Looking through the fog of Brexit

The very word Brexit triggers a whole range of emotions, the depth and direction of which really depends upon your point of view. The problem with emotions however, is that they lead to a lot of fog - or red mist in some cases - that obscures the reality of what’s really going on.

I have taken the personal position that I am less bothered about whether we stay in the EU or come out, rather than the route by which we have come to the current point in Brexit space-time. I am of the view that we are where we are not through any great political intention but through plain and simple political incompetence. To explain my reasoning, let’s go back to the beginning and look at some facts to explain why I have come to my conclusion. 

A referendum is unlike a parliamentary election in that it is advisory and not binding on the government. This has indeed always been the case due to the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty.  It is true that no UK government has ever ignored the result of a referendum, but there have only ever been three UK wide referendums previously anyway*.  This fact is key to the current dilemma because while the law covering what follows parliamentary elections is clear, the rules concerning the outcome of referendums is more ambiguous.

The outcome of the EU referendum was a 3.8% majority in favour of leaving the EU. That is not in dispute but it does leave open the question as to what it really means. You may be of the opinion that a 3.8% majority is the “will of the people”, but in terms of the law of the land, it has no meaning.  Legally there could have been a 80%+ majority but Parliament, being sovereign, could still ignore it.   I’m not saying they should, or that it would be justified, I’m just saying that this is the way that it is.

Next comes the question as to what Brexit actually means.  The ballot paper gave a choice of in or out, with no further detail. During the referendum there was no official government, parliamentary or Brexit campaign position on whether a vote to leave meant the UK was going to stay in or come out of the single market or customs union. It is true that some Brexit campaigners, Boris Johnson included, said during the referendum campaign that they thought we should leave the single market, but others said the opposite.  Moreover, the Norway and Switzerland models were frequently discussed, both countries being outside the EU but in the single market.  There was much confusion around the concept of taking back control of UK boarders whilst at the same time implying we could remain in the single market, something the EU have said repeatedly was not possible. In fact the only official position I can find on the subject is in the Conservative Party Manifesto, upon which it was elected in 2015 which said,”we say yes to the Single Market”. 

Irrespective of your own opinions on Brexit, it cannot be denied that the situation has been left very unclear. The debate as to what it means is being had after the referendum whereas it should have all happened beforehand. Attempts are now being made by all sides to interpret what it all means and sort it all out after the event. In this respect, one person’s opinion is as good as another: from trigger Article-50 immediately and be rid of the EU, though to ignore the result of the referendum and stay in the EU. Neither opinion has any particular official status over the other.  The government however, seem to have taken the view that we are leaving the single market, although the situation with customs union remains confused at the time of writing. This immediately begs the constitutional question as to whether the government alone can make such a wide-reaching decision without Parliamentary approval.  It should really be of no surprise therefore, that the courts are getting involved.  And for those critical of legal intervention over what they see as democracy, I’m afraid the judiciary is one of the central pillars of our democracy (indeed an independent judiciary) and so like it or not, that is another fact.

Tessa May during Parliamentary question time today refused to give any detail on the EU exit plan, other than to say she had a plan. Pragmatically, I can understand why she doesn’t want to show her hand but the pressure she is under is more about parliamentary process. And given the facts, attempts to claim that the situation is perfectly clear and all is under control is nothing more than political denialism. 

And yet this was all easily avoided.  All it needed was for the European Union Referendum Act of 2015 to include a few rules and definitions.  It could have stated the minimum turnout for the referendum for it to be valid. It could have defined what was meant by leaving the EU (single market, customs union etc). It could have stated the majority vote required - which could have been 51% if parliament so wished.  It could have stated that the outcome of the referendum was binding. It could have even given guidelines on the use of the Royal Prerogative in the event of strategising negotiations with the EU.   It would have taken longer for parliamentary scrutiny but, as is so often the case, a proper job takes time. There were indeed those at the time who were saying just this.  I concede it is also possible Parliament would never have passed the referendum act if such provisos had been included, the thought of which will no doubt infuriate those keen on Brexit, but yet again that is the way British democracy works.  There are of course, many inconsistencies within the British democratic system.  For example, UKIP attained over 12% of the national vote in the last general election to end up with only one parliamentary seat. Many, like me, are grateful for this, but irrespective of personal opinion, the result could not be challenged as those were the rules - like them or not.  

I have, in my career, managed many projects at a senior level involving organisational changes. Planing is key and identifying plausible scenarios and putting thought-out contingencies in place is really day-one out of the management book. Indeed central to major quality management systems such as ISO are such guidelines and procedures. But it wasn’t the case that David Cameron’s government tried to do this and then messed it up, they actually made no attempt at all at doing so. They arrogantly assumed the In-vote would win and then left it at that. Given the enormity of the decision and the divisions Brexit has now caused, failure to present the referendum to the people fully, clearly and openly, is in my opinion nothing short of reckless incompetence.  I am also of the opinion that the referendum had more to do with the internal politics of the Conservative Party than a cry from the country and that the Brexit campaign was highly misleading. Those last points are, as I said, my opinion.  You may think differently. The ambiguity surrounding the outcome of the advisory referendum however, is plain and simple fact. 

So what’s the answer? I have no idea and I don’t have to have an answer to see that it’s all such a mess.  Despite several newspapers suggesting that Teressa May could call a snap General Election and go to the country once more, in reality she cannot do so under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. A General Election is only possible if there is a vote of no confidence in the government or if there’s a parliamentary two-thirds majority. Perhaps this will happen but it is a different situation to that prior to September 2011 when the Prime Minister of the time could call an election when they simply felt it was politically expedient to do so.

I know in business if there’s a cock-up of this magnitude the best thing to do is to admit it and put it right. Conversely the worse thing to do is to try and pretend there’s no problem. Politically however, I really have no idea where to go from here.  As Niels Bohr said, “I don’t make predictions, particularly about the future,” but if I were to guess then I’d say one of two things will happen.  Either there will be a classical British compromise and the meaning of Brexit will be reinvented and marketed as something afresh, or things will change because of what Harold Macmillan called, “events dear boy, events.”

* Referendums covering the whole of the United Kingdom: 1) 1975: membership of the European Economic Community. 2) 2011: Adopting the Alternative vote system in parliamentary elections. 3) 2016: Remain or leave the European Union.