On May’s Brexit deal

by Barendina Smedley

[This article also appears as a guest post at the excellent Paul Burgin’s Mars Hill blog.]

Brexit, even after all these months, is still capable of surprises. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a couple of old friends. They’re both Leave supporters. I’m a Remainer, as was my companion. We had met each other — all four of us, actually — through the student politics of the late 1980s. None of us is shy about expressing a point of view. And yet this dinner, which by rights ought to have ended either with a flaming row or, perhaps worse, with a display of ever-more-icy contempt for each others’ abject wrongness, was — from my point of view, at least — an extremely happy occasion.

It says something sad about today’s politics that I found myself, afterwards, picking apart why this conversation — unlike so many conversations about Brexit, both online and in real life — had been so interesting, constructive and friendly. For one thing, as we had all known each other for so long, it was possible to appeal to a corpus of common assumptions. It probably also helped that, as we all genuinely like each other, none of us immediately assumed, the minute someone said something with which we disagreed, that the speaker was either a monster or an idiot — that there was quite a lot of good faith on show. Indeed, the climate of mutual respect was powerful enough that I found myself thinking, at various points, ‘that’s not the way I see things, but if X sees things that way, maybe it’s worth considering’. Finally, there was a pervasive sense, hard to pin down but expressed at all sorts of points, that it wasn’t worth falling out over this.

Did the conversation change my mind? No, but it probably did help to remind me that conversations about Brexit are not only possible, but perhaps also necessary.

All of which brings me to May’s withdrawal agreement. One of the arguments for the PM’s Brexit deal is that it is the sort of pragmatic compromise around which both Leave and Remain voters ought to be able to unite. Unfortunately, such are May’s distinctive political gifts that where there has been conspicuous unity, it is in the scorn and derision with which both ERG types and People’s Vote Remainers have rejected this much-maligned document. The former argue that the withdrawal agreement means being stranded forever as not-quite-members of the EU, governed by its rules but banished from its decision-making processes. The Remainers point out that our current settlement has all sorts of advantages that the withdrawal agreement lacks.

When Parliament votes on May’s deal in mid December, MPs will almost certainly reject it — probably by a generous margin, and, I guess, possibly with payroll vote resignations. The crowd walking through the ‘Noes’ lobby will be a disparate one, all disagreeing passionately with each other, yet united in the conviction that they are very right in what they are doing — although whether that is precipitating a No Deal Brexit, or somehow making Brexit impossible, remains to be seen.

Confession time: despite being a Remainer, despite being sure that the UK would be far better off in the EU than in any alternative arrangement, despite my long and well-documented history of not being able to stand our current prime minister or any of her pronouncements or works, I have recently come around to realising, rather to my own surprise, that I support May’s Brexit deal. If I were an MP, I would vote for it.

This confession will, perhaps, annoy and puzzle friends of mine who have come to different conclusions. Here, however, is my reasoning.

It seems clear, from everything I’ve read and heard on this subject, that if Parliament doesn’t vote for some sort of actual withdrawal agreement — agreed between the UK government and the EU — then it will, perforce, end up falling out of the EU at the end of March 2019 in a No Deal scenario. This, surely, would be a disaster. No one has planned properly for it. The currency markets have not yet priced it in and will authentically hate it. A sharp drop in the value of sterling will not be helpful for those of us who like buying fuel, things that are imported, things that are transported, or indeed things that require a supply chain and / or labour to make them happen, predictably and cheaply. Anyone old enough to remember, just by way of example, the fuel protests of 2000 will realise what an absolutely minimal amount of disruption it takes to make life confusing, inconvenient and expensive for plenty of people whose lives seem, at first glance, totally unrelated to the sector in question. A no-plan Brexit will hit literally every sector of the economy at once, with consequences that may well be catastrophic. As ever, the worst off will be hit the hardest. The effects will blight a generation. I don’t think this is an experiment that any responsible person ought to advocate. Pretty much any alternative, then, is better than blundering helplessly into a No Deal Brexit.

This, then, leaves two options. Parliament could find some way of suspending or reversing Article 50, which would presumably require not only a parliamentary majority but also the agreement of the EU. ERG types don’t want this, Labour might reject it out of a preference for a general election or even the promised legacy of an eye-wateringly awful ‘Tory Brexit’, the DUP will reject it because that’s the sort of thing they do — etc, etc. So I am not convinced it’s likely to happen. The other alternative is to accept May’s Brexit deal. Sadly, however, I don’t think that’s likely to happen either, so very soon we’ll all find out exactly how right we all were when it comes to No Deal Brexit pessimism. As ever, when it comes to pessimism, I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.

Is May’s deal imperfect? Inevitably so. Agreements of this sort are compromises. That’s what happens in negotiated agreements. There simply isn’t time to negotiate any other deal, and no reason to think any other deal would look very different. Nor is it possible, as some people seem to believe, simply for Parliament to tweak the deal into a more acceptable form. Unilateral, freelance deal-tweaking simply isn’t how international treaties work.

What, though, of a second Brexit referendum as a way out of this mess? Many of my Remain friends are strong supporters of a second referendum. Again, they may be puzzled or indeed annoyed that I don’t share their enthusiasm for this increasingly mainstream option.

My basic objection to a second referendum, to be perfectly honest, is that I really don’t think referendums are a good way to answer hugely complex, nuanced questions about a nation’s long-term direction. This is, admittedly, quite a Tory point of view, because it implies a preference for the more Burkean, indirect democracy of an elected parliament as the mechanism for national decision-making over more direct means. Well, so be it. I can just about accept that a vote on something like, for instance, the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement made a kind of sense, because it had at its heart an actual text that could be analysed, discussed, interpreted. The Scottish independence referendum, in contrast, seemed a ropier proposition to me, its flaws largely camouflaged by the fact that ‘No’ won — vague as the SNP were regarding what the independent Scots intended to do for a national currency, armed forces, even EU membership.

Re-running the referendum on Brexit would do nothing to clarify the central issue here, which is what Leavers want, in a positive sense, if they don’t want the EU. Personally, I would much rather that these questions were answered through parliament — by which I mean, through electing politicians standing on manifestos replete with clear statements regarding our future relationship with the EU. Oddly enough, when a party stood for years on an anti-EU ticket, it wasn’t great at getting its candidates elected. So why Remainers imagine that referendums are the happiest remedy for our current predicament is by no means clear to me.

Many Remainers, however, reading the runes of the opinion polls, are certain that Remain would win any second referendum — whatever the question, whatever the number of options on offer, whatever the content of the campaign, whatever other geopolitical things were going on in the background. I’m not so sure. Remain were supposed to win last time, after all — otherwise, Cameron would hardly have called the referendum. And that didn’t really work out, did it? Remember, any second referendum would most likely be organised by our current government, whose ability to organise anything successfully has not been conspicuous.

I also worry that some Remainers underestimate the extent to which many people, not all of them very political, feel neglected, misunderstood or despised by professional politicians — and, consequently, how badly they might take being told that their first answer to a question was judged wrong, so they need to vote again until they get it right. And then there’s the eternal danger of serious failures of imagination. Some people’s lives seem so thwarted, so blighted by injustice or lack of opportunity, that there are moments where throwing everything in the air can seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, because how could the outcome be any worse than what they have now? So it is wrong to write off No Deal as an outcome actively desired by a measurable proportion of the electorate, for whom the resulting chaos may appear to be not a bug, but a deeply desirable feature.

Put bluntly, then, I think a second referendum is a second throw of the dice that Remain, for all sorts of reasons, might well lose — at the cost of making our current political climate even more toxic, aggrieved and polarised than it is already. I think it is just as liable to illegal interference that would only be brought to light after the fact. And even if we, the Remainers, somehow won, then what’s to be done with all the Leave voters who will have good reason to feel that something has been stolen away from them? No, I have zero confidence in the idea that a second referendum will improve our situation at all.

And then there’s another point that my Remain friends will probably hate, as my Leave friends raise a quizzical eyebrow, remembering the not very generous things I’ve implied about them at various points over the past two years.

As much as I wish this weren’t the case, last time around, quite a few people actually did vote Leave. Some of them, clearly, were racists, xenophobes, economic and social illiterates, people with serious mental health issues looking for something, anything onto which to project their anger and fear, card-carrying idiots full stop. But quite a few other Leave voters were reasonable, responsible people, who weighed up the options they saw before them, and came to a different conclusion than we did. It isn’t right, clearly, that May’s inept and mean-spirited response to the Brexit vote totally ignored, at every turn, the existence of Remainers, except when pausing briefly to insult us as saboteurs or traitors, ‘citizens of nowhere’, people whose will somehow wasn’t reflected in her adored, proto-fascistic formula, ‘the will of the people’. But at the same time, it isn’t quite right to write all Leave voters off as irrelevant, either. At some point, somehow, someone has to start to knit back together the mangled, excoriated flesh of this pain-crazed, sometimes delirious body politic. That requires generosity and tolerance as well as clarity, honesty and a strong moral compass. And no, I don’t think it will be easy, either.

For all its flaws, however, May’s Brexit deal is at least a place to start. It delivers, after all, a bit of reassurance for both Leave and Remain voters — and also some certainty and stability for the presumably quite sizeable tribe who, however they voted before, now just want to be able to get on with their lives. It provides some sort of protection from the worst enormities incumbent on in a No Deal Brexit. It is very permissive, all things considered, when it comes to the form that future trading relationships and their regulatory context might take. It provides a basis on which to begin evolving a new, hopefully positive relationship with the EU at a time when a united front in the face of external aggression, or even just chaotic mismanagement, is particularly vital. It is, if nothing else, a place to start. And it says nothing very happy about our nation that it will almost certainly be rejected, as if even this fairly basic degree of compromise is now too much for many of our elected representatives to countenance.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still moments — plenty of them — where the whole concept of Brexit still fills me with a queasy sense of horror, despair and, yes, despite my attempts to rise above it, anger. Somehow we have ended up in a situation where my son, for instance, will not be able to enjoy the right to travel, live and work across an entire continent full of diversity, complexity and opportunity. Much worse, though, is the realisation that he’s growing up in a world where Europe’s relative peace, hard-won through decades of institutional effort, is now being put in jeopardy by the voices of nationalism, nativism and worse. The few MPs who have made a public case for May’s deal, even the best of them, end up incanting UKIP-lite things about ‘taking back control of our borders’ that literally make me wince, so evident is the pandering to a xenophobic world-view that really doesn’t deserve yet more normalisation.

I blame Cameron for turning a party management issue into an existential crisis played out on a geopolitical scale, just as I blame May for the bizarre and unjustifiable decision to trigger Article 50 without any thought to what might happen afterwards. I blame Labour for not rising to the challenge, as a party, of spearheading national opposition to a policy that will surely be terrible for workers’ rights, human rights, and the tax revenues that make state expenditure possible. And I also blame myself, it has to be said, for having spent decades aiding and abetting the wretched Tory party, and indeed some of the actual politicians, who made all this happen.

But there are limits to what can be achieved by dwelling on past mistakes, just as there are limits to what can be achieved by failing to look beyond the reassuring walls of our own tribal encampments. May’s deal, almost certainly will fail. Perhaps its main legacy will be the recollection, after the fact, of those who at least tried to make a case for it, in the face of worse alternatives everywhere else. But even if it does fail, and if a No Deal Brexit happens, there will, at some point, somewhere in the distant future, have to be conversations between erstwhile enemies, a bit of mutual understanding and empathy, a preference for generosity and compromise over name-calling, accusations of bad faith, assertions of sea-green incorruptible purity. No, it isn’t easy. But it’s possible, and it’s never too soon to begin.