This blog is part one of the transcript from a University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Public Lecture, given by Philip Rycroft on 21 January 2020. Watch the lecture online or listen to the podcast.
Philip Rycroft is former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight and thank you for the welcome.
I’m here to talk to you about Brexit and the future governance of the UK, or at least that’s what the lecture has been billed as. I’m gratified that so many of you have turned up, for of course the UK leaves the European Union in a mere ten days’ time and that surely will be that, Brexit done? More ink spilt, more words said on this most examined and dissected and discussed of issues? Surely time to move on?
In a way, I wish it were. Through over three and a half long years, and a painful referendum campaign before that, we’ve all had plenty of time to have our fill of Brexit and all its works. At some point, this whole thing will begin to fade from view, to become the domain of the historians, who will, perhaps, analyse Brexit with some dispassion and explain more clearly what we only half see now, about how we came to this pass and what it tells us about ourselves and our future.
But I fear that moment is not yet. For sure the UK will leave the EU on 31 January. Big Ben won’t toll, but there will be celebration for some, mourning for others and, for a few perhaps, a weary indifference. The legal order will have changed; to that extent, Brexit will indeed be done.
Much will conspire to dull the moment. The UK will enter the peculiar limbo of the transition period, out of the institutions, but still abiding by EU rules, old and new. The government itself will be keen to move on, to take Brexit off the front pages and convince us all that it will be about other things. Only symbolically will this be a big moment. For the most part, life will continue on 1 February as if not much has happened.
But what this moment portends is huge. The decision to leave the EU will have consequences that will ramify through our national life for years to come. Exit and what comes in its train will shape the British state and our conception of ourselves as a nation, or nations, in ways perhaps that we can barely yet comprehend. Brexit in its own way if not quite a revolution, is a seismic upheaval in the affairs of the United Kingdom. Like all such upheavals, it has generated its own momentum and dynamic; who back in June 2016 predicted anything like the political trajectory it put us on over the past three years?
It is my contention in this lecture that, while the fact of legal Brexit may finally be made real, we are barely at the starting gate of dealing with the consequences of Brexit. I want to peer into the mists ahead, to see if we can discern any outline of things to come, of the choices and challenges that Brexit will bring in its wake and what this will mean for the governance of the United Kingdom. I do not aim to predict the future or to prescribe the future; I do want to elucidate some of the drivers that will shape that future as a way to help us think about it more clearly.
I will do so through three lenses.
I want to look at the immediate issues that face the UK as we disentangle ourselves from the EU. This is the most discernable territory, the likely shape of our future relationship with the EU; the prospects for wider trade deals; and the consequent economic and regulatory impacts on the UK, all told our Brexit legacy. There is now a rough route map into this space; the government has already made some decisive choices about the road to follow. But there has been less analysis of what those choices will mean and I suspect that even the government has yet to work out just how deeply Brexit will cut into the economic and regulatory life of the country.
I want to look too at the political consequences of Brexit. We have just witnessed a general election that has truly shaken up the political order to the UK, to a large extent on the back of a deep malaise engendered by the Brexit process, or rather the failure to deliver on that process. Brexit itself at heart was driven by a desire to reclaim sovereignty for the United Kingdom. Now that general election has ensured that legal Brexit will be done, is that it? Does that reclaimed sovereignty settle the question and we go back into something like politics as broadly recognisable as normal? Or is the energy of this upheaval not yet spent? If so, where will it vent next?
I want to look at the emerging challenge to the UK itself. There are competing versions of sovereignty in the United Kingdom. Brexit has put more heat under that pot. As the consequences of Brexit unfold, can the UK itself hold together?