Challenging the policy of procrastination

By on 15/11/2018
"The decision has been made not to have a decision; the decision is actually indecision", former prime minister Gordon Brown spoke of Theresa May (Image courtesy Institute for Government).

The British government has decided not to decide its Brexit goals, Gordon Brown argued this week; but the country can’t begin this journey without knowing its destination. Matt Ross hears the former prime minister map out a way forward

“The decision has been made not to have a decision; the decision is actually indecision,” said Gordon Brown. Speaking on Monday, as UK prime minister Theresa May prepared to reveal her proposed Brexit deal to a divided Cabinet, Brown – the UK’s Labour prime minister 2007-10 – told an audience at think tank the Institute for Government that May’s plans represent “the worst of British short-termism.” And he set out ideas for a solution to the tangled puzzle of Brexit, mapping out a way to rethink the country’s position whilst trying to reunite a deeply divided population.

May’s proposals cover the essential territory of the exit agreement – such as EU budget contributions, and the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. And they guard against the risk of a hard border in Ireland by guaranteeing that the whole of the UK will remain in the Customs Union – and Northern Ireland in key elements of the Single Market – unless and until the UK and EU can agree a free trade agreement ensuring frictionless movement across the border. Nobody, it is fair to say, expects that to happen anytime soon.

But her plan carefully leaves all options open for the future trading relationship with the EU. And as Brown pointed out, it does so “because the Cabinet and the government cannot agree what that long-term destination is.” May is selling the deal to her Brexiteer MPs on the basis that it gets the country past March 2019 – when the UK passes the no-turning-back point, formally leaving the EU – whilst leaving open the option of a ‘hard’ Brexit. Meanwhile, her pitch to Remainers is that it minimises short-term disruption and retains a relatively close economic relationship with the EU – at least until a new trade agreement is brokered.

For Brown, this determined indecision cannot serve Britain’s interests: May’s plan is to leave the EU without a long-term goal – committing us to a future outside the EU, whilst making it impossible to judge whether that’s in the country’s interests. The debate, he argued, “has been internally driven by what suits the back-seat drivers: the hard Brexiteers of the Conservative Party. They are the English nationalist tail wagging the British bulldog.” As a result, “none of the major issues have been resolved: we have at best a short-term, temporary fix in the absence of a long-term end point.”

Damage on four fronts

In the event, it appears that May’s effort to avoid upsetting both wings of her party has resulted in a plan that pleases no-one. And her attempts at leverage – warning Remainers that rejecting her plan would lead to ‘no deal’, and Leavers that doing so could usher in a Labour government – have not prevented a spate of ministerial resignations. MPs know the risks of trying to pull the deal down in Parliament; but it seems highly unlikely that when May’s proposals come to Parliament – in the most important Commons vote for decades – a majority of MPs will vote for a deal that both sides believe to be worse than the status quo.

In Brown’s view, though, there is no feasible Brexit deal that does not damage UK interests. Beyond the inevitable economic harm, the former PM – who played a key role in devolving powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland during the 1997-2010 Labour administrations – warned that Brexit poses “a risk to the union” of the UK’s four constituent nations. Labour’s devolution legislation, he pointed out, “said that all powers are transferred to Scotland and Wales unless specifically not transferred.” So areas of current EU responsibility such as agriculture and fisheries should return directly to the devolved administrations after Brexit, “but the government decided that they would hold these powers in Westminster for up to seven years, and decided to defy the devolution settlement”.

What’s more, during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, unionists argued that a vote for independence would leave Scotland outside the EU; the Scots were persuaded, but now – despite voting Remain in the Brexit vote – find themselves being dragged out anyway. For the Westminster government to “promise access through the UK to the international community, and then cut yourself off from the EU against the will of the Scottish people,” Brown said, would be to reinvigorate nationalist sentiment and the shift towards independence in Scotland.

Brown – like another former prime minister, John Major – also believes that Brexit will weaken the UK’s global influence. “Since Churchill, we’ve talked about three concentric circles of influence,” he noted – the US, Europe and the Commonwealth. Churchill believed that Britain’s soft power in each of these spheres reinforced its cloud in the others: “The more influence we had in Europe, the more we’d have in Washington. And the more influence we had in Washington, the more we’d have in Brussels, Bonn and Paris.” After Brexit, Brown added, “part of that equation will no longer be true.”

Finally, Brown warned that Brexit – followed by years of negotiations over the future trade relationship – threatens to further fracture the UK’s divided society. The country could, he warned, become more split than at any point in modern history – including during the 1800s disputes over Ireland and the Corn Laws. “The effect on the cohesion of our country and the corrosion of trust in our democracy could be absolutely mind-blowing,” he said – building support for populist politicians who “simply articulate anger without giving any positive way forward.”

(Image courtesy: Institute for Government).

Changing course

The British people, Brown argued, don’t like the look of any of the Brexit models championed since the referendum. “Even Brexit voters are not supporting any of the options,” he said. “People are looking for something else.” And he made clear that he believes there will, at some point, have to be another national vote on Brexit: “I think there will be an second referendum,” he commented. “The situation will be seen to have changed since 2016, and the people should have the final say.”

However, Brown emphasised that this poll must not be seen as a simple re-run of the 2016 vote. The public, he said, would have “to be persuaded that the situation has changed; that they’re not being asked simply to say they were wrong in 2016, but to deal with a new situation that has arisen.”

And how to get to that point? First, the legislation required to approve May’s deal must be amendable – and this is not yet guaranteed. Then the House of Commons would have to ask the government to reopen talks with the EU: “There’s no reason, in my view, why we can’t go back to Brussels and say: ‘This deal is not the one we want’,” Brown argued.

A new negotiation would require an extension of the Article 50 timeline, under which the UK exits next spring. And key EU figures have repeatedly said that, whilst they’d allow extra time for a second referendum, they won’t do so simply to give the UK another bite at the talks cherry. Brown, however, did not see that position as immutable: “I don’t think the EU would necessarily insist” on a referendum timetable before extending the deadline, he told the sceptical audience.

Reuniting the kingdom

Before holding any second poll, Brown argued, there should be a royal commission to examine all the issues. “But I want to suggest a new kind of royal commission,” he explained – not one following the usual model of “the great and good sitting there, pontificating”.

(Image courtesy: Institute for Government).

This commission would, he said, be charged with touring the country to hear from people in all regions, nations and industries, trying to understand what outcomes people are looking for and to build a broad national consensus. “The aim is not to think that we need a fix tomorrow, but to engage the country in a dialogue about the key issues,” he explained.

It would also be essential, he continued, to explore how far the UK can realise people’s goals whilst remaining a member of the EU – for attitudes are shifting on the Continent. Several EU member states have tightened regulations around migrant workers – so Belgium, for example, requires foreign EU nationals to leave if they haven’t found a job inside nine months, whilst France has introduced rules to ensure that migrants don’t undercut local wage levels.

“You could solve the problems that people raised around migration” by adopting such measures, said Brown, pointing out that none have been halted by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Second, ever since the Treaty of Lisbon the ECJ has had to “take national identity, institutions, traditions into account” in its rulings – giving members greater leeway to follow their own path. “The world has changed since 2016,” he said.

Setting a direction

The Brexit vote, Brown argued, reflected people’s “frustration at the way that economic change was hitting their communities, their manufacturing centres, their industrial towns.” But the Brexit the government is delivering will do nothing to address those frustrations – for it’s being forged within “a Westminster-focused debate that is driven by internal party considerations, not the national economic interest. It’s driven by what’s acceptable to certain groups in the governing party.”

But “that’s exactly the problem that led to the Brexit vote in the first place: People felt that they weren’t being listened to,” he argued. If we don’t try to conduct an accessible and genuine national conversation, then “we’ve got a Westminster bubble debate – like the one that brought us here.”

And where has it brought us? “In a boat at sea with no direction, no route map and no compass; and we’re throwing away the lifeboats and lifejackets at great speed,” he concluded. The UK’s population made a decision to leave the EU; but the government is incapable of deciding how we do so. Gordon Brown believes we should ask for more time, explore what is possible within the EU, and spend a while listening very carefully to the public. It’s certainly not a perfect solution – but it might well be less unpopular than any of the other options.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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