Monday, December 10, 2018

The failure of brexit

This post is long overdue, I thought I should at least write it down before the vote on Tuesday. And now this post has been overtaken by events during its gestation, and it looks like we won't even have that vote. No matter. This isn't really going to be about the failure of the brexit process, that would be too easy. OK, just a few words about that first. It failed because the 52% who voted to leave were all promised such ridiculous and contradictory things, ranging from the Bangladeshi Caterers Associating being conned into believing they might find it easier to recruit curry house chefs by none other than Priti Patel (see how well that turned out), to Scottish fishermen believing we'd get all "our" fish back (hint: a large proportion of them have to be sold into the EU anyway as they are not eaten in the UK), the lies about more money for the NHS, the forthcoming trade deal being the "easiest in human history", to the general fabulists promising three-quarters of the Single Market (but none of those pesky foreigners) and unlimited free trade with no Customs Union, and by the way let's pretend the Irish problem doesn't exist. It was obvious from the outset that there never was an actual real brexit that would be supported by a majority, either in the country or in parliament. Moreover, there was no way we were going to build the necessary infrastructure in the time available for things that would be required by a "real" brexit like customs checkpoints, let alone replicating all the other functions that the EU currently performs for us (EURATOM being one notable example), this would be a humungous planning exercise and expense that would probably take a decade to achieve even if the govt pulled its finger out and went full steam ahead on it.

Therefore, by the time I'd had my breakfast on the morning of the 24th June 2016 I had worked out that brexit probably wasn't going to happen, and I was feeling a bit stupid that I hadn't actually realised this before the vote. I think the first time I actually wrote this on the blog was June 2017 but I'd already bored Stoat in the pub on the topic rather earlier (must have been August 2016?), and a few others besides. I shouldn't big myself up too much: I have never been 100% certain that brexit was not going to happen, and indeed there are still some mechanisms by which it could happen, but I was always quite confident that it was unlikely. Once the fantasies unraveled, the reality was never going to be attractive, and as long as there's still a way out at that point, we will probably take it.

What I'm really interested in, for the purposes of this blog post, is how and why the rest of the country hasn't allowed itself to work this out: why have we failed to analyse and understand the brexit process adequately?

Since that fateful day in 2016, there has been a rapidly growing cottage industry of experts pontificating on "which brexit" and "consequences of brexit" and "types of brexit" and "routes to brexit". Journalists have breathlessly interviewed any number of talking heads who have come out with their vacuous slogans of "brexit means brexit" and "red, white and blue brexit" and "jobs-first brexit"'s all just hot air. It really does seem like they have all been so firmly embedded in their own little self-referential bubble of groupthink that none of them ever stopped to this really going to happen? There has been an utter failure of the journalistic principle of holding power to account, and also an utter failure of academic research to explore possibilities, to test the boundaries of our knowledge. Instead there has been little more than non-stop regurgitation of the drivel that "brexit means brexit" and that the govt is going to "deliver a successful brexit". I wonder if, to a journalist or political scientist, the new landscape of a post-brexit world is so enticing and exciting that they have wished themselves there already?

The BBC had an official policy of "don't talk about no brexit", right up to and beyond the million-person march in London at the end of October. Humphries enjoyed sneering about the "ludicrous Peoples' Vote" when forced to mention it, though of course he sneers about most things these days. Note that the last time so many people marched together London, it was in opposition to the Iraq war. There could be a lesson there, if anyone was prepared to think about it...

Theresa May of all people took everyone by surprise when she was the first person in any position of authority to utter the words "no brexit at all" earlier this year. At which point at least half the country issued a huge sigh of relief, even though it was only intended as a scare tactic to bring the brexiters into line. Amusingly, even many of them agreed that her threatened no brexit at all was actually better than the dog's dinner she was in the process of negotiating.

And how about the academics and think-tanks? Of course some of these are nakedly political and cannot be taken seriously, but some are suppose to be independent and authoritative. Such as "The UK in a Changing Europe". (Disclaimer: I was at university with Anand Menon, who was a clever and interesting person back then too, so I'm sure he won't mind a bit of gentle criticism.) 

Watch this short video, which was published to widespread acclaim just 6 weeks ago at the end of September. In it, Anand promises that he will tell you "everything you need to know" about brexit. He even emphasises the "everything". And then proceeds to talk about different types of brexit and how they might arise. What is telling here is that he didn't discuss the possibility of Article 50 being revoked and the UK staying in the EU - this outcome simply was not in the scope of possible outcomes for him as recently as September! An impressive failure of foresight. (Even those who don't yet think it is the front-runner must surely agree it is now reasonably plausible.) If academics are not able to think the unthinkable and explore the range of possible outcomes, then I have to wonder what they are actually for. It is the political equivalent of a world in which climate scientists had determinedly ignored the possibility that CO2 might be an influence on climate, and had instead devoted themselves to arguing fruitlessly over whether the observed warming was due to the sun, or aerosols instead.

So here's my real point, and the reason for my rant. Journalists and academics, by studiously avoiding speaking truth to power and colluding with this false brexit certainty, have done a great disservice to the British public. Their unwillingness to challenge politicians on both sides has permitted an entirely fake debate about a blue Tory unicorn brexit on one side, and a red Labour unicorn brexit on the other. As a result, the miserable deal that May has produced - pretty much the only one possible, if you insist that keeping out foreigners is the top priority - seems shockingly poor to everyone. We were promised sunlit uplands, and jokers like Johnson and Rees-Mogg are still promising sunlit uplands to all and sundry with no fear of an intelligent challenge from a journalist. (Note how affronted Peter Lilley was recently when the BBC actually did produce a "fact-checker" to opine on his interview.) Meanwhile Labour promises to do the same only better, just because.  The entire Govt policy over the last two years has been nothing more than "let's get through the week and see what turns up". And when the plan falls down and we end up staying, roughly half the country will be shocked and feel betrayed, because they were told their vote would be acted on, and have been told for the past two years that their votes were being acted on, and everyone pretended that things were going full steam ahead when in fact there never was a plan, or a plausible way forward.

Well, the public were told lots of things, many of them were lies, and this was enabled by the journalists and academics not doing their jobs. Whether it is collusion, group-think, cowardice or stupidity, it has greatly damaged the country, and we will all have to suffer the consequences. I like to think that lessons may be learnt, but in all probability they will all pat each other on the back and utter meaningless aphorisms: "prediction is difficult: especially about the future". Maybe so, but I predicted it, and I was not alone in doing so.

Better post this before it's overtaken by events again :-)


William Connolley said...

I hope you're right that it's all off. My brilliant thoughts, in exchange, are here.

jules said...

That university of yours has an awful lot to answer for.... Inventer of the career politician that cares only about personal power...

James Annan said...

Great minds :-)

i have in mind a galton board except with a funnel at the bottom. There are a lot of possible pathways and I can't predict the detail but the endpoint is the same. Once you convince yourself that there is no other realistic outcome that will actually command enough support it's not such a leap of faith. IMO.

Agree that a 2nd ref is a bad idea. I'm hoping it is just a stalking horse en route to a full revocation of A50. It may be a necessary risk though. Maybe just have one option on the ballot paper? That could work :-)

Steve Bloom said...

Brexit can mean brexit forever and ever! All that's required is a permanent extension of Article 50.

This whole business is starting to remind me of the 1850s US, when the Whigs ripped themselves apart over slavery. I doubt that after the dust has settled anyone will miss the Tories any more than the Whigs were missed, but hopefully there won't have been too much actual bloodshed.

john said...

Theresa May is the usual spelling.

David B Benson said...

Hope you make it quite clear to your MP.

James Annan said...

Sorry Thhhheresa.

My MP is the Govt Chief Whip, he's as responsive as a doorpost. He (along with most Tory MPs) voted to remain and realises what damage they are doing to the country, but party comes first for them.

Andy Mitchell said...

The Boris is now claiming to have an alternative, workable, Brexit plan and says he "will take personal responsibility" if the result were to be mass unemployment. I wonder what form that "personal responsibility" would take.

Unfortunately, he still has to lie down in front of the bulldozers when work starts on the Heathrow expansion: so he will be too busy to take his plan to Brussels.

crandles said...

>"roughly half the country will be shocked and feel betrayed"

or maybe only 24%

or maybe it is much less than that if there is a vote and they lose. Surely some of these 24% then come to think 'O well, it wasn't the will of the people after all'.

James Annan said...

Thanks, that's interesting. Still a chunk of people. But a chunk of people are going to be upset whatever happens, we might as well do the sensible thing and deal with a bunch of unhappy people rather than do something stupid and still have a bunch of unhappy people anyway.

Tadaaa said...

listening to Brexiteers over the last 2-3 years has been like listening to flat earthers - the level of reality denial is the same!!!!!!

From Raab's "the EU need to meet us halfway", to Jenkin's "we have the EU on the ropes"

and a complete failure of the media - they should have simply cut them off with "stop talking fvcking nonsense"

Mike S said...

Brexit might be a stuoid idea, and the best thing would be to cancel it, but......
The government and everyone else IS right to pursue it, and to talk about the possible outcomes. After all, like it or not, the UK is a democracy, and the people did vote for it.

reasonablemadness said...

I'm not from the UK, but I was always somewhere between being baffled and shocked about how a modern, democratic country with a free press and a free exchange of ideas, can rush into such a situation in such a bad way.

IMO the best way out of this would be:
Make a new referendum with three options:
- Stay in the EU
- Hard brexit with no deal
- Accept May's deal that she negotiated

Everyone has two votes: A primary vote and a secondary vote.
For those people, that voted with their primary vote for the option with the fewest votes, their secondary votes are counted instead. So in the end, there will be one option with an absolute majority.

Or you could do it with just one vote and a runoff-ballot, if no option gets the absolute majority in the first ballot (if the thing with primary and secondary vote is to complex for the people).

Either way:
This would be IMO the best thing, as everyone gets to vote on the deal, so nobody could say, that it wasn't a democratic decision. And it is not just a repition of the first campaign, because you now have three options: A deal (from which you know what it is), no deal or remain.

James Annan said...

Yes some sort of transferrable vote could cope with multiple choices, but there is a debate to be had on what options should be available. IMO there should be single choice. We already saw what happens when you ask a stupid question.

wotts upwiththatblog said...

Journalists and academics, by studiously avoiding speaking truth to power and colluding with this false brexit certainty, have done a great disservice to the British public.

We had a serious of meetings in which one of the vice principals came around and told us of the university's plans to deal with Brexit. I put my hand up and asked why the university was presenting a narrative that it was going to happen. Wouldn't it be better to maybe develop a different narrative (I was trying to suggest, not very clearly, that how universities presented this might have an impact on the public debate and that we had an obligation to contribute to this). Most of the people in the room laughed, and the speaker (who was a political scientists) rather condescendingly told me that it was definitely going to happen.

James Annan said...

I suggest you re-ask about now, and remind him of his previous response :-)

Alastair said...


like you, I am disappointed in the BBC but it began before the referendum. They took a neutral stance and guess what. The result was 50/50 give a few per cent. They still seem to be trying to be even-handed, and ignoring the truth. If they continue that policy then even if there is a second referendum there is no guarantee the remainers will win it. Don't forget the grass is always greener ...

Here is an open letter to Vince Cable which explains where I think some of the lies are being told today:

"Dear Vince,

Thank you for your email thanking me for signing up to an Exit to Brexit. But campaigning for a second referendum is not enough. We also have to win it.

To do that we need to start campaigning straight away by pointing out why a United Europe is a good idea. Can I ask you to include pro-European arguments when you question the PM in Parliament?

For instance:

1) Does the PM agree that swapping our main trading partner from Europe to the United States of America will lead to us having our environmental laws set by Donald Trump, rather than a consensus of European nations?

2) Can't the PM see that we cannot have an open, what she calls a frictionless, border with the EU, and also be free to sign trade deals with other nations? If that were the case, then these other nations would be able to bypass the EU regulations by shipping into the continent through the UK. That is why the EU needs the Irish backstop to prevent that happening over the Irish border.

3) The UK has the sixth largest economy in the world. Is'nt it right that we should pay our fair share into the European budget?

4) Is it not true that the troubles with the National Health Service are partly caused by a shortage of nurses due to many returning home as a result of Brexit?

I feel that we are not being told the truth. Unless we start exposing the lies being put out by the Brexiteers and the Government, then we will lose a second referendum.

David B Benson said...

This has less coherence than "Waiting for Godot".

crandles said...

You can currently get 5/2 on Brexit not happening before 2022. Only just over 3 years to wait for multiplying your money by 3.5. Have you had a flutter and did you get better odds than that? It has been up to over 7/1. (Not sure if this link will work: )

I haven't taken up any significant position. How do you distinguish between wishful thinking, hoping it won't happen and a genuine assessment of an unbiased probability?

James Annan said...

We can also get 5/1 on Article 50 being revoked but I thought I was sufficiently emotionally invested in it that adding a bet on top (especially at such modest odds) seems relatively pointless. If it happens, losing 100 quid would add insult to injury and if it doesn't then another 500 quid would hardly raise my happiness levels.

I agree it's hard to be fully rational but putting a Bayesian spin on it, if brexit was not going to happen, the likelihood of seeing the current sequence of events seems fairly high to me. There's no question that the odds must be increasing whatever your prior was.

David B Benson said...

Looks to me that entropy is winning.