Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
The current debate raging about Brexit has occasionally thrown up a view – expressed more by columnists than politicians – that Brexit is so difficult that, for practical purposes, it might as well be impossible. We simply are incapable of leaving.
This argument is distinct from the argument for or against the compromises of May’s deal, or even the argument put forward by Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin around EEA membership.
The Boles and Letwin view is that while a harder Brexit is possible, the economic and political disruption of a complete split is too great, particularly given Northern Ireland. They suggest instead a compromise version, which trades off retaining economic integration and some loss of control for exiting the political drive toward ‘ever closer union’.
This is in some sense an acknowledgement that Brexit must happen in some form, although it may be one that too few Conservative MPs and voters support to make viable. The ‘Brexit is impossible’ position is even more hardline and instead argues that Brexit in any form is just too big for politics to cope with. That the question should never have even been asked. That it was an impossible task you could not achieve and so it was dishonest even to debate it – and, of course, that David Cameron was utterly wrong to call the referendum.
Indeed, they argue that the whole premise of the referendum was a sham, because the little people who voted Leave, for whatever reason, did not understand that it is simply not possible for us to do so. That is why, if the EU will not give ground, the only real option is to cancel Brexit and put this whole sorry mess behind us. Not because there has been inadequate preparation for No Deal, but because Brexit is somehow impossible in a very fundamental sense.
If we cannot leave the EU now, we cannot remain a sovereign nation
But if we cannot leave the European Union now – when it consists of a trading bloc with a partially formed political super state above it – surely we can never, in the long run, retain any national sovereignty, and once inside the EU we will never be able to resist further erosion of sovereignty.
If we are too weak to be able to leave, and must go crawling back to the Commission, what trajectory does that put us on? Towards a slightly slower dismantling of the UK as a nation state in favour of a European federal super state? In which case, why not simply just dissolve Britain as a realistic entity and run us by email from the EU Commission?
It’s often said that the Brexit referendum showed that Britain was split down the middle. In fact, polls showed that the overwhelming majority of people wanted either to leave the EU or reduce its powers. For every true believer in integration on the Remain side, there were many more who were sceptical of the EU but worried about how we would or could actually get out. After the vote a staggering 75 per cent of people either wanted to leave the EU or reduce its powers, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey.
Now, some federalists see a chance, through the high-stakes game of poker we are in, to undo that decision. But the logic of having to abandon our attempt to Leave is that any attempt to reverse the one-way federal ratchet is doomed. Even when we were a member in good standing, the best we could do was to slow the flow of powers to Brussels rather than halt it, let alone reverse it. What leverage will we have as a defeated, humbled nation whose threats to Leave have been exposed, in the EU’s eyes, as hollow?
If Brexit is impossible, what is the point of politics?
There is a deeper point here. If Brexit is impossible, what hope is there for other difficult tasks in politics, such as reforming public services, controlling immigration, increasing living standards? Will it all be parked in the ‘too difficult’ box? Or will the lesson that our elites learn be that we should never trust the people to make their own decisions?
Those who incline to the ‘Brexit is impossible’ view are, after all, usually those who tend to idealise the rule of technocrats. They get particularly angry that voters think they are doing a much less effective job than they themselves think they are doing.
The Twittersphere, much of the academic and legal professions, the bureaucratic class – all think they will be able to manage governing quite well enough with no real involvement from the plebs. The last thing they want is an engaged population.
Of course, the paradox here is that the UK political system is bearing up better than many. The USA since 2000 has been in near-permanent gridlock, with only a few years of effective government here and there. Italy, Spain, France, Germany – almost all have undergone or are undergoing serious political (and often economic) dislocation.
In terms of the future, all of the focus recently has been on the effects of No Deal. While the mayor of Calais, the Irish, and the Dutch all claim No Deal will not lead to delays, relying on this is a high-risk strategy. If No Deal is seriously disruptive there would be serious consequences for the economy.
Yet if the UK cannot manage to deliver Brexit, then it may shatter the political system as we know it. It certainly may well shatter the Conservatives.
Before Christmas, YouGov ran a poll which found that if Brexit was cancelled, 63 per cent of Conservatives would feel angry, betrayed or disappointed, with betrayal by far the largest response at 42 per cent. That was over twice as many as would feel relieved, pleased or delighted (21 per cent for all three combined). The political establishment is unlikely to survive such a shock. Certainly the Conservative Party could not.
Brexit is not impossible. But if we abandon the idea, and declare it impossible for our political system to deliver, then we are effectively declaring to the voters that the political system itself is not fit for purpose.