Brexit will achieve what several dark and diminutive characters from history have tried, and failed, to do: draw Great Britain into the throes of grim continental vassalage. With Brexit, the EU will (inadvertently) effect by negotiation what Spain, France, and Germany have all been unable to realise through conquest. Sovereignty will be stripped away, and the country will be entrapped within a wider sphere of EU influence. It will be unable to determine the laws that will forever govern it and will fall into the abyss of an arrangement not experienced since the days of the Normans. The Brexit dream is dying. And it’s time for a People’s Vote.
The Chequers plan exposed the fallacy of Brexit. The UK Government has said for months that Brexit may only be hard: only by exiting the European Single Market and customs union, by shedding the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, by stopping payments into the EU’s budget, and by ending free movement of people into the UK would Brexit be worth the trouble. Anything else, we were told, and the country would be left in a limbo arrangement far worse than membership – it would be a ‘vassal state’, a European ‘colony’, condemned to a peripheral role in European affairs. It would be forced to adhere by the EU’s economic rules, without any capacity to influence them. The most ardent Brexiteers understood well this danger: Hard Brexit was thus the only viable Brexit.
Except that Hard Brexit was never possible. The depth of the UK’s ties with, indeed dependence on, EU trade for its economic vitality was and is too great. Imports and exports are a crucial component of the UK economy – and over 50% of these involve the EU. By imposing barriers on trade with the UK’s largest market, Parliament would be inflicting a negative supply shock upon the economy, with ruinous effects for incomes, living costs, and the competitiveness of business. Many Brexiteers insist this would propel the UK to invest in markets further afield – but it is an economic fantasy, detached from the realities of geography, supply and demand.
Then comes the question of Northern Ireland. The imposition of a Northern Irish backstop and maintenance of an open border will require significant regulatory alignment with the EU, tariff-free trade and the continuance of (some degree of) free movement. All are incompatible with a Hard Brexit. The territorial integrity of the UK and the fragile Irish peace process would be thrown into irreverent uncertainty. Hard Brexiteers argue for a technological fix: automatic checks as the border is crossed. But this technology does not exist, nor is it likely to be developed anytime soon. The alternative – to impose border checks and tariffs – is a red line the EU will not cross for fear of angering the Republic of Ireland that is a key member state. The memory of the Troubles – the most recent incidence of violent cross-border conflict in western Europe – is as fresh as it is painful. The majority of parliamentarians, serious, thoughtful, and unencumbered by the fanaticism of the Brexiteer back benches, would not dare to disturb the peace.
This leaves various degrees of soft Brexit, each worse than the last. These range from a facilitated customs arrangement to full participation in the customs union; from full European Economic Area membership to Single Market access in narrow areas, each subject to its own bilateral treaty, akin to the EU-Switzerland agreement.
The various options for Soft Brexit are more palatable to Parliament than is Hard Brexit. However, the Prime Minister will struggle to unify the Commons around any. The European Research Group will revolt. Labour will likely oppose for electoral reasons. Jeremy Corbyn, aware of the Conservative government’s weakness, is angling for early elections. Moreover, a Soft Brexit is a poor outcome for the UK. Whichever version of Soft Brexit it pursues, payments will still be made, the ECJ will continue to arbitrate, and concessions on freedom of movement will be required. In other words, vassalage – at least as the Brexiteers understand it – will beckon.
Then what alternative? In the interest of addressing their own internal expediencies, the major parties have been flagrantly irresponsible, explaining neither the unattainability of a Hard Brexit nor the destructiveness to the UK’s international influence of its various softer alternatives. Though rarely mentioned publicly, the truth is common knowledge among the majority of MPs: no success may be made of Brexit.
Therefore, the possibility of No Brexit, via a second referendum, must be put back on the table. The deal that Theresa May, or another leader, negotiates with the EU must be explained to the public, its benefits and costs set against those of remaining an EU member. Let the choice be clearly laid out: the negotiated deal vs no Brexit at all. A People’s Vote may produce the same result as in 2016. But let it, this time at least, be a vote grounded in clarity of meaning and direction. Let the people make this last decision, for the political class is too divided and the future too precious. It is not too late to turn Brexit around. Indeed, failure to pursue the possibility, given what is at stake, would be an historic error. Else, the UK – divided, directionless and isolated – will continue on its present dangerous course, worryingly evocative of Edwin J. Milliken’s great poem ‘The Clattering Train’ (1890), which might now be adapted thus:
Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain;
The pace is hot and the points are near;
And sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;
Signals flash through the night in vain…
But who can now stop the clattering train?
The clock is ticking.