When British prime minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 on Wednesday, the clock starts ticking on Britain’s exit from the European Union. Barring an extension of the exit negotiations—which would require a unanimous vote of all EU members—Britain will be out on March 30, 2019, deal or no deal.
In this world of change, it is nice to see that a few things remain the same. And one of those things is Al Gore. Speaking in London last week, the former vice president was kind enough to favor his audience with his own views on what caused Brexit. The villain, of course, was global warming.
Gore exemplifies the definition of a fanatic often, if wrongly, attributed to Winston Churchill: a man who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. But one of the delights of Brexit is watching how people react to it. One of the back-patting claims of the Remainers—or the Remoaners, as the Brexiteers have dubbed them—is that they are tolerant internationalists and lovers of Europe, as opposed to those nasty Little Englanders who voted to leave the EU.
Even on its merits, this is tosh. As Darren Grimes of BrexitCentral put it in his daily email, “Keeping the developing world poor with massive agricultural tariffs while giving people second-class treatment simply because they come from outside a certain geographical area hardly seems very 'tolerant' or 'internationalist' to me.” It’s a wonder to me how the Economist newspaper, founded in 1843 to advance the cause of free trade, manages to get out of bed every morning to acclaim the merits of the EU’s protectionist customs union.
But the Economist doesn't have anything on one of ancient big beasts of the Conservative Party, Lord Michael Heseltine. Recently sacked by Prime Minister May from an advisory position for his advocacy of the Remain cause in the House of Lords, Heseltine is unbowed. As the tolerant and urbane peer explained last week, he believes Britain needs to remain in the EU because if it doesn’t, Germany will “win the peace.” After all, “Germany lost the war. We’ve just handed them the opportunity to win the peace. I find that quite unacceptable.”
Of course, the future prime minister, Harold Macmillan, felt exactly the same way—but that was way back in 1956. The fact is, the United Kingdom can’t keep Germany from dominating the EU unless it (1) joins the euro and (2) convinces France to permanently side with it against Germany. But Britain’s not going to do the former, and the entire history of Britain’s European diplomacy since 1956 shows it can’t do the latter. Heseltine’s argument is irrelevant and so old it’s got cobwebs on it. There’s a reason he’s in the House of Lords.
The number of people in Britain who genuinely like—or even care about—the EU isn’t zero. But it’s a lot smaller than you might gather from the news. Much of the hubbub about the EU is actually British politics by other means. For example, for years the British left banged on about how governments favored interests in London at the expense of Britain’s manufacturers and the north of England. But confronted by the claim that Brexit will hurt London—and thereby rebalance Britain’s economy back towards manufacturing—Labour MPs have been tempted to swing about, abandon the argument about the dangers posed by the London’s dominance and pose as its defender. Not many principles here: the big issue at stake is what claim will do the government the most damage.
Or take the Scottish Nationalist Party. You might imagine, from Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second Scottish independence referendum, that the party is deeply moved by the prospect of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU. But if so, it’s hard to explain why the party spent only 13 percent of its allowable funds on the EU referendum, which is less than it spent on a single by-election in Scotland in 2008.
The Scottish Nationalist Party doesn’t actually care all that much about the EU, except as an issue that allows it to campaign for Scottish separation from the Union. Nor is there any reason it should: regaining powers from Westminster (where it has a good deal of influence) only to give them up to Brussels (where it will have none at all) makes not the slightest bit of sense, especially in a world where 60 percent of Scotland's economy depends on England.
And then there’s immigration. As Canterbury Christ Church University’s Jim Butcher correctly notes, “The idea that there is a post-Brexit tide of hate has wide currency amongst Brexit’s critics.” But after examining Eurobarometer data, Butcher found that British attitudes towards immigration became more positive over the past several years, and that “the relationship appears to be a negative one: greater scepticism over the EU, greater positivity towards immigration.” As he rightly points out, correlation is not cause. But there’s a reason why the Economist had to retract its sensational claim that the murder of Member of Parliament Jo Cox just before the referendum was greeted by an outpouring of Brexit-allied online hate: there’s no evidence it’s true.
Being in favor of the EU is a way of virtue signaling that you are open-minded and liberal, even if in practice the EU is not. The curious thing is that, on the continent, far-left and far-right movements are a dime a dozen. But in Britain, the UK Independence Party has just lost its only MP, the party appears on the verge of collapse, and Brexit is going to be run by the oldest political party in the democratic world, the Conservative Party. The lesson might just be that, if you don’t like populist movements (however you interpret that near-meaningless adjective), then maybe one way to do them down is to stop doing things (such as being in the EU, in Britain’s case) that really annoy a lot of people.
As difficult as this is for the Europhile establishment to recognize, Brexit is optimistic. As Fraser Nelson writes for the Spectator, one reason why Britain was able to vote for Brexit in 2016 was that—for all its warts, and they definitely do exist—Britain’s economic performance under the Cameron government was relatively good. Much the same is true of Britain since 1979. For all their many failings, British governments since Thatcher have done better, comparatively, than the governments before 1979. Britain went into the European Economic Community in 1973 on a profound note of national pessimism, on a tide of sentiment that the only task in front of it was to manage decline. Today, no one—except perhaps Lord Heseltine—takes that basically post-war view.
The underlying case for Brexit is political: Brexit is about the sovereignty of Parliament, and ultimately the British people, or it is not about anything. But if you want to talk economics, the case for Brexit was made by a brilliant American economist, Mancur Olson, in his somewhat neglected 1982 classic on The Rise and Decline of Nations. Olson observed that nations that win their wars (like Britain) keep their systems intact, and that, over time, these build up coalitions of interests that tend to make growth harder. By contrast, places that lose wars—think of Germany and Japan—take a massive immediate hit, but also clear out their systems and are able to make decisions that their more militarily successful counterparts cannot.
The advantages of this kind of flexibility have never been higher than they are today. I make no predictions about the ways that robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet will change government, work and leisure over the coming decades, I suspect the changes will be slower than some enthusiasts imagine. But the changes will come, and they are likely, over time, to be comparable in scale to the industrial revolution. And Britain is likely to be as affected by them as any nation, because it is already dominated by the service sector and generates a great deal of intellectual property. It therefore has a lot to gain from getting its rules more or less right. Even if the coming changes are not as big as all that, there is still an enormous advantage to be had in conducting a root-and-branch reexamination of Britain’s regulatory apparatus.
And Brexit offers it the opportunity to do just that. The government’s plan—and I confess to serious misgivings about this approach—is to incorporate all the existing EU rules into British law with a so-called Great Repeal Bill (it would be more accurate to call it a Great Inclusion Bill), and then to amend the rules via “Henry VIII powers” to make them refer to British, not EU, institutions. At the same time, the UK will make its membership of the WTO effective (a tedious but manageable process), adopt as many EU free trade agreements as possible and head out to negotiate its own agreements (including, the government hopes, one with the EU itself).
The challenges here are vast. The most commonly expressed concern is that the EU will decide not to do a deal—or, more accurately, will be unable to decide what deal it wants to do. That is not anywhere near as hideous a problem as believed, because it means Britain would trade with the EU on a WTO basis, which is precisely the same basis on which the United States trades with the EU.
Indeed, as a recent report by Michael Burrage, of the British think tank Civitas: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society, argues at great length that European trade in services (where Britain has much to gain) is both limited and declining. The much bigger problem is that the government appears to be pursuing the Henry VIII approach because it fears it lacks the parliamentary majority necessary to make the appropriate changes by legislation—and is going to limit itself to making technical amendments.
And that could be a large foregone opportunity. The left is eager to argue that the problem Britain faces today is that it is hung up on retaining yesterday’s institutions—such as the House of Lords and the monarchy. Right complaint, wrong target: the EU is infinitely more important to the day-to-day regulation of Britain than Her Majesty or their noble lordships.
Leaving the EU offers the incalculably valuable opportunity of a do-over on the entire administrative and regulatory structure of Britain, an opportunity that a successful democracy almost never gets. Taking the amending road threatens to ensure that Brexit means Brexit—but that it might also mean only Brexit. In other words, it means that the do-over may be limited.
In the end, I doubt this approach will work. The May government has persistently sought to avoid the parliamentary road during the Brexit process, and persistently been forced back to it by legal challenges. This, of course, is the ultimate irony of Brexit: the defenders of parliamentary sovereignty have sought to avoid Parliament, while its detractors—who have no problem with handing over powers to Brussels—pretend to pose as its defenders.
Like many Brexiteers, I am doubtful of the reasoning underlying those challenges, which—in a distastefully American way—are about attempts to make policy by legal means. (The efforts in the Lords to amend the Article 50 bill, for example, were not about substance: they were attempts to lay the groundwork for a new legal challenge.) But the end result has been good: the challenges forced the government to fight its way through Parliament, and now no one can claim that the government does not have the right to trigger Article 50.
Taking the road of the Henry VIII powers is politically appealing, but it is likely to meet legal challenges and to run afoul of the problem that a simple rewrite of the EU’s rules will not be so simple. After all, this is the EU we’re talking about here. The government’s reported intention to reclaim control of its territorial waters—which were not lost solely as a result of the Common Fisheries Policy—hints at the reality that, once Britain starts to unpick its relationship with the EU, it will be forced into a root and branch reconsideration, whether this is politically convenient or not. And in the end, that is the only way to get the best outcome out of Brexit.
It’s easy—really easy—to lose track of just how far there is to go on Brexit. There are undoubtedly more parliamentary battles to come, and likely more legal ones, too, as well as a near-infinity of international negotiations and domestic rule-writing. In a way, the complexity of the challenge is an excellent argument for Brexit: the sheer abundance of things to be done emphasizes the way that the EU has squeezed itself into every nook and cranny of British life. We will have plenty of opportunities to be reminded of that over the next few years.
But on Downing Street, as I found last week, they’re reading Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna’s Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance. Yes, there is a lot of navigating to be done. And there are risks. But if you don’t take risks, you don’t get rewards. Before the vote, I argued that “Britain, like the West as a whole, has more to gain in the long run from a more dynamic and less status-quo approach, that the EU is basically a status-quo organization, and that the United Kingdom is therefore in a better position to be more dynamic if it exits.”
On Wednesday, the battle for a free Britain reaches a climax—and the battle for that future begins.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest