Talking better about Brexit

Simon Usherwood |

Last week, Anton Spisak at the Tony Blair Institute produced an excellent paper on how the UK-EU relationship might be fixed. I heartily recommend it to you as an overview of where we are and what might be the way forward.

Of course, being a practical-minded sort, I did have some queries, as set out in this thread:

Central to my response was a question mark about how to get going the serious debate on what relations should look like. Politicians appear to either not know about the necessary details and trade-offs or not want to spend valuable political capital on a topic that is – frankly – a turn-off for most voters.

It’s no coincidence that ‘get Brexit done’ has been the most successful gambit since 2016: it’s an expression of frustration/disgust at [waves hand expansively] all this. It’s also not really a policy with any substance behind it.

This week has only underlined the point further. Labour’s big constitutional policy paper didn’t mention how relations with the EU (which include the Northern Ireland Protocol’s extensive entanglement and differentiation) might affect matters, while Kier Starmer himself tried to park whether he would rejoin the Single Market, to little avail.

This really just demonstrates the point that Westminster currently looks like a place where there might be serious discussion of what the 2016 referendum result means in terms of the kind of society the UK should try to be or of its place in the world.

Instead, it looks as if the next government will be just as prone as the current one to treat EU matters in a reactive fashion, fighting fires as they appear.

So what to do?

In other European states, such profound debates have typically ensued in the wake of major national trauma or change: the end of the second World War, the collapse of Communist regimes, etc.

That’s not really a sensible option for the UK: even if you wanted to raise the referendum itself to that level, the fact that it was precisely on this issue makes it very hard to use it in that way. Plus, if we haven’t used that moment during the past 6.5 years, why would we rake it over again now?

An alternative would be to wait until barely anyone cared/noticed, and then change policy either to address obvious problems or to match someone’s interests. That might be a technocratic agenda or it might be a deeply political one, but in the absence of quite so much heat in public debate the temptation to sit things out now is clear.

The problem here is that the issue is unlikely to ever dip off the political radar: witness the concern of leavers about precisely this kind of approach being taken by their opponents. Even Starmer’s rebuffing of the Single Market ‘right now’ was taken by some as a clear signal of an agenda trundling down the line.

In addition, even tinkering to fix the problem would probably not resolve matters, given both the extent of ties and their dynamic nature. Even small steps might have big effects, which could reignite politicisation and undermine confidence in the policy.

Which leaves the option of recasting and recontextualising Brexit into something bigger.

As much as Brexit was about being in or out of the EU, it was also evidently a moment for articulating a lot of other discontents and disillusionments within the British polity.

The long-term drift towards more managerial modes of government have also meant that big-picture strategies for the country have been in short supply, especially ones that establish a strong and compelling narrative about what the country embodies and how it can head there.

Put like this, relations of any kind with the EU – or any other part of the world – become functions of self-image and of actualisation: foreign policy becomes an articulation of values and interests where how we do things is informed clearly by what we are trying to achieve.

Precisely because such a strategy/narrative is all-encompassing, it side-steps the problem of voters (and politicians) not wanting to get into the Brexit thing again.

Likewise, it helps with any fire-fighting because it identifies strategic objectives that can guide responses and inform actions. Yes, things will still come up, but now within a framework that goes beyond ‘make it go away’.

The problem is obvious: who’s going to produce such a strategy?

Logically political parties are central to this, but partisan approaches also tend to be less durable, for all the reasons you might imagine.

Organic, bottom-up deliberation and pressure would be much more lasting and consensual, but incredibly hard to make happen in any organised way (by its nature).

But these barriers should not stop us from trying.

If we have learnt anything from recent politics, then it is that apathy and lethargy in political debates leaves the ground to whoever wants to fill the space. And often those that do are not the most representative of social or political interests, coming as they do from the more extreme parts of the spectrum.

In a week where even a country like Germany – which has hardly experienced the tumult of politics found in other states – can be the subject of a serious coup plot, we have to remember that democracy is founded on participation and engagement.

For citizens, that means being active in political choices and being thoughtful about who represents you. For media, that means facilitating robust public debate. For academics, that means providing evidence-led and impartial contributions from our work.

If the path forward on Brexit isn’t yet clear, then that should not stop all of us working to find ways to address the matter together. Otherwise someone else might do it for us.