Saturday, 15 July 2017

Extended reflection on Brexit, Flexcit and the EU referendum

I shan't be returning to this blog until Monday 24th July, as I am off to Greece early tomorrow morning with friends for what I hope will be a relaxing and alcohol-sodden week. As I now tend to do when I leave Britain for Europe (this will be my fourth trip abroad since polling day last year), I think quite seriously about the practical implications of leaving the European Union and about why, given its enormity and complexity, I supported doing so in the first place.

I suppose most Brits who travel frequently or even infrequently to the continent now have the burden of departing from the EU etched quite deeply into their minds. Some will feel shame, others dread over the increasing possibility of economic ruin (which I knew privately was likely during the referendum campaign). I don't feel such things. I remain excited about what leaving means for the UK; for the revitalisation of our domestic democracy and for the repatriation of powers we spent years pleading European Community members not to remove. 

But it can't all happen at once. In fact, one of the many things I have realised during a year of post-referendum reflection is that leaving the European Union is a process, rather than an event. Too often, the latter has been presented as being the case by populists and, I admit with some difficulty, by campaigners and activists such as myself. Many of them still won't admit to ignoring the nuances and complexities involved, but that is how it started with me. My interest in leaving the European Union was initially sparked in the summer of 2015, when I became involved with the UK Independence Party and inspired by Nigel Farage. In my youth and naivety, I was drawn in by Farage's charismatic and plain-speaking demeanour. 

To me, he had (and still does have) a way of presenting solutions to problems that were comprehensible. He over-simplified the process of leaving the EU, and cleverly managed to associate the problem of mass immigration with the UK's membership of the single market. I still think this is the reason for his success, and the same is true of Donald Trump in the United States. Those who speak plainly and passionately, regardless of the merits of what they say, stand out amongst establishment politicians. They can and will say what others know they cannot afford to. 

The more I was taken in by Mr Farage, the more I became assured that leaving the European Union was a simple, no-brainer that didn't require any particular in-depth plan or transition. The whole issue had for months been painted to me as black and white. We're in, then we leave everything, then we get tariff-free access. The end result was that I became involved in a referendum campaign inadequately informed and surrounded by people we refer to as 'hard Brexiteers' with no plan for an exit other than 'we are a great country, we can do this'. It is no wonder that I have soured so strongly against soundbites and slogans in politics. They remind me not only of my former ignorance, but of ignorance I confused with expertise as I took it to public platforms like television and social media.

And this theme continued well into the referendum. By the time I was an employee at Vote Leave, I was still without any real knowledge of the EU's institutions and mechanisms, let alone trade and regulation (which are still every bit as mystifying to me). I remember around late April asking Matthew Elliott what the campaign's position on access to the single market was after leaving. He replied: 'we say that there is a free trade zone right across Europe, from Iceland to Istanbul, with no tariffs'. I suspected at the time that it wasn't nuanced or reflective of reality, but it sounded convincing so I was happy to go with it. The public, I thought, wouldn't be interested in reading about the different trading relationships that many of these countries had with the EU, so why not go with what sounded simplest? 

During this time, my social media following and readership began to soar quite noticeably. I developed an arrogance which, being so involved in an important campaign, I chose to view as authority on such a major issue. As I look back, I realise that the idea that I was ever an authoritative voice on Brexit was laughable. People would send me tweets asking about how we left certain things, like the Customs Union, which I still don't fully understand, and I would respond pretending I knew the real answers instead of bothering to engage with the most informative material on the issues. 

Of course, I know now where to find the best work on a strategy for leaving the European Union. The only workable plan for departure was produced by the 'Leave Alliance' (a distinguished web of independent bloggers, researchers, authors and campaigners like the Bruges Group) some time ago in the form of 'Flexcit'. While there have been many involved in contributing to the plan, monographs, books, papers and blog posts, I have been most helped by the work of Dr Richard and Pete North. About a year and a half ago, I was blocked by Richard after we got into an argument on Twitter over the credibility of the Norway option; incidentally an argument I wouldn't dare venture into now, now that I have been stripped of my useless vanity and fully appreciate the wealth of knowledge on his side. 

Pete North, whose blog deservedly reached one million views earlier this morning, has also been extremely useful in helping me to wade through the nonsense in our national Brexit conversation. I hope his work continues to be read by large audiences, because in terms of the power and originality of its content, nobody can touch it. Both Norths are the primary reason why I have now more or less been converted to the Flexcit cause, but have stayed relatively quiet about it. I can only assume that I'll be labelled a traitor for doing so by the hard Brexiteers I used to call my political allies. I still like these people, too, which is why I have been apprehensive about 'coming out'. 

I am yet to finish reading the Flexcit document in full, but I am making good progress. What astounds me is how little it resembles the discussions over policy in the office at Westminster. Or indeed by how little of it is accurately covered by figures in the media, who more than anybody have let down the public during a period of time that will prove immensely significant in our history. It stands as blatantly obvious that Britain needed a plan for daring to leave an organisation with which it had become so politically and economically entangled. A little patriotism and good faith was never going to get the job done alone. 

Since departure is a process and not an event, a coherent strategy was always required in order to provide sufficient safeguards against severe economic harm. I think that most Brexiteers have failed to acknowledge two things after last year's result. The first is that immigration was, after all, not the most important thing in British politics, and that protecting the economy was always the bigger picture. The phrase 'be careful what you wish for' comes to mind a little here. The second, now illustrated more clearly since the elections of Mark Rutte and Emmanuel Macron, is that the EU is not going anywhere any time soon, and we need to negotiate and behave in such a way that recognises this going forward. Too many of us were under the impression, based on rising euroscepticism across the continent, that Brexit would create a domino effect and that the European Union would begin to unravel. This is not going to happen and I think we ought to accept this. 

I wish I could take back some of my own stupidity during the referendum campaign. I wish I had taken it as seriously as I will at Heraklion Airport tomorrow, as I follow the signs for passengers from within the European Union for perhaps the last time. I was, at least, very young (19 when 2015's European Union Referendum Act passed the House of Commons) and we can all be afforded the safety of that excuse from time to time. Thankfully I am now smarter and less gullible, and hopefully I'm not the last Vote Leave guy to join the winning team. 


  1. Great article, it has lead me to consider moderating my hard brexit instincts somewhat.

  2. Problem is this: unless you can convince the people you convinced that all of this would be easy to understand the nuance, you won't convince the political leaders to do the same.

    Consequently, they'll have to stay on the hardest possible Brexit line, since whilst you may worry about being branded a traitor, they are worried about their ongoing employment.

  3. what a load of rubbish...... who is this anyway??

    1. Have a look at the websites he's referring to. They are good.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.