But it’s true that, as a result, Brexiters have increasingly found themselves having to defend their project rather than get away with airy promises, or bullish assertions of it being ‘the will of the people’. These attempts have become ever-more desperate and convoluted, and their very variety is, in itself, one of their most important defensive weapons. In the hands of the more adroit, or perhaps just the more opportunistic, Brexiters it enables them to continually shift from one line of argument to another, deliberately creating a swirl of disorientation.
A recent example is the discussion on GB News between Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nick Tyrone, which Tyrone described on his Week in Brexitland Substack. Tyrone did as good job as anyone could of responding to Rees-Mogg’s salvoes, the more so given the huge advantages his interlocutor had by virtue of being the host. But it is impossible to ‘win’ such encounters because they are intended to confuse rather than to clarify, and setting innumerable false hares running is one of the easiest ways of doing so. This doesn’t just apply to broadcast interviews. In any number of published comment pieces, Brexiters layer falsehoods upon half-truths upon questionable assumptions, in ways which can only be unpicked through line-by-line ‘fisking’, which is incredibly time-consuming, and not especially effective.
Nevertheless, it’s worth disaggregating and examining some of the commonest arguments currently used to defend Brexit, and especially those about sovereignty and democracy, which are the Brexiters’ last redoubts. Even so, despite being the longest ever post on this blog, it’s impossible to provide an exhaustive analysis.
Stonewalling and denial
These are the now boilerplate defences of Brexit, so commonly made as to not need specific links. They include the claim that ‘it hasn’t been done properly’, which comes in variants ranging from ascribing this to governmental incompetence, to blaming it on EU punishment, right through to positing betrayal by various actors up to and including ‘the deep State’.
All of these were virtually baked into Brexit, partly because it made utopian promises that could never come true, and partly because it thrives on narratives of betrayal, treachery and victimhood. So, like apologists for communism, Brexiters say it has either ‘never really been tried’ or that it has fallen victim to counter-revolutionaries and to renegades from the true path of purity.
Slightly more optimistic versions of the same thing are that ‘it hasn’t been done properly yet’, or that it ‘hasn’t had enough time’ for the benefits to be obvious. These claims are, by definition, impossible to refute, placing the utopia of Brexit in sight but always out of reach, like a mirage oasis. But one obvious rejoinder is that it wasn’t suggested before the referendum that the benefits would be long in coming, let alone the 20, 50 or even 100 years that some Brexiters have since spoken of.
Still, perhaps it is reasonable to apply the ‘David Frost test’ for what would constitute failure for Brexit. He suggested one piece of evidence of failure would be “if we are still debating this in five or six years’ time in the same way”. That was in June 2022, so the jury is still out, but there is no sign at all so far that Brexit is not going to be a failure in these terms.
One thing which all the defences of Brexit in this category share, albeit to varying extents, is that they render nonsensical attempts to make claims about the benefits of Brexit. That’s most obvious if Brexit has been comprehensively betrayed and is ‘Brexit in name only’ for, if so, how could there be any benefits? Even the much weaker defence that Brexit will take time to deliver benefits has an obvious circularity, whereby any sign of success shows it was right, whilst any absence of signs of success doesn’t show it was wrong. Heads I win, tails you lose.
Bathos and deflection
This category includes what is emerging as a favourite Brexit defence, that which does not necessarily deny that Brexit has been damaging, but constantly invokes the most extreme forecasts of how damaging it would be (or, often, garbled versions of those forecasts) so as to defend it on the bathetic grounds that it ‘hasn’t been as bad as the warnings’. It’s a line which can be traced back at least as far as David Davis’s 2018 assurance that Britain would not be “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction” and its obvious flaw is that Brexit was meant to be something positive and desirable, rather than ‘not being cataclysmic’ or, even, ‘not being too bad’.
A related defence is to admit the evidence of (especially economic) damage that has occurred since Brexit, but to deflect blame for this away from Brexit to, typically, the pandemic, the Ukraine War or, more recently, conflict in the Middle East. This can readily be run alongside the ‘more time is needed’ line of argument, and has a similar circularity in enabling any supposed successes to be celebrated but any damage or lack of success discounted.
However, it differs from that line in that, whereas the promise of future success can never, strictly speaking, be disproved, the argument of damage being down to other factors can be, by reference to the specific effects of Brexit which have not been experienced by other countries. Thus, for all that Brexiters dismiss them, counterfactual economic models do, at least approximately, strip out Brexit effects from those of other factors.
Such counterfactuals seek to answer the real question, which is how does Brexit Britain compare with Britain had Brexit not happened. That question is evaded by another defence, that of the ‘whataboutery’ which makes comparisons with other countries, especially other EU countries, or with the EU as a whole.
The narrow version of this is to compare, especially, GDP growth so as to show (especially if the ‘right’ time periods are cherry-picked), that the UK is doing no worse than some such comparators. Again, this doesn’t meet the objection that Brexit was promised to be a positive. Moreover, when these comparisons show, as they sometimes can, the UK outperforming its comparators it doesn’t address the real question. At particular times, even when an EU member, the UK performed better than other members. So if there are times, now, that it does so this tells us nothing about Brexit, at least in the absence of a plausible explanation of how Brexit is responsible for it.
The Brexiters do not have such an explanation, since the things they claim for what would be explanations – regulatory divergence and major new trade deals – have, as they constantly complain, scarcely happened. On the other hand, anti-Brexiters can plausibly explain why the UK performs less well than the counterfactual of Brexit not having happened, primarily in terms of the increased barriers to trade with the EU and the loss of freedom of movement of people.
The broader version of whataboutery is to point to events in the EU – not just in terms of economic performance, but actual or alleged crises over things like irregular migration, or Hungary, or, currently, the farmers’ protests – to say ‘look what a mess they are in’. This in turn links to the endless predictions, both before and since Brexit, that the EU is about to collapse entirely.
This kind of whataboutery is nonsense at multiple levels, as well as being incompatible with the idea that the EU is a powerful bully that is able to ‘punish’ us. Firstly, it’s nonsense because few of those who oppose Brexit have ever believed that the EU is some kind of nirvana. Secondly, even if the EU were in crisis, or collapsed, that doesn’t make Britain any better off. Indeed, given geographical proximity, and economic and political connections, any instability and suffering the EU endures are likely to have a profound negative impact on Britain, whilst Britain no longer has any influence upon what happens within and to the EU.
Lies, half-truths and exaggerations
This category could be expanded to fill a whole post, so here I will only give a few of the commonest or most egregious examples. Some are plainly ridiculous, such as Kemi Badenoch’s recent claim that “we have used our Brexit dividend to get the NHS more than a £1 billion more every single week than it had before Brexit” [emphasis in original tweet, where it was denoted by ‘*’ symbols]. Of course, there was no such dividend, and the NHS budget is, as it always was, purely a decision of the British government. The same applies to the similar, and more frequent, claim that the NHS has now received the £350 million a week proposed at the referendum, so Brexit has fulfilled that promise.
Equally untrue, although probably much more widely believed, are the claims that Brexit allowed the early roll out of vaccines (it didn’t: the UK was still operating under EU laws and regulations at the time) and that it allowed the UK to give support to Ukraine (it didn’t, and the UK had begun to do so ever since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, when still an EU member).
Other things in this category are more difficult to unpick, as they may contain some element of truth. Many of the Brexiter claims about trade deals are of this sort, because it’s true that neither CPTPP nor the Free Trade Agreements with Australia, New Zealand, and any which may follow, could have been done by the UK as an EU member. The half-truths and exaggeration relate to the benefits, which are paltry. In other cases, the claims are lies in all but name, most obviously the description of non-binding Memorandums of Understanding with individual US states as ‘trade agreements’, which they aren’t in the standard use of that term (plus they have little or no economic value, and could almost certainly have been made as an EU member anyway).
Likewise, most claims of regulatory independence are overblown, since they either aren’t practical to exercise, or make little difference, or are things which would be likely to have happened at some point as an EU member. I’ve written so much about these things before that I don’t have the strength to do so again and, for regular readers at least, probably don’t need to.
The last redoubts: sovereignty and democracy
What does warrant more attention is what have become the last redoubts of the Brexiter defence, and in some ways its strongest if only because they are the most intangible. Sovereignty and democracy are not, of course, the same thing, as sovereign states can be undemocratic. As regards sovereignty itself, Brexiters routinely deploy this as the central defence of Brexit, the more so given the evident lack of benefits and the mounting evidence of costs. For if sovereignty ‘has no price’, then these inconvenient truths can be ignored.
There is a particularly specious version of this defence, a recent example being furnished by Julia Hartley-Brewer, which argues or implies that people voted for Brexit knowing the damage it would cause, because the remain campaign told them (that this is the meaning of Hartley-Brewer’s tweet is borne out by her previous remarks). The obvious flaw is that the leave campaign thundered assurances to such voters that every single one of these warnings was part of ‘Project Fear’, and it defies belief that many voters believed the warnings but voted to leave anyway rather than doing so because they accepted the assurances that the warnings were false.
Indeed, more generally, it’s worth recalling how Brexit was sold. Yes, the slogan of ‘taking back control’, which may be taken as a proxy for ‘regaining sovereignty’, was central to the leave campaign, but it was proposed not as an abstract virtue but as a means of delivering concrete benefits, most obviously control of immigration to those who wanted that, but also benefits to the economy and, more expansively, to the totality of policy, which Brexiters said had been ceded to the EU. So it is dishonest now to propose ‘sovereignty’ as the justification of Brexit, detached from whether it has delivered these concrete benefits.
Flawed ideas of sovereignty
Alongside that dishonesty lies another, or, at least, an ignorance. Sovereignty has probably never meant untrammelled national freedom of action, and certainly doesn’t nowadays. This is why the regulatory independence of Brexit has proved so illusory. In practice, countries operate within a framework of international standards, whether they be derived from the EU or other trans-national bodies. More broadly, countries pool and/or cede sovereignty for purposes of defence, as with NATO, or for a whole variety of non-economic reasons which give rise to international treaties, conventions and, indeed, law.
Of course, Brexiters are constantly straining against those limits but, in doing so, are simply repeating the same flawed idea of sovereignty. The flaw isn’t just that countries can’t escape external constraints, it’s that to the extent they can do so it has negative consequences which they choose to avoid. That choice is, itself, an expression of sovereignty. Thus the idea that Spain, or Denmark, or Germany do not have sovereignty because they choose to be in the EU is as preposterous as the idea that the UK has gained sovereignty by leaving. Indeed, one of the most arresting moments in the entire Brexit process was when the government published the first Brexit White Paper in February 2017. For it contained the remarkable sentence: “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.” (para 2.1).
Interestingly, the hollowness of the sovereignty argument was again unwittingly revealed by Rees-Mogg just this week, when he was questioned by Lewis Goodall of the News Agents. He was asked about the PopCons’ ‘anti-institutional’ agenda for changing the structures and systems of government, and why, if this was so necessary, the Conservative government in which he had served had not done so. Rees-Mogg replied, “we had no ability to change the system until we left the European Union”, but went on to say that “they [structures and systems of government] were changed very effectively by Tony Blair”. To spell out the obvious: when Blair was Prime Minister, Britain was in the EU.
Flawed ideas of electoral democracy
It is here that the Brexiters very last line of defence comes in, emphasizing not just sovereignty but democratic sovereignty. It echoes the line that Tony Benn took to justify opposition to EEC membership in the 1970s in saying that ‘at least, now, you can vote out the politicians who make the laws that govern you’ (although it’s notable that Benn didn’t share the Brexiters’ naïve view of sovereignty). It was wheeled out by Rees-Mogg (in his interview with Tyrone) as if it were a sort of dialectical checkmate. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
To the extent it works at all, it rests on the premise that Britain is more democratic than the EU. How democratic Britain is can be debated, given, amongst other things, its arcane uncodified constitution, non-proportional voting system, unelected upper house, and extensive executive power underpinned by Royal Prerogative. So, too, can the democracy of the EU be debated. Perhaps it should indeed be constituted as a Federal State, with a constitution and an elected government, a United States of Europe, but such ideas were anathema to Brexiters, as they are to Eurosceptics in many EU states. There’s much more to be said about both debates than I have space for here but, at best, it’s a shaky premise.
Beyond that, the idea that, unlike before Brexit, British electors can now exert control over the policies and laws that govern them is fallacious. First, as with sovereignty, it ignores all those internationally derived regulations which, necessarily, continue to apply despite Brexit. Something similar could be said of the way that - as Liz Truss found, just as Harold Wilson did in the 1960s and James Callaghan in the 1970s - with or without Brexit ‘the markets’ put as much constraint on UK economic policy as, say, the EU did on that of Greece, and for much the same reasons. More generally, it massively overestimates the impact that EU membership had on Britain. We know, because of the extent of Retained EU Law (or what is now called Assimilated Law), that plenty of rules came from the EU, but these turn out to be rather dull and uncontentious things that few people care about or want to see scrapped. They aren’t the stuff of political controversy.
By contrast, the most controversial political issues of recent decades, from privatization and trade union restrictions in the 1980s and 1990s, to Iraq in the 2000s, to perennial battles over the extent of public spending, had little or nothing to do with EU membership (other, of course, than that of EU membership itself). Likewise, the big political issues of post-Brexit Britain remain similar to the big political issues of pre-Brexit Britain. So inflation, unemployment, tax rates, interest rates, the NHS, crime, education, defence, housing, immigration, and so on were and are what people vote about. But Brexit makes little difference to the policy options offered by political parties in these areas, and even if it may expand some options (certain taxes, perhaps) it reduces just as many (security data-sharing, say).
That’s even true for immigration policy because, although the UK has ended freedom of movement, the question of its overall total level was always subject to domestic choices as the government controlled non-EU immigration. Moreover, when an EU member, it was the UK’s choice not to use the controls on freedom of movement available to it, just as in 2004 it chose not to restrict free movement from newly acceded member states in Eastern Europe. On the Rees-Mogg argument, British voters could have changed both those things, so either they didn’t care enough or the idea of voter control of policy is flawed. On the other hand, as regards irregular migration, post-Brexit Britain no longer has the benefit of the Dublin regulations, and British voters can do nothing at all about that, even if they want to.
This also begins to show how the argument that Brexit gives electors control frequently rests on an entirely unrealistic idea of how electoral democracy work. Very occasionally, a single big issue may be defining, swaying large numbers of voters, but it has to be a very big issue. Even then, it doesn’t necessarily determine election results, or even change government policy (recall the Iraq War). For the most part, voters choose on the basis of the overall package of a party’s policy offer, their perceptions of its leadership and values, and similar ‘broad-brush’ considerations. Likewise, the record of an incumbent government is typically judged in the round, over many years and in relation to many issues. So when, to use the Rees-Mogg/ Tyrone clip again, Rees-Mogg says “if you didn’t like a tariff introduced by the EU, you had no means of stopping it” it is irrelevant. Elections aren’t fought or won at that level of specificity.
To be fair, presumably Rees-Mogg didn’t literally mean a single tariff, but trade policy generally. However, as an EU member, the UK could have held parliamentary votes on the ratification of EU trade deals, as other member states, or even regions, do (recall the Walloon vote against CETA), but it waived that right. On the other hand, parliamentary oversight of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals is limited and lacks a statutory basis. Perhaps, if voters really cared about it, they could pressurise politicians, or even vote in elections, to make this oversight more rigorous. But, by the same token, they could have done the same to force pre-Brexit governments to hold votes on EU trade deals, and, indeed, to vote those deals down if they did not want them. In fact, voters were not interested in making this an electoral issue any more than, until the referendum, voters saw EU membership as a contentious or important issue. The underlying point is that a parliamentary democracy doesn’t give voters overarching control of policy any more than sovereignty bestows unconstrained freedom of action.
So, apart from the irony of a placeman lawmaker, especially one of a distinction either nugatory or inordinately well-disguised, lecturing about democracy, it seems that Frost doesn’t understand the most basic fact of parliamentary democracy, which is that the government governs to the extent that it commands a majority. But it’s not actually a lack of understanding, it’s one of the dirty secrets at the heart of Brexit that, even as the Brexiters spout about democracy, what they have done is to substantially increase the power of the Executive at the expense of parliament, most obviously in the growth in the use of Statutory Instruments and ‘Henry VIII powers’.
There must also be more than a suspicion that when Brexiters rail against ‘unelected’ judges and civil servants they don’t grasp that whilst elections are central to democracy and its institutions they cannot and should not completely define them. Or, again, they do actually grasp this, and hate it, partly because of the constraints it places on the Executive and partly because what defines Brexiters, and populists generally, is not a commitment to parliamentary democracy but to a mythologised idea of ‘the will of the people’, mystically distilled and enacted by their leaders.
At issue in all this is not a re-litigation of Brexit itself. Brexit has happened, so the real point is to set out and challenge at least some of the extraordinary array of arguments, some contradictory, some illogical, some dishonest, some just wrong, which Brexiters are still deploying.
With some exceptions, they have had to just about accept that Brexit has had many costs and no benefits, but they still seek to excuse that and still fall back on the more intangible claim to have restored sovereignty and democracy. But that too is flawed, not least because, apart from everything else I’ve written in this post, the very fact that Britain could and did vote to leave the EU shows that doing so was unnecessary on those grounds. Stripped of that final conceit, the Brexiters have nothing to protect them from the hard facts of their abject failure.
Exposing the many ways they try to conceal or deny that failure matters, not because of the past but because of the future. Having wreaked so much damage on our country, the Brexiters now want to do it one final disservice by preventing an honest appraisal of what they did, thus preventing us from finding any real solution to it.