreds of new and still vibrant pro-European groups sprang up.
It is the losers, seeing the long-coveted prize snatched away who are spurred on, while the winners allow themselves to slip back into the old complacency. It’s easy to see the logic behind the need for a supermajority. Only an overwhelming win settles great constitutional issues.
A narrow victory for remain would have achieved the same result as no referendum. Britain would have limped along with the same half-hearted, semi-detached foot-dragging that we have seen for the last fifty years. Eventually, there would be another referendum and another until Brexit as a theory could finally be tested.
At some point the UK had to choose in or out and fully commit ourselves to being one thing or the other.
And, contrary to the assertions afterwards, those who voted to leave in 2016 could not have understood what they were voting for because it was all subject to negotiation. Now, courtesy of Brexit, they do, and the vast majority – whichever side they were on – don’t like what they see.
The much-delayed checks on EU imports begin at the end of January, adding time and cost to goods shipped in from Europe, especially food stuffs. Later, on 6 October 2024, biometric checks on UK travellers entering the EU will begin, increasing journey times and contributing to the widespread feeling of discontent.
The hard lessons of Brexit
Clarity is coming at enormous cost as the British public is given an expensive education in the intricacies of international travel and trade. There are pros and cons of being out of the European Union, just as there were pros and cons of membership. But as becomes clearer by the week, the list of Brexit cons is growing rapidly while the pros column remains stubbornly short.
Daniel Hannan, Shanker Singham and other leading lights of Brexit have said repeatedly there is no point in Brexit unless Britain seizes the opportunity to diverge from the EU. Yet successive Conservative governments have delayed or scrapped any significant divergence fearing the political and economic damage that such a move would wreak. If anything, we are closer now than we were at the end of 2020.
The idea of developing UKCA standards has been abandoned in favour of keeping the EU’s CE mark. There has been no significant ditching of retained EU Law after four long years. We have rejoined Horizon. Trade bodies and industries from food to steel and chemicals to automotive are warning the government that they need alignment with European standards. Labour will almost certainly sign an SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) agreement further locking us into the EU’s regulatory orbit.
Be under no illusions, even with Richard Tice and Farage at the helm, the same unpalatable choices would need to be faced and they, too, would shrink from making them. You can’t buck the markets as Margaret Thatcher once said.
If we can’t afford divergence because it makes no commercial or economic sense, that must lead to the conclusion there is no point in Brexit. And this will come alongside the unstoppable demographic changes as my late colleague Paul Willner pointed out in Yorkshire Bylines in October.
Making the case for membership
Over the next few years, there will never be a better time since the early 1970s to make the case for EU membership. Politicians need to tell a positive story to a receptive audience who understand more clearly what being in the EU means, against a Eurosceptic opposition in retreat against the rising tide of observed reality, from the mountains of red tape and trade barriers to the petty inconveniences of European travel.
Starmer, like Cameron in reverse, will be unable to hold the current line on Europe with a party which is overwhelmingly pro-EU, as I suspect he himself is. Pressure for a second decisive referendum can only grow.
Brexit has been nothing less than a huge commercial, diplomatic and social experiment. Looking back, it was a premise that had to be tested, not only to convince voters flirting with Euroscepticism in the UK but as a warning to others across the rest of Europe.
So, I think it’s quite obvious Britain will one day return to the EU, poorer, weaker, chastened and contrite to be sure. I don’t suggest for a second it will be quick or easy. The road to contrition is going to be long and hard, but it will be seen as an essential journey of self-discovery that wouldn’t have been necessary without Brexit, but couldn’t have been made without it either.
In a few more years, only a small number of die-hard fanatics will still be clinging to the idea that quitting the EU has improved anything. In the long run we will look back on Brexit as a necessary purgatory before Britain finally becomes a fully committed pro-European and from that aspect it will be seen not as a failure but as a success.
Happy New Year.