Wednesday, 9 December 2020

The problems with the 'if only ...' debate

There are several important developments in progress this week, and I’ll write about them in my next post (depending on how events pan out, that may come hours or even a day or two later than the normal early Friday morning posting that regular readers will be used to).

So as not to make that an inordinately long post, I want in the meantime to discuss aspects of the interesting and sometimes heated debates which have occurred this week about whether, had MPs and others acted differently, especially during the 2017-19 parliament, we would not now be facing the outcomes we are. In particular, could there have been a softer Brexit than is in prospect, especially had remainers and/or soft Brexiters made different choices?

Such debates have been emerging since at least last summer, when I wrote a post anticipating that there would be intensifying ‘blame games’ as we got towards the end of the transition period. Most of what is in that post still applies to the current debates, including the points about whether MPs should have backed May’s deal, which I won’t repeat here.

This week’s discussion – even when not explicitly referring to them (£) - was prompted largely by two articles, one by Professor Anand Menon and Jill Rutter of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank, the other by the Guardian journalist Owen Jones. Despite what I am about to write, I should say that both Menon and Rutter have, throughout the Brexit saga, done a huge amount of fantastic and valuable work (often referred to on this blog) and performed a huge public service in communicating the complexities of the process.

Even so, I think both pieces, and similar retrospective analyses, are deeply flawed not simply in the details of their execution but in their very conception, for three reasons: hindsight, circularity, and the counterfactual problem. A fourth problem is that, to the extent such analyses focus on the parliamentary votes of 2019, they tend to de-contextualise these votes from the wider process of which they were a part.

Hindsight and circularity

The first point is that in the 2017-2019 period almost all outcomes were potentially available (even if some were more likely than others) ranging from the hardest one of no Withdrawal Agreement (WA) at all, as some Ultras wanted, through to that of another referendum. Therefore, at the time, it made sense for each grouping to pursue its preferred outcome (albeit that, even at the time, there were debates and criticisms about the wisdom of them doing so). By definition, almost all of them would fail but it is only with hindsight that we know which of them that would be, and it’s only that which allows the judgment that, had they acted differently, they could have enabled an outcome closer to what they wanted.

As regards May's deal, in particular, she explicitly argued that the only alternatives were no deal or no Brexit. That very formulation, designed to scare both wings of opposition to it, inadvertently gave each an incentive to continue to oppose it. Each wing saw the possibility that their preference would prevail if they opposed May's deal, whilst both knew their preference would not prevail if they supported it.

The second, and related, problem is that what that hindsight reveals is only a circular truth, or truism: if only there had been a majority for a particular course of action then … a particular course of action would have commanded a majority. True but trivial, as mathematicians would say. The fact at the time, in that context, was that there was no such majority. MPs faced the choices available at that time not, for example, a run-off between May’s deal and Johnson’s deal.

Counterfactual history

Third, particularly as regards the way MPs voted, even if we envisage them having done so differently, there is no clear line from that to what the outcome would have been without inventing a counterfactual history. For example, had the indicative votes yielded a majority for ‘Common Market 2.0’, it doesn’t follow that that would have been the outcome since some government (May’s? Really? National Government? Really?) would have had to have delivered it, including all the multiple subsequent votes on legislation, within a hung parliament. Or, if they had voted for another referendum, it doesn’t follow that the outcome would have been remain, and if it hadn’t been there’s no way of knowing what the final form of Brexit under a second leave vote would have been.

Even if they had voted for May’s deal, recalling that she had promised to stand down if the third meaningful vote succeeded, it would still have been implemented by a different Prime Minister who, if presumed to be ‘harder’ than May, would have had scope to act very similarly to the way Johnson has. And that Prime Minister would still have been in charge of negotiating any future terms deal.

It’s true s/he’d have been constrained by Level Playing Field commitments being in May’s WA – but that might have pushed a hard Brexit PM towards no trade deal, making that outcome more likely even than it is – and also by the backstop. But given that even as it is many Ultras want to rip up the WA, it’s perfectly possible that the impetus to do that to a WA that included the backstop would have been even stronger and succeeded. After all, although he’s now backtracked, Johnson has proposed to renege on parts of it.

That’s not to say that any of these things would have happened, just that there is no way of knowing and, therefore, no basis to claim that different votes in 2017-2019 would have yielded a softer (or harder, or similar) outcome than whatever is about to happen.

So whilst it is quite true to say that what has, in fact, happened was not inevitable and could have been different, it’s a sterile exercise to say that things would have been different had people acted differently: that’s true by definition, but it doesn’t take us anywhere in terms of explaining why they didn’t or in terms of predicting what would have happened had they done so.


The fourth difficulty with this debate is that whilst there was no inevitability in what happened, the argument that the 2017-2019 parliament, and especially the numerous 2019 votes, could have created a consensus for a softer (or any) form of Brexit is to de-contextualise them. There’s obviously far more to be said about this than is possible here. But the key point is that those events and votes did not arise out of nowhere, and what had led up to them meant that even had some course of action commanded a majority of MPs’ votes that would not have constituted a ‘consensus’ in any wider political or civic sense.

For the reality is that there had never been any process through which such a consensus could have been sought, let alone reached. It certainly wouldn’t have appeared by magic had MPs voted for May’s deal or any of the indicative vote options. Such a consensus might have been reached – unlikely, I admit, but possible – if in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result Theresa May had constructed a consultative process not just across political parties but taking in businesses, unions, civil society bodies, the devolved assemblies, and perhaps using mechanisms such as citizens’ assemblies.

Of course, it would have been even more sensible to have done so before the referendum, but even afterwards it would have had value and would certainly have been legitimate. The Vote Leave campaign had insisted that it would be for the government to develop the concrete details of what Brexit would mean. That being so, it was for the government to decide on the process for doing so. Indeed, in the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ period there was a heated debate going on about what Brexit meant but it had no official status or formal parameters. Instead – reportedly without even any discussion in cabinet – May announced what Brexit would mean in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017 and the White Paper that immediately followed.

That doesn’t mean that the Lancaster House speech necessarily made hard Brexit inevitable – delivering on it was a different matter, especially after she’d failed to win the election – but that it removed the possibility of finding a middle ground. After it, it was never going to be possible (or, actually, reasonable) to expect hard Brexiters to subsequently accept that, no, after all, Brexit was going to mean soft Brexit. Similarly, it was only after all attempts by some remainers and soft Brexiters to soften Brexit that the Peoples’ Vote campaign was created, in April 2018. If there ever had been any possibility of a consensus or middle-ground it had disappeared by the time of the 2019 votes, not just because of the government’s decisions but the toxicity of the wider culture wars. And since the process never occurred, we'll never know what, if anything, that consensus would have consisted of (i.e. on this, too, we shouldn't fall into the trap of counterfactual analysis).

A different perspective

There is, however, another way of looking at all this: it’s instructive that the present debate should be about who is to blame for what is happening. We do not see any jostling for the crown of who should take the credit for it (though I suppose that Johnson will crow about his ‘world-beating’ deal, if he makes one, and probably even if he doesn’t). If Brexit were the great prize it was supposed to have been, we might expect a queue of such claimants. Instead, as the title of the Menon/Rutter article puts it, what is in prospect is “a Brexit that pleases almost no one”. And that, arguably, was inevitable by 2017 – and would certainly have applied had May’s deal been passed.

Remainers, by definition, were not going to be happy. But Brexiters, or at least the most committed of them, were never going to be either. For the reasons I’ve written about many times on this blog, any actual Brexit could never live up to their imagination of it, and for some delivering Brexit is their worst nightmare for it deprived them of their victimhood. That has been evident all along in Farage’s reactions (and his many followers) in which literally any attempt to implement Brexit has been immediately denounced as betrayal. The same applies to at least some of the ERG Tories. Adding these two groups together means that any Brexit would make the majority of people unhappy.

That is the ultimate tragedy of Brexit. However the events of the 2017-19 parliament are interpreted, and however they might have happened differently, by that time that, at least, was already baked in.

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