One of the abiding questions of Brexit is how the very close referendum result in June 2016 led to a very hard Brexit in 2020, a Brexit that remains far from settled to this day.
This is the main theme of Professor Chris Grey’s new book Brexit Unfolded. How No One Got What They Wanted (and why they were never going to). It covers the four and a half tumultuous years from the referendum result in June 2016, via two general elections, three prime ministers, seemingly endless parliamentary drama and negotiations with the EU, all ending with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement reached in December 2020.
The book draws on (but is not a compilation of) Grey’s weekly Brexit blog which has built up a large following. While clearly written by a ‘Remainer’, the blog has provided sober and level-headed assessments of Brexit. Grey has described his blog as “analytical not angry”. For me as an avid ‘Remainer’ and close watcher of Brexit, it has been a treat every Friday morning.
The book, like his blog, argues that nothing was inevitable. This is a refreshing contrast to the certainties of some commentators and many on social media. Variations of “‘No deal’ is inevitable, it has been the plan all along” appeared on Twitter with tedious regularity. As Grey says:
“What has happened was never pre-determined. No one writing in 2016 could conceivably have predicted even the broad outlines of what actually happened”.
For example, few expected the Irish Sea border deal that Boris Johnson came up with in October 2019.
The approach to Brexit was also uncertain. Grey notes that “it would have been perfectly legitimate … to have initiated a process of public consultation and discussion”. While not expecting very much, many (including myself) thought that, in summer 2016, the new PM Theresa May would make some attempt to find a consensus across the UK’s divisions.
But of course no such attempt was made. May was high-handed and opaque. It slowly emerged in Autumn 2016 and confirmed in January 2017 that she was pursuing a hard Brexit (leaving the Single Market, Customs Union and ending free movement). Grey reminds us that May’s deal in 2018 was “far from a compromise. It was very much tilted to the Brexiters”. He provides a corrective to the oft-heard retrospective that, in late 2018 and 2019, Remainers were too stubborn to accept her ‘compromise’ and ended up with a much worse Brexit.
The book describes the many Brexiter contradictions that have bedevilled the process. “You can’t turn lies into policy” was one of his ideas for a sub-title. Sooner or later truth finds you out.
A familiar contradiction is the ‘cake and eat it’ narrative. Many announcements by May or leading Brexiters amounted to ‘everything is to change but everything is to stay the same’. They wanted a Canada style deal (to be able to make trade deals and set regulations independently) with the ‘exact same benefits’ of single market membership. Grey explains the important differences between the single market, customs union and free trade agreements. He stresses that everything couldn’t change and stay the same and that this was not understood by leading Brexiters (or probably intentionally ignored).
Another contradiction is how earlier in May’s tenure leading Brexiters (Tory MPs, journalists and others) denounced attempts to give parliament a say, notably in early 2017 on Article 50 and later a ‘meaningful vote’ on a withdrawal agreement. Yet in 2018, when May’s hard Brexit was defined, the Tory Ultras turned against her and were very happy to use that meaningful vote to reject the agreement and ultimately to bring her down.
Woven throughout his interpretation is the psychology of the Brexit Ultras (some Tory MPs, leading players in UKIP and the Brexit Party, and journalists in pro-Brexit newspapers). It’s a psychology of betrayal and victimhood. “As soon as any actual form of Brexit was articulated or defined, some group of Brexiters would consider it to be a ‘betrayal of true Brexit’”. With betrayal came victimhood. This is how they see themselves and how they have been influential. But it meant they had little real idea what they wanted from their referendum win.
I find this explanation fascinating and compelling but somehow a little incomplete. There must have been more that enabled the Ultras to have had such political traction. In the final chapter he seems to edge towards a fuller explanation with the idea of the ‘politics of authenticity’ and the now familiar ‘culture war’. Perhaps the anger of the Ultras and many Leave voters has not really been about the EU. As Grey says, perhaps it has been more about “The Human Rights Brigade. The PC Brigade. The Race Relations Brigade. The ‘girly swots’. The bleeding heart liberals”.
I wonder also whether he should have given more prominence to the power of the right wing media. It’s an obvious point, but the support of the Ultras in the majority of the newspapers surely was a critical factor in the decisive 2019 general election win.
Also perhaps it wasn’t just the psychology of the Ultras that was decisive, but the defensiveness of many in the media, some remain voters, and some remain supporting MPs (particularly during the important parliamentary votes in late 2018 and 2019). There seemed to be a public understanding that unlike general elections referendums should be permanent. The result had to be sacred; any questioning was illegitimate. The losers could have no role in policy formulation. The government had to be free to pursue what it saw as fit.
This was reflected in anti-Brexit street campaigning I and many others in Bath for Europe did from 2016 to 2019. Hard Leavers would frequently shout “you’re undemocratic, we’ve already had a referendum” and occasionally some nasty language about treachery. This of course wasn’t surprising. But more of a concern was the response of many soft remain voters and waverers who could not be convinced of legitimacy of revisiting the decision and questioning the government’s approach. This was a key to why sufficient voters (though well short of 50%) in 2019 were swayed by Johnson’s “get Brexit done” message.
All of this is surely an affront to any deeper notion of democracy. No decision and no public vote should ever be permanent. And peaceful protest and opposition should always be legitimate.
The book provides an insightful and highly readable analysis of the dramatic events of the past five years. I’m not sure it has quite got to the core of why the Brexit Ultras have been so influential, nevertheless it is a fascinating read.