Brexit: Understanding What Happened


Brexit is possibly the most divisive political event in the history of the UK.  The fallout from Brexit has left almost everybody hurt and feeling cheated.  This is an attempt to understand how we achieved such an unhappy outcome.  If we can agree about what happened, perhaps this will help us find a way forward.

1.  Brexit was mismanaged from the start

In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, David Cameron made an electoral pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership.  The subsequent chaos can be clearly traced back to three fundamental mistakes he made in the implementation of that promise: he failed to plan for a future outside the EU;  he promised to offer a simple 'in-out' referendum; and he created an indicative referendum but promised that he would abide by the outcome.  In short, he created a vote on the biggest political issue facing the UK since the second world war, but failed to take it seriously.

1a.  There was no planning for the possibility that the UK would vote to leave the EU

In July 2016, after the referendum, Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee was told that Cameron had refused to allow the Civil Service to make plans for Brexit.  Any planning would have immediately identified an obvious fact: that the people who wanted to leave the EU did not all agree on what they wanted instead.  In simple terms, some people wanted a 'soft Brexit', regaining a greater degree of independence for our legal system, but retaining membership in the single market and customs union, while others wanted a 'hard Brexit' and to leave both the single market and customs union.  There were various possibilities within each of those two basic positions, but any planning to leave the EU would have needed, at the very least, to investigate the consequences of each of these choices.

1b.  The referendum question was wrong: the promise of a simple in-out referendum denied the British people the ability to express their views

A simple 'in-out' referendum never made sense, but the people who made this point when it was 'only' an electoral promise were accused of electioneering.  The British people were never asked what they wanted.  Consequently, when the 'leavers' won, everybody knew what had been rejected, but nobody knew what had been chosen.  Both those who wanted a hard Brexit and those who wanted a soft Brexit believed that the majority of people had voted for their vision of the future, and believed therefore that the way forward was clear - when, in reality, it was far from clear.

The obvious course of action would  have been to implement two referenda: one asking people if they wanted to stay in the EU or leave on 'hard Brexit' terms, the other asking people if they wanted to stay in the EU or leave on 'soft Brexit' terms.  This strategy does not attempt to 'split the vote', as anyone who wanted to leave but did not care whether it was a hard or soft Brexit could choose to vote leave twice.  If 'remain' won both votes, then the country would have voted to remain; if 'remain' lost one of the votes, then the country would have chosen to leave, with a clear direction selected; if 'remain' lost both votes, then the 'leave' vote with the greatest majority would have won, and again a clear direction would have been chosen.

As it was, we had a single 'in-out' referendum, which was the equivalent of holding a General Election where people are given the choice whether to keep the current government, or to change it.  And then, if you choose to change the government, everybody gets to argue about who should form the next government, and what their mandate should be.  It is an absurd strategy, but one which we allowed the government to implement.

Simply presenting the issue as "Do you want to leave the EU?" was deeply misleading: there were many different ways of leaving, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.  It is more like asking, "Do you want to get married?" - the answer is, for most people, an easy one; the difficult question is, "Do you want to marry this person?" - but that is the question which actually matters.  You cannot simply 'get married', you can only marry a specific person; you can't just leave the EU, you have to leave in a specific way, on specific terms, creating a specific post-EU situation.  It is easy to say what you do not want, but the only useful question is about what you do want, and the country was never asked that.

1c.  The promise to implement the results of a consultative referendum denied us an effective legal framework within which the debate and the referendum could be conducted

In the UK, there is no constitutional provision for an effective referendum, but the legislation which is needed in order to hold a referendum can include the passing of the decision into law - as was the case with the referendum held on the Parliamentary voting system in May 2011, which would have implemented the new system of voting without further legislation.

Of course, it is hard to pass into law the outcome of a referendum when you do not know what has been decided.  Other countries which have faced this kind of choice generally implemented the obvious strategy: you hold two referenda.  The first is consultative: do you want to retain the status quo, or change it?  If the vote is to change, then you negotiate the precise details of the change, and after that you hold a second, effective referendum: given the option of this specific change, do you actually want what is on offer?

The key point here is that the rules are different.  If you are just asking people for their opinion, you have a good deal of latitude in how you do it, and the information you provide.  But if you are empowering people to make a decision, then there are strict rules about what you are allowed to do, and what you are allowed to say.  You see the problem: the way this referendum was conducted, the people got all the responsibility, but without the protection.  If the referendum had been legally effective, there would have been grounds for overturning the result because various aspects of the campaign would have been illegal - but because it was only a consultative referendum, it could not be overturned on those grounds.

2.  The campaigns were empty and misleading

2a.  Unspecified Goals

Possibly because the referendum was asking the wrong question - "Do you want to leave the EU?" - rather than asking people what they wanted, neither campaign focused on promoting what the people involved actually wanted to achieve.  Instead, both campaigns were essentially negative.

The leave campaign was all about what people did not want or like: they did not want foreigners telling us what to do, and they did not like foreigners being freely able to come to the UK.  Sometimes these concerns were phrased in ways which sounded positive, such as "Take back sovereignty!" or "Regain control of our borders!", but what constituted 'sovereignty' was never spelled out, and how the desired border control could function was never clarified.  Or, to be precise, each of these points was 'clarified' many times, by many individuals, but each attempt was immediately contradicted by other significant figures in the 'leave' camp.  There was no clear outcome on offer, for people to vote for, so everyone on the 'leave' side voted for what they wanted.

The remain campaign was also all about what people did not want or like: the predicted  bad effects of leaving.  The consequences being spelled out, whether accurate or not, were dismissed as 'project fear' by the leave campaign.  And, because the choice was never made concrete, whatever bad consequence the remain campaign identified, someone from the leave campaign could point out how their particular proposal would avoid that specific bad consequence.  Some leavers could explain how we could retain our cake after Brexit, and other leavers could explain how we would not go hungry because we could eat our cake after Brexit.  There was no agreed plan, so nobody could be held accountable for explaining how we would both have our cake and eat it.  And because the remain campaign was almost entirely negative, the voters were not inspired by a vision of what a united future in Europe could achieve.

2b.  Unclear Issues

1.  'Sovereignty' can mean whatever you want it to mean

There were numerous, contradictory definitions of sovereignty thrown around.  The truth is, it is a vague concept which can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean.  And, each time it was defined, it was clear that Brexit would not given us back some sovereignty that Europe had taken away from us.  So, for example, we were told, 'Sovereignty means that we are able to make our own laws,' but we were clearly continuing to make our own laws, despite being part of Europe.

Membership in the EU was no different in principle from any other treaty we have signed up to over the years: they all limit some aspects of our freedom, but we participate because we gain more than we lose.  And you can see every treaty in two, quite different ways.  You can see it as tying you down, limiting your freedom, reducing your sovereignty.  Or you can see it as a way of gaining something you want, at a price you are willing to pay, as a way of pooling sovereignty rather than reducing it.

When we pool sovereignty, we gain more power, even though we are required to work alongside others.  It would be possible for Bristol and Bath to each have their own laws and their own weights and measures, their own currency even.  That would give us more local control, but leaving the UK would give us less power and less ability to influence our future.

2.  Europe controls our lives, but leaving will be quick, easy and painless

There was a fundamental contradiction between two key leave messages: according to the leave campaign, Europe had sunk its nasty fingers deep into every aspect of our nation's life, but we could fix this problem by one simple, easy piece of legislation.

The Conservative election campaign reinforced this mistake: "Get Brexit Done!"  By this point, everyone was sick and tired of the whole political mess, and wanted it behind us.  "Get Brexit Done!" was the most powerful and relevant campaign slogan we have seen in a long time.  The Prime Minister can now claim that Brexit has been 'done', we are now out of the EU.  Except that we still don't know what being out of the EU actually means: many of the details are still being negotiated; part of the UK is still in the EU as far as the Single Market is concerned; we have a border with the EU down the Irish Sea, but that is being disputed.

Brexit is 'done', like a couple getting divorced who are no longer married, but have not yet worked out who will have custody of the children, or how to divide up their assets.  Of course, this could not happen with divorce, but somehow we allowed it to happen with Brexit, because enough people bought the lie that leaving would be quick, easy and painless.

3.  Costs and benefits

There was never any attempt to identify and quantify the costs and benefits of each option.  And one disadvantage of the government campaigning to remain was that it could not be trusted to provide unbiased information to help people make up their minds.

The reality was that EU membership gave the same kind of costs and benefits as membership in any multinational project.  The free movement of goods and people between ourselves and our largest market was clearly an advantage to UK businesses, and the limitations were mostly about ensuring a level playing field, which is hard to argue against. 

The cost of leaving was mostly talked about in financial terms, but many of the inevitable costs could not be quantified financially.

  • Reputation.  Turning our back on a commitment, and turning our back on our partners in many European projects, many of which we initiated or guided.
  • Influence.  The leave campaign did not recognize the extent to which the UK had influence in the world precisely because it was at the centre of the EU and was able to influence the direction taken by Europe in many different fields.  When responsible Americans pointed out that a significant part of the 'special relationship' they enjoyed with the UK was because the UK gave them access to Europe, this important piece of information was dismissed partly as 'project fear', and partly as unwanted meddling in our internal affairs.
  • Opportunity.  Leavers believed that leaving would be quick, easy and painless, so there would be no opportunity cost, no  impact on the UK government's ability to pass new legislation or deal with other matters.  The reality was that Brexit clogged up our political debate and parliamentary timetable for years, and is still (as of May 2022) consuming political energy and Civil Service time.
  • Creativity.  Both science and the arts operate in an international world, and the free movement of people with their tools and ideas is a vital part of this.  Cutting UK scientists and creatives off from our European neighbours is guaranteed to reduce their productivity - if they are able to continue functioning at all.  And this will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the economy, as these areas underpin much of the UK economy.

Less tangibly, leaving the EU involved turning our back on the post-war movement towards cooperation and trade, increasing connections and ties between different countries with the aim of making war between those countries uneconomical, undesirable and unthinkable.  That was the core of the European project and the United Nations and various other international initiatives.

Arguably, the future survival of the human race, or perhaps only the survival of human civilization, depends on our response to the challenge of global climate change.  And an effective response will only be possible if the nations of the world learn to trust and cooperate with one another.  Breaking and weakening connections between nations is precisely the opposite of what the human race needs.

4.  We can have the benefits of the single market without following the rules

Possibly this was the single most repeated claim in the debate.  The leave campaign believed that the UK would be allowed to retain most of the benefits of the single market without belonging to the Eu and without needing to follow the rules which apply to the single market.  Our European partners consistently said that this would be impossible.  This denial was taken to be a negotiating tactic; it proved to be the simple truth.

The 'Norway Model' was sometimes mentioned as a possible way forward.  It was argued that Norway (along with Iceland and Liechtenstein) participates in the single market without belonging to the EU and, if they can do it, so could we.  This ignored two basic realities: the nature of treaty negotiation, and the nature of the UK.  They missed the point that while the EU agreed to allow members of the European Free trade Association ('EFTA') to join the European Single market, this did not set a precedent, and they were under no obligation to offer this relationship to any other nation.  And they missed the point that the UK is not Norway - the UK has over ten times the population of Norway, and nearly ten times the GDP, so what the EU considers acceptable when it concerns Norway would not necessarily be acceptable when it concerns the UK.

In any case, belonging to the single market means accepting the rules of the market, and this was unacceptable to (perhaps) half of the people who wanted to leave: the 'Norway Model' would involve accepting the same rules we were seeking to escape, while being less able to influence them.

5.  Europe hinders our economic growth

This is the one point where the argument demonstrated some economic realism: the leave campaign claimed that 'we' would be better off outside Europe, but this was often followed with a two-part caveat.  Firstly, we might be worse off initially, but in the long run the increased freedom would enable our industry to thrive.  And secondly, even if we were worse off economically, it was a price worth paying in order to regain our sovereignty.

It was never explained exactly how membership in the EU was hindering our economic growth, or how much our growth was hindered.  There were some vague references to the 'dead weight of European legislation', but this was the same legislation which enabled us to freely sell our goods and services into our largest market.

The timescale of the promised economic revival was never identified.  Neither was the annual percentage growth in GDP which would be gained from leaving.  Some rough economic estimates suggested a 10% decrease in GDP over 5 years after leaving, with a possible 0.1% or 0.2% annual increase in GDP thereafter; the most optimistic figures suggested that, after Brexit, it would take the UK at least 30 years to get back to the GDP which would have been achieved without Brexit.  The most plausible figures suggested that the UK would never become more economically successful as a result of Brexit: the increased cost of trade with our largest market could never be offset by increased trade with countries which are further away and therefore more expensive to trade with.

6.  Sovereignty is worth any price

Following on from the previous point, when the lack of economic forecasting was pointed out, a few leavers claimed that the question was one of principle, not economics: regaining sovereignty (whatever they understood by this claim) would be worth paying any economic price.

When this principle was challenged, it was generally modified to the much more reasonable claim that regaining our sovereignty would be worth any anticipated economic price: they could not imagine - and denied that it was possible - that leaving the EU would cost more than the population was willing to pay.  Of course, this claim was made with the confidence that the vast majority of people in the UK fully supported their position, and would therefore be more than happy to pay this price.

It seems that very few people actually supported the 'leave at any price' position but, with no clarity on what was actually being chosen, it is impossible to know how many people thought the price was that of a (reasonably cheap) soft Brexit, or of a (inevitably expensive) hard Brexit.

7.  The Good Friday Agreement can be renegotiated

Although it was sometimes denied, one obvious consequence of Brexit was a unilateral change to the relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, imposed by the UK, despite the UK accepting, as a major part of the Agreement that they would not do this.  The leavers claimed that the UK would not break the terms of the Agreement but, if we chose Brexit, then the Good Friday Agreement could be renegotiated.  It was never acknowledged that the UK deciding to leave the EU would be, almost by definition, the imposition of a unilateral change to the Agreement.  In any case, the nature of the renegotiation which would be required was never discussed - again, this would have required the negotiation of two different alternatives, given the lack of clarity concerning the choice between a hard or soft Brexit.

8.  The Northern Ireland border could never function as a trade border

Before the referendum, many people were convinced that the hard Brexit some people were promoting could never be a serious option, simply because of the problem it would create for Northern Ireland.

A hard Brexit - leaving the EU Single Market - means, obviously,  that the UK is not longer within the Single Market, and must therefore be treated as an external country.  This would normally mean that the UK border with the EU becomes a 'real' border, with passports for people and customs declarations for goods.  But it is equally obvious that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could never function as a national border - and even if the two governments bought up all the land on either side (not a feasible prospect), the political ramifications of such a development would be unthinkable.

During the referendum debates, when the problem of the Irish border was raised, we were promised that a magical system would be put in place (not described as such, but effectively claimed) which would enable goods to be transported and tracked across the new border without any physical checks at the border, and without establishing a new functional border along a sane route somewhere inside Northern Ireland.  This technology, it was claimed, was ready to be implemented, even though it was being used nowhere else in the world and nobody could describe how it would actually work.  What they seemed to have in mind was for the transporters to fill in some online form (reasonable enough) and then for the governments to trust that everybody had filled in the correct form completely honestly (unlikely).  Johnson implicitly relied on the provision of such a system when he won the 2019 General Election with the promise that he had an 'oven-ready deal' with the EU.

The unexpected solution eventually arrived at was to implement a soft Brexit in Northern Ireland, and a hard Brexit in the rest of the UK, which has changed the relationship of Northern Ireland with both the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK.  The precise fallout of this strategy is still ongoing, and (at the time of writing) the UK Government is threatening to renege on the Northern Ireland Protocol, on the grounds that the EU are unreasonably expecting them to comply with an agreement they have just signed.

In summary, the Irish border is proving to be as difficult as everybody with any knowledge of the situation had claimed, and there is currently in the public domain no plan to solve the problem, or even a roadmap for achieving a plan.

2c.  Unexplored Consequences

Two obvious consequences of leaving were not effectively explored.  The leave campaign mostly refused to talk about them, dismissing them as further examples of 'project fear', but that should not have prevented the remain campaign from spelling out these issues in far more detail.

1.  Reduced world influence

Before Brexit, the UK had a significant voice in a major trading bloc which is comparable in size to the USA and China.  In 2021, the GDP (in trillion dollars) of the USA (#1) was $22.9, of China (#2) was $16.9, and of the EU was $14.5; the UK (#5) was $3.1: while it is the 5th largest economy in the world, just ahead of India and France, the UK is still far smaller than the EU.  In population terms - which, in the long run, will probably be more significant - the UK is even less significant: the population of China (#1) is 1,440m, India (#2) 1,380m, EU 447m, USA (#3) 330m and UK (#21) 68m.

Possibly more significantly, the willingness of the UK to pull out of international agreements (the EU and the Northern Ireland Protocol being two prominent examples) gives other countries very little incentive to work at establishing any new agreement with us.  Leaders of numerous countries outside the EU have commented on this.

The UK has enjoyed a certain status through the 'special relationship' it has with the USA since the Second World War.  In recent years, as the EU has gained international importance, the UK has been a useful English-speaking and pro-American base for US companies wishing to deal with the EU; it remains to be seen how much interest the USA will retain in the UK once it is no longer able to provide a foothold in the EU.

2.  Promoting the disintegration of the United Kingdom

The leave campaign insisted that the Brexit referendum was unrelated to issues of national sovereignty within the UK, but it was clear that voting to leave the EU would have a significant impact on the status of Northern Ireland and Scotland within the UK.

We have already touched on the impact on the status of Northern Ireland when looking at the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland border.  The result is that a hard Brexit, which is what Johnson negotiated and committed us to, means that Northern Ireland cannot be a normal part of the UK, subject to UK legislation - the legislation which, according to those who supported Brexit, which defines sovereignty.  It always seemed obvious that a hard Brexit would inevitably lead to Northern Ireland leaving the UK, and the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland: the only question is how long it will take for the political consequences to work through the system.

The impact on Scotland can be seen in several ways.

  • Precedent.  The prospect of Northern Ireland leaving the UK will inevitably encourage the pro-independence movement in Scotland: the UK breaking up (which, for many people, seemed to be an impossible dream) has now been shown to be a realistic prospect.
  • Argument.  The leave campaign argued that the UK is right to leave Europe, even if the result is that we will be  worse off economically.  And they won.  The same logic applies to Scotland: if was right for the UK, it must be right for Scotland to seek national sovereignty, even if the result is that they will be worse off economically.
  • Europe. The 2014 Scottish Referendum decided that Scotland would remain within the UK, but only by a fairly narrow majority.  And a significant issue supporting the remain campaign was Europe: the Scottish voters wanted to remain in the EU, and recognized that if Scotland left the UK then Scotland would no longer be part of the EU.  Now the boot is on the other foot: if Scotland remains part of the UK, it stays out of the EU; if it leaves the UK, it will be able to seek to join the EU.

Welsh nationalists have traditionally not argued strongly for complete independence, but if Northern Ireland and Scotland both leave the UK, it seems very likely that many Welsh people will want to gain national sovereignty as well.  Whatever happens, this is likely to create greater political instability.

3.  Further Reading

Here are two fairly balanced pieces of economic analysis: 

Brian helpfully  provided Don't Blame Brexit, an article arguing that Britain's problems significantly pre-date Brexit, and the vote to leave the EU was one of the consequences of these problems and our failure to address and deal with them.

Other helpful context is provided by:

(See also Politics)


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