The government’s chaotic, shambolic approach to Brexit has made it a laughing stock, at home and in the EU. The UK seems to be staggering either towards “no deal” on the future relationship, or “Brexit in name only” – a deal that clings to the status quo, maintains close regulatory alignment to the EU, and misses the transformational opportunities that Brexit offers.
The (wrong) explanation offered for our present mess by Remoaners is that implementing Brexit is virtually impossible. The Remainer press echoes the EU’s rigid apparatchiks in suggesting that the government has simply “caught up with hard reality”, making anything but a fudged Brexit impossible.[i] On social media, Remainers declare that Brexit was always a “fantasy”, akin to defying the laws of physics.
This argument shows just how deeply in thrall Remainers are to the neoliberal myth that “there is no alternative”. Of the 195 countries on Earth, 167 somehow manage to survive outside of the EU. Leaving it when we have been embedded in its elitist, transnational networks for so long is undoubtedly challenging. But in January 2017, Gerard Lyons and Liam Halligan spelled out very clearly how it could be done.[ii] They recommended a “clean Brexit”: exit the single market and customs union; seek a basic UK-EU free trade agreement, plus agreements on sectors likely to be particularly destabilised by Brexit, e.g. the automotive industry and aviation; and, above all, prepare for a “no deal” reversion to World Trade Organization rules, abandoning negotiations with Brussels to focus on “no deal” preparations after a defined period. Seeking a more complex, “bespoke” deal, they warned, would lead to a “messy Brexit”, with the EU rejecting any splitting of the single market as unacceptable “cherry picking”, escalating interstate tensions, uncertainty for business, and the risk of crashing out.
It is now obvious that Lyons and Halligan were correct. The government persists with “cherry picking”, playing a dangerous game of chicken with the EU, and with six months to go, a deal is still not in sight, yet few preparations for “no deal” have been made. The Full Brexit’s Chris Bickerton and Richard Tuck also anticipated this scenario.[iii] We can only imagine how different the situation would be now, had the government had followed their advice.
The problem of member-statehood
The reason why the government has not taken this sensible approach, however, is that the political establishment as a whole is deeply opposed to Brexit, which is itself a result of Britain’s integration into European structures.
As Chris Bickerton has argued, the European Union is not a supranational bureaucracy that bosses member-states around.[iv]  Accordingly, sovereignty cannot be restored simply by quitting the club. The EU is a complex web of inter-elite decision-making networks, governed by consensus-seeking negotiations between national leaders and officials behind closed doors, with outcomes are presented to national citizenries as faits accomplis.
These structures have emerged through a long process of European integration, in which national elites have withdrawn from their electorates and entered into intimate, interdependent relations with one another. Their platforms no longer represent the interests of domestic voters; they increasingly draw ideas, policies and legitimacy from their relationships with the ruling elites of other European countries. Nation-states have been transformed into member-states. This reflects and entrenches a deep “void” between voters and politicians across Europe.[v] In Britain, it has nurtured a political class, a civil service bureaucracy and business and academic elites, which simply cannot imagine a future outside the EU.
Tory Eurosceptics have clearly failed to overcome the debilitating political effects of member-statehood. During the referendum, they never defined a clear vision for Brexit and Britain’s future. Afterwards, they collapsed into mutual back-stabbing.[vi] At the recent Chequers meeting, where Theresa May sought to corral her cabinet around a botched Brexit plan,[vii] Brexiteers reportedly considered presenting an alternative, but “pulled back … because of a lack of time”.[viii] A lack of time? What have they been doing for the past two years?
If the “Brexiteers” cannot lead, that is even more true of the rest of the predominantly Remainer political class. Over 75 percent of MPs voted Remain, versus just 48 percent of the public.[ix] This starkly revealed the unrepresentativeness of our elected rulers. Initially, rather than accepting the result and working with Leavers to develop a sensible Brexit plan, Remainers fell into hysterics and wasted much of 2016-17 on legal challenges. By the time Article 50 was triggered, little serious political debate to define Brexit had occurred. Although 85 percent of votes in the 2017 general election went to parties pledging to leave the single market and customs union, with May’s weakened position Labour Remoaners smelt blood, pushing Corbyn towards a “soft Brexit”. He cracked, beginning to talk about “a customs union” and “access to the single market”, backpedalling from his manifesto pledges.
Indeed, while the Tories are in disarray, unable to agree even the bare outlines of an opening gambit, Labour are in even worse shape, a fact disguised only by the media’s understandable fixation on the shambolic government. This reflects even greater gulf between the parliamentary party and its voters over Brexit. Of those Labour MPs in parliament in 2016, just 5 percent voted Leave, versus 70 percent of their constituencies.[x]
The crucial point, then, is that the EU referendum was a democratic moment, but did not generate a democratic movement. The public rejected the political establishment’s bullying instruction to vote Remain, but they now rely on the same, pro-Remain establishment to execute their decision. This involves wrenching dislocation: MPs must tear themselves away from the Westminster cocoon and its umbilical linkages to other European capitals, and start representing what British electors want, after decades of disengagement. Politicians and officials must develop their own ideas, policies and plans, after years of taking cues from Brussels. Doing this is what is extraordinarily difficult or impossible for many politicians. By comparison, the practical process of leaving the EU, as outlined by Lyons and Halligan, is quite straightforward.
Beyond some longstanding Labour Leavers and a few more “defectors”, who recognise that their own political survival is at stake, Labour politicians in particular simply cannot reconcile themselves to the wishes of their sovereign electors. They refuse to be disciplined by their constituents into representing their wishes. Clinging to their personal beliefs, they constantly seek to “soften” Brexit, thereby missing the opportunity to develop a meaningful, transformational plan that would revitalise and democratise Britain’s politics and economy.
The Tories are scarcely better. Having chanted “Brexit means Brexit”, Theresa May is now also seeking a deal that retains as much of the status quo as possible. Like Corbyn’s talk of “a customs union” rather than “the customs union”, May’s Chequers proposal attempts to retain EU disciplines even outside of its formal structures: a botched Brexit. Despite being widely despised, it actually gives Tory Leavers and Remainers much of want they want, primarily the ability to cut trade deals and to constrain future left governments by entrenching EU competition and state aid rules.[xi] But this only shows the deep conservatism of both parties: their priority is “damage limitation”; they simply cannot see Brexit as an opportunity for transformational change. Nor does it represent the electorate, who did not vote Leave for the cause of free trade. Nor will trade deals solve our many, deep-seated economic problems.
The problem, then, is that years of estrangement from the electorate, in which identikit parties lost all ideological coherence and distinctiveness, and were drawn into cosy, consensual, secretive policymaking networks in Europe, are very difficult to reverse. No political leader appears to have the vision and courage to articulate a radical vision for Brexit. It appears that we can only extricate ourselves from this situation through a long, wrenching process. But with the Article 50 clock ticking, the scene is instead set for a botched Brexit.
The consequences of botching Brexit
A botched Brexit will draw renewed attention to the void between voters and the political class, which has been exposed but not closed by the referendum. The general consequence of this void is the rise of populist movements, which attract voters by pointing to this disconnect, and promising that they will smash the entrenched, corrupted “elite” and ensure that “the people” are heard once more. Populist mobilisation can be used for either “left-wing” or “right-wing” purposes, or even both simultaneously, though right-wing populism is most common in contemporary Europe. Indeed, it is rampant across the continent, thanks to the void entrenched by European integration. Right-wing populists have captured state power in Austria (the Freedom Party), Hungary (Orban’s Fidesz party) and Italy (the Lega and the Five Star Movement), while polling at second place in countries like Denmark (the Danish People’s Party), France (the National Front) and Germany (Alternative for Germany). This is not a random coincidence. It is a structural feature of the European Union.
Thanks to the Brexit referendum, Britain is temporarily inoculated from this terrible disease. In the preceding decades, voters who had been effectively disenfranchised by the convergence of the mainstream parties flirted first with the British National Party and then the UK Independence Party, in a desperate attempt to compel the establishment to listen to them. The EU referendum allowed these citizens – and many who felt so marginalised that they had never voted before – to express their disgust. Having apparently disciplined political leaders by rejecting the EU, they promptly abandoned UKIP, just as they had previously dropped the BNP. Contrary to idiotic but widespread Remainer predictions of some sort of post-referendum “Faragist” or even “fascist” takeover in “Weimar Britain”, UKIP’s vote collapsed in the 2017 general election.[xii] Since the referendum, UKIP has also been through four leaders, lost its only MP and many councillors, and has been abandoned by its major donors.
The referendum therefore offered the British political elite a golden opportunity to restore representative democracy, neutralising the populist threat for good. This distinguishes Brexit from the rise of Donald Trump, despite the fact that they are often bracketed together by sneering Remainers. Trump’s election propelled a populist into the country’s highest office, who then set about destroying the “administrative state”. The EU referendum, by contrast, signalled to politicians that they must represent the voters again, and gave them the opportunity to do so, thereby closing the void. Unlike the Continent, where traditional parties have been all but wiped out in countries like Italy and France, displaced by populist upstarts of the right and the “extreme centre”, in the 2017 general election the two main parties gained their strongest support in decades, reversing a longstanding trend of political fragmentation. The UK’s populist party was decimated, while Labour became Europe’s most successful social democratic party. With Corbyn’s “old Labour” platform, real political contestation seemed to be back, at long last. Remainers’ predictions could not have been more wrong, though few acknowledge it.
This opportunity for democratic renewal now risks being missed entirely, with grave consequences. Any attempt to overtly overturn the referendum result, through a second referendum or similar, will result in the rapid resurgence of British populism. Either UKIP will be revived, or something similar will emerge. Its leaders will have concrete proof that, regardless of how you vote, the political establishment will not listen to you. The only alternative is to support a force willing to smash the lot of them. We do not have to imagine what this would look like: we need only look to the Continent.
Crucially, if this happens, this will primarily be the fault of Remainers, not Brexit. Currently, some Remainers are smart enough to foresee a populist backlash if Brexit is thwarted. Paul Mason, for example, has warned in apocalyptic terms of a revived, “alt-right” UKIP, comparing them to Oswald’s fascists.[xiii] However, few Remainers recognise their own complicity in this scenario. Mason simultaneously urges Labour to violate its 2017 manifesto pledges by seeking to remain in the single market and pursue the “Norway option”.[xiv] That is, he is actively campaigning for the betrayal that, on his own account, would generate a populist revival. And he is far from alone. If and when there is a right-wing populist resurgence, these very same individuals will declare: “See, we told you so – Brexit is about racist populism!” In reality, Brexit was a golden opportunity to lance this boil by closing the political void. It is the intransigence and myopia of the British left that is squandering this opportunity.
However, Remainer hysterics aside, the political establishment seems more likely to botch Brexit than to negate it entirely, which may temper any populist backlash. By formally leaving EU structures to avoid accusations of “betrayal”, while retaining much of their practical substance, the government may persuade some voters that Brexit has been implemented.[xv] The sheer lack of clarity will certainly make it harder for populists, which may well disappoint Mason and his “anti-fascist” fellow travellers, who appear desperate to re-run the 1930s.
Perhaps a more likely consequence of a botched Brexit, is that a limited resurgence of the right will be accompanied by deepening cynicism, apathy and political disengagement. Many Leave voters supported Brexit because they are desperate for political and economic transformation. A botched Brexit will instead seek to shore up a status quo that millions of citizens find alienating and impoverishing. Although this widespread sense of not being represented in political life provides fertile ground for populists, a return to introversion, passivity and simmering resentment may well be the majority response. After all, unlike the Continent’s proportional representation systems, Britain’s electoral system remains a formidable barrier for challenger parties, artificially propping up established ones.
Either way, it seems, the void between rulers and most of the ruled will persist. The mainstream parties will remain narrowly based, failing to represent vast swathes of society. They will continue to rely on unrepresentative institutions to retain power and, insofar as there are populist eruptions, will increasingly deploy authoritarian measures to contain and repress “extremism” – egged on, no doubt, by certain Remainers. Most importantly, what passes for the political left, having invested so much in frustrating the referendum result, will be further isolated from large sections of the working class. It will be entirely identified with the ruling class’s institutions and their elitist ideology. The political impasse in which British and Western society generally finds itself will have been rendered that much harder to break.
[i] “The politics of Brexit have caught up with hard reality”, Financial Times, 10 July 2018.
[ii] Gerard Lyons and Liam Halligan, “Clean Brexit”, Policy Exchange, 16 January 2017; see also their Clean Brexit: Why Leaving the EU Still Makes Sense – Building a Post-Brexit Economy for All (London: Biteback Books, 2017).
[iii] See Christopher Bickerton and Richard Tuck, A Brexit Proposal (2017), in The Full Brexit [TFB] Archive section. The relevant portion has been developed into TFB Proposal #3 – Forget “Bespoke Deals”, We Need a Full Brexit.
[iv] Christopher Bickerton, European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). See also James Heartfield, The European Union and the End of Politics (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012).
[v] Peter Mair, Ruling The Void: The Hollowing Of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013).
[viii] “The reason May’s third way won approval? Cabinet Brexiteers have no alternative plan”, Spectator Coffee House blog, 7 July 2018.
[x] For the Tories, the gap was 21 to 75 percent. See note 8 and “Most Labour MPs represent a constituency that voted Leave”, Medium, 30 June 2016.
[xii] For some examples of Remainer-hysterical genre, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here… Several of these were written by allegedly serious academics.
[xiii] “Ukip’s turn to the alt-right is a warning sign – we need to fight back”, New Statesman, 27 June 2018.
[xiv] “An election, a Norway-style deal, and a second referendum: how Labour could unite the country”, New Statesman, 9 July 2018.
[xv] It is not yet clear whether May’s Chequers deal will suffice, however: the public’s initial response is division, with 38 percent seeing it as a “sell out” (including two thirds of Tory voters) and 35 percent supporting it. See Daral Williams, “Public Divided on Theresa May’s Future as Labour Regains Narrow Lead”, Survation, July 2018.