Brexit breaks it – but the UK’s number one foreign policy objective remains Europe

Still reeling from Brexit? You should be. Europe is. Britain will be for years. On all fronts. The ones who manufactured Britain’s new impasse have all left the stage. The second woman and 76th person to be Britain’s Prime Minister was not a Brexiter though some expected her to be. She faces quite some challenge in reconstructing Britain’s relationship to Europe.

Boundless chaos, reckless spoilers, helpless guardians

‘Boundless chaos, reckless spoilers, helpless guardians’: that was the theme of the 2016 Munich Security Report. If it’s even half true, what do we say about a vote to leave the EU?  If there is some sense in the admonition on the front page on The Security Times issue for the Munich Security Conference – ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’– how would one judge the Brexit vote? And why did 52 per cent British voters decide to do it?

Things usually seem a bit less dramatic as the moment of cataclysm recedes; time is the great healer and all that. A lot of effort will be expended on minimising disruptions and making things seem as normal as possible.

Below the surface, however, there is no likelihood of a quick return to business as usual. Too many things have been thrown too high in the air as a result of a unique alliance across class boundaries between what is left of the traditional white working class and the old imperial administrative class. Long established working class communities have seen  jobs stolen and social structure undermined by modernisation and globalisation. The non-modernised upper middle class got its deepest fulfilment, cultural assumptions and certainties, and its richly textured social positioning from a closed chapter of history. Normally antagonistic, these two groups share the fate of being stranded by history.

Their central concerns make up the core reasons for a considerable part of the Brexit vote. Built on nostalgia, they deal in myths both about the past and about the possible future. There are illusions at the heart of the Brexit enterprise, illusions with political bite as 23 June showed. Unless that vote has burst the boil, expect all those sentiments to persist, with deeply discomfiting effects for a British government whose number one agenda priority now must be to develop a new economic, political and security relationship with European partners.

Control, money and migrants

Let’s start with how come and why. Is it, as a Chinese paper said, a sign of a “losing mindset” in Britain? Or do Brits just shoot themselves in both feet for fun? As always, people have diverse reasons for their votes. For many who voted “Leave”, rejecting a distant political elite they feel has failed them was probably as important as anything. Political arguments don’t always get through but they still matter. The well constructed image of a bureaucratic, EU madhouse drowning the UK in regulations that cost Britain over £27 billion a year (and that’s only the 100 most expensive of them) was doubtless present in the minds of many Vote Leave campaigners and voters. But that is not where their campaign centred .

What the Vote Leave campaign argued in the months leading up to the 23 June referendum was that Britain will be better off with fewer foreigners, less foreign control and giving less money to foreigners. These – especially the number of immigrants – were key issues for many voters.

Take a look at what the Vote Leave campaign said. Its URL was That gives you the core message straight off. The first reason the website gave for leaving is to stop spending £350 million a week on the EU (after a bit of scrolling down you find out that the true figure is probably around half that). The second reason is to control immigration. The third is to trade with the whole world (something that, apparently, the UK was not doing before 23 June). And the fourth is so the UK can make its own laws.

Separately from the “official” Vote Leave campaign, Nigel Farrage’s UK Independence Party put up a powerful and powerfully offensive poster with a queue of refugees and the message that we are at “Breaking Point“.

On the eve of the referendum, the three Vote Leave leaders asked, “What is this campaign really about?” If we vote leave, they said, “We will take back control of our laws. We will take back control of our money… We will take back control of migration policy.” It was uncomfortably obvious what the campaign was “really about”.

The campaigns

It is shocking how fast and loose both official and unofficial Brexiters played with facts – such as the lie that Turkey is about to join the EU and the exaggeration of Britain’s financial contribution to the EU budget.

Fact-checking kicked in rather late and the Vote Leave campaign marked the days after winning by withdrawing most of its promises and redefining others. Or, as former Conservative Party leader and prominent Vote Leave campaigner Iain Duncan Smith said, “We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities.”

It was cynical and successful. Among the leading Brexiters were true-believing ideologues and arch pragmatists – two species of political operator that are equally comfortable with fact-free opinions and policies.

The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign was full of warnings about the negative consequences of leaving the EU. It rarely pushed a positive vision. The headline messages were not about peace, the expansion of democracy, tolerance, rights and the attractions of being part of a vibrant international community. Focus group polling found negative messages about the economy worked best. Positive messages got too many people thinking about how the EU doesn’t live up to the best of what it might be. The resulting Remain campaign was leaden and dour and never recovered from losing control of the agenda when the “renegotiation” of Britain’s membership terms produced little real change.

#Bregrets – but not a lot – and #Breffects

That there are regrets among some who voted Leave is undoubted. But there is no evidence yet of a huge opinion shift. One opinion poll has shown that 7 per cent of leave voters now regret their vote, as do 3 per cent of remain voters. That nets out at a smaller Leave majority. So a furious electorate remains about evenly divided.

That balance of opinion may not last as the effects of Brexit kick in. Start with the economy – the uncertainty, the possible exodus from London of key banks, the lack of a Plan B-for-Brexit. Just as worrying are the social prospects. There has been an almost immediate rise in anti-immigrant incidents. It seems prejudice has been emboldened by Brexit, given a sense of its own legitimacy to get out into the open and attack.

However, even if these effects unfold very visibly, while some support for Brexit may fall away, there will remain a significant level of core support. There is plenty of evidence that economic warnings were simply taken less seriously than concerns about control and immigration.  And the politics of all this is deeply felt. It is getting extremely angry and will probably get worse.

More than one legal challenge has been mounted over whether the Prime Minister has the right to initiate Britain’s exit from the EU. There is a further argument about whether the UK government could quit the EU against the will of the Scottish Assembly. There is a bigger issue about whether the UK can survive Brexit. A second referendum on Scottish independence is inevitably on the table.

Frustration and distraction

All this implies the possible frustration of Brexit, which will generate enormous fury. It also implies deep distraction of British government and political leadership away from the number one priority – reconstructing the relationship with the rest of Europe. That will require political vision and leadership of the highest order. It also entails a great deal of complex technical work on multiple fronts to achieve clarity of policies and alignment with potential allies on a series of key issues, among them the economy and especially trade, social policies, education and scientific research, climate change and the environment, defence cooperation, energy, the Middle East, Russia…

What makes it worse is the most extraordinary of the many confusions sown by the Brexit campaign. Even after the vote they argued that Britain could benefit from access to the EU’s single market but not be bound by its rules including on migration. The attractions of the position are clear – good EU stuff (such as trade and prosperity) without bad EU stuff (regulations and foreigners). The unfortunate thing is that the EU immediately made clear it is not an option: access to the single market means accepting the “four freedoms” including freedom of people to move.

Being excluded from the single market will be a catastrophic economic blow while continuing to allow full freedom of movement into Britain will ensure the argument starts all over again at much greater intensity and volume. Which means, unless Britain can finally and definitively move on from its industrial and imperial pasts, more distraction away from the real task of today and tomorrow.

The Brexit illusion has handed the incoming Prime Minister an exquisitely sharp dilemma to manage.


2 thoughts on “Brexit breaks it – but the UK’s number one foreign policy objective remains Europe

  1. Great article, Dan. I suspect May will go for the ‘Norway’ option, with very slight restrictions on movement of people. This allow both sides to claim victory and spin it to their people.

    However, like you say, this will outrage Brexiteers because we will have an option which is a more expensive version of what we have now – resulting in the debate starting up all over again.

    Depressing times.

  2. Pingback: UK’s European policy – already broken? or magician’s distraction? | Dan Smith's blog

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