This blog is part three of the transcript from a University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Public Lecture, given by Philip Rycroft on 21 January 2020. Read part one or part two, watch the lecture online, or listen to the podcast.
Philip Rycroft is former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union.
Where does this leave us? It leaves us with Brexit far from being done. It leaves us with negotiations stretching to a distant horizon or facing the disruption of no trade deal at the end of the year. It leaves us with an economic impact that will take years to wash through the economy as resources are reallocated in response to the change in trading circumstance. It leaves us with a substantial challenge to work out how we re-order the regulatory state in a post-Brexit world.
All of this is challenging in its own right and will pre-occupy the government for a long time to come. But much of it is at best tangential to many of the most pressing issues that we face as a country.
There would, I think, be broad consensus on what many of those issues are. I would include in no particular order: inequality; stalled productivity growth; poor export performance; climate change; the increased health and social care demands of an ageing population; poor educational and skills outcomes for too many young people; disenfranchisement and alienation in many communities; a dysfunctional housing market.
On none of these issues has our membership of the EU acted as a major constraint to progress. At least, on each of them there are other EU member states that perform better than the UK, some on pretty much the whole lot. None of these problems will go away because of Brexit. Indeed, as slower economic growth means less revenue for the Exchequer, the resolution of these problems through increased public expenditure is slowed down.
This is what I think of as the paradox of Brexit. This was at heart about taking back sovereignty. Taking back sovereignty is meant to improve how people feel about themselves, their communities and the country we live in. But the very act of re-claiming that sovereignty has made it more, not less, difficult to deal with the issues that have the greatest impact on people’s lives and which, I would contend, have driven so much of the discontent that lay behind popular support for Brexit.
Which begs the question: what will be the longer-term political impact of Brexit? Put crudely, will the fact that we have taken back control be sufficient to deal with the undercurrents of dissatisfaction that drove Brexit? Will people look at the state of the country through a different lens knowing that we have repatriated responsibility for sorting things out ourselves?
There is no doubt that we are already witnessing a significant change in British politics. The Conservative party that won a handsome majority in the 2019 election is not the party of 2010 or 2015 or even 2017. It’s economic programme, including a massive increase in infrastructure investment, greater state intervention through an enhanced research-led industrial strategy, continued capping of electricity prices and increases in the national living wage, would not have looked out of place in an Ed Miliband conference speech circa 2013. If mildly to the left economically, on social policy it is looking less liberal than its predecessors, at least with the heavy emphasis on law and order. On the NHS, schools and social care, we are not seeing the radicalism of market driven solutions; the state is back.
This is the party that won more support than Labour in every social class and now has a better geographical representation across Great Britain than Labour. No doubt the decisiveness of the party’s position on Brexit and the weakness of the Labour leadership were contributory factors to the outcome, neither of which will necessarily be major issues by the time of the next election. But the realignment we have witnessed runs deeper than that. The Conservative party has succeeded in latching on to the spirit of the time, a prioritisation of security over freedom, of certainty over the risks of globalisation, of homeland over international, and won an election on the back of that.
It has framed that victory with large promises. Brexit has been gilded with a touch of the millenarian. It will bring be a new dawn, the unleashing of the spirit of the nation. Brexit will make Britain great again. No longer cabined, cribbed and confined by the prison of the EU, our native genius will be freed to soar once again. Heady promises which now confront the gritty reality of our life outside the EU.
The forthcoming negotiations with the EU will be tough and messy. Leading proponents of Brexit, on record as having once been prepared to accept outcomes at the soft end of the spectrum, toughened their position as the withdrawal negotiations progressed, up to and including the advocacy of a no deal outcome. Will they be any more prepared to compromise in the next stage of this game? Or is it more likely that their impatience with the demands of the EU will drive them further and further away from an ambitious future relationship?
What happens to wider public opinion? If the dawn is not as bright as promised, if the impact of Brexit dampens the ability of the government to inject resources and economic vigour back into those disaffected midlands and northern communities, what happens then?
There is at least a chance that we discover then that the pent-up frustrations in British society that led to Brexit will not be completely vented by Brexit. It is unlikely that the European Commission or the EU will become any more popular in the UK through the process. Far from buyer’s remorse, there is, I think a fair chance of significant popular support for a tough line to be taken in the negotiations with the EU. This will materially increase the chances of a no trade deal outcome at the end of this year.
Does it stop there? Brexit is about more than a rejection of a formal relationship with the EU; it raises deeper questions about identity, about people’s sense of self and place, about culture and social attitudes. If the fact of Brexit does not lead to tangible change that addresses those yearnings, what impact does that have on British politics?
We’re in too deep now to step back. Upheavals radicalise; if the promised change is not delivered, the answer is rarely to stop, more often to drive on the change. We have already seen the way in which the Brexit process has pitted the advocates of the new order against the institutions of state; the judiciary, business, the Houses of Parliament themselves, the civil service. The broadly socially liberal, open market order that has governed the affairs of this country at least since the early 90s has been under sustained assault. Has this process run its course? Or will we look back in 15 years’ time and recognise that at the turn of this new decade we were still in the middle of an upheaval that will lead to profound changes in the nature of politics and the institutional order in this country?
I want finally to turn to the future of the United Kingdom itself.
Brexit as an argument about sovereignty sits atop the existing arguments about sovereignty within the UK. We know that one of those arguments is settled, for the foreseeable future anyway; we are leaving the EU. But the settling of the one argument leaves the others more unsettled; indeed, Brexit and the manner of Brexit has put more heat under the pot. As the aftermath of the election has demonstrated, the legitimacy of the current settlement faces a continued and invigorated challenge.
Even without the pressure from nationalisms internal to the UK, the four governments would have a substantial agenda of post-Brexit issues to sort out. The devolved governments have a legitimate interest in what follows next in terms of the negotiation of our future relationship with the EU. In some domains, for example fisheries, their interests are predominant. In others, including agriculture and some industrial sectors, there are particular dimensions to the sectors in the devolved parts of the UK which will need to be reflected in the UK negotiating position. Across the whole, the devolved governments should be engaged in the development of the UK negotiating position and in the major decisions taken through the negotiating process.
As powers flow back from Brussels, they return in areas of devolved competence to the devolved governments. In another Brexit twist, leaving the EU single market leaves the UK internal market exposed to erosion, if the four governments of the UK choose to exercise those returning powers in areas such as agriculture, fisheries and the environment to create different regimes and standards on different sides of the UK internal borders. Common frameworks will be required to avoid that risk to the UK internal market, but common frameworks will require cooperation and compromise; in short, a maturity and respect in UK inter-governmental relations which has been in somewhat short supply in years just past.
But, of course, the context in which this new sophistication in inter-governmental dealings is required is hardly propitious. Nationalists in Northern Ireland and Scotland claim that Brexit has fundamentally changed the nature of the deal that underpinned the concept of the United Kingdom as a state.
For Northern Ireland, common Irish and UK membership of the EU was part of the solvent that allowed the Good Friday Agreement to shape new institutions, and new hope for the future, through the softening of old rigidities. The acceptance of a border effectively down the Irish Sea as part of the Withdrawal Agreement is vivid testament to the problematic nature of any attempt to resurrect anything like the old border on the island of Ireland itself.
In Scotland, part of the promise made in the 2014 independence referendum was of a continued membership of the EU within a continuing UK. There is no sign yet of opinion in either Scotland or Northern Ireland shifting from the pro-EU stance taken in the EU referendum. Neither wanted out and both want back in. Part as consequence, support for independence on the one hand and unification on the other shows no sign of withering away. Both are societies divided, more or less down the middle, on the most existential of questions, their national future. And in Wales, the indy-curious are stirring the interest in independence to new levels.
It would take a brave person to predict where all this will lead us. The hard Brexit to which we are heading will hardly propitiate opinion in Scotland. The working through of the Northern Ireland protocol will put a new dynamic into relations on the island of Ireland as the economy of Northern Ireland responds to a different gravitational pull. At the same time, the alternatives are no less problematic than they have always been and fraught with risk.
In another of Brexit’s twists, we have the SNP arguing to maintain the benefits of the EU single market while arguing for an exit from the UK single market, in itself made more complex by the UK’s exit from the EU. We have the SNP arguing that Brexit is economically irrational while promoting independence for a Scotland whose fiscal deficit is several times higher than that for the UK as a whole. Meanwhile, Brexiteers deny the legitimacy of the SNP’s claim for independence. What’s sauce for the UK sovereignty goose, is evidently not sauce for the Scottish independence gander.
The May 2021 elections for the Scottish Parliament will be critical. Should the SNP and its allies win a majority on a specific referendum mandate, there will be immense pressure on the UK government to cede the holding of a legal independence referendum. If that were to happen, the result on current polling would be very difficult to predict.
This is all deeply unsettling. The status quo is fragile, the future uncertain. Opinion in England appears increasingly equivocal on the value of the UK Union. The different concepts of sovereignty held by many in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and increasing numbers in Wales, cannot be squeezed into the Brexit pot. Things may hold for now. But there is a chance that the story of this government that the history books tell, will not be about exit from one union but about exit from two.
Three and a half years of paralysis over the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has blind-sided us to the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. In the desperation to just get the thing over the line and to end the agony of bitter indecisiveness, we have not really had much of a debate about what might actually come after exit.
There is a world in which the process of exit begins to wash out of UK life the political frustration that led to Brexit, and the division that it has engendered. There is a world where the UK and the EU find reason in a negotiation, the economic impact of Brexit is contained, and the UK stumbles back to politics that seem somewhere close to normal.
While that in this mad world would feel like an outcome, I fear that it is one that is not within reach. The momentum that has propelled this upheaval in British affairs is not yet expended. The more likely scenario is that the travails on the road ahead will lead to yet more of the unexpected, and to outcomes that we can only half guess at from where we stand now.
Brexit done? We’ve barely started.