Tuesday , March 26 2019
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How Brexit circumvented democracy

Summary:
It is difficult to overstate the mess that UK politics is in, and the harm that is doing to many of its citizens. MPs have accepted a mandate from the people that Brexit should go ahead, but cannot agree on what form Brexit should take. With the possibility of leaving with No Deal a 100 days away, firms are having to make decisions to move jobs abroadto avoid the impact of that outcome. That in turn reduces the living standards of everyone in the UK. Rather than trying to convince them to stay, the government is actually urgingfirms and citizens tio plan for No Deal, as if No Deal was some kind of natural disaster. Billions of our money is being spent to plan for a disaster that the government can stop in an instant by revoking Article 50.Let me put this another way. Theresa May and her

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It is difficult to overstate the mess that UK politics is in, and the harm that is doing to many of its citizens. MPs have accepted a mandate from the people that Brexit should go ahead, but cannot agree on what form Brexit should take. With the possibility of leaving with No Deal a 100 days away, firms are having to make decisions to move jobs abroadto avoid the impact of that outcome. That in turn reduces the living standards of everyone in the UK. Rather than trying to convince them to stay, the government is actually urgingfirms and citizens tio plan for No Deal, as if No Deal was some kind of natural disaster. Billions of our money is being spent to plan for a disaster that the government can stop in an instant by revoking Article 50.

Let me put this another way. Theresa May and her government are spending our money to plan for a disaster that they might allow to be inflicted on the country they govern. It is the ultimate blackmail by the executive against parliament: vote as we wish or we will allow this disaster to occur. I cannot think of anything like it in my lifetime.  

It is worth taking a step back to see how politicians have got themselves, and us, into such a damaging mess. It results from one huge mistake, and that was the decision to allow a referendum in the first place. Even if you like the idea of referendums in a representative democracy, 2016 had two fundamental flaws. First, how we left (the form of Brexit) was allowed to be unspecified. That was a mistake Cameron made. The second, which he could not avoid, is that any Brexit plan required assumptions about how the EU would negotiate, and that again allowed wishful thinking on a colossal scale.

It was like offering to sell people fruit without specifying the type of fruit or its price. There is a great danger that people would say yes to fruit, and then be presented with rotting bananas that they didn’t like at an exorbitant cost. But when people say they don’t like bananas and these were too old and the price was unacceptable, they are told they had agreed to buy fruit so there is nothing they can do but pay up. You can see this problem in the polls: where Remain currently has a modest majority over Leave in a rerun of 2016, but it has a much bigger majority against the deal negotiated by May, with Remain versus No Deal somewhere in the middle (the last is probably flattered by many thinking No Deal means nothing happens). Therefore a consequence of both flaws in the 2016 referendum was that a second referendum, where both the form of Brexit and what the EU would allow were clear, became a democratic necessity.

But despite all they say, neither May nor the Brexiters are democrats in this sense. All the talk of will of the people is entirely bogus. They want their form of deal, however unpopular it is. We can pinpoint exactly when this anti-democratic move began. It was triggering Article 50 without any agreement from parliament about the trade deal that should be negotiated. All A50 requires is a withdrawal agreement before a country leaves, with trade arrangements to be decided later. Most MPs were foolish enough to fall for this trap. They couldn’t see the difference between a request for fruit and the delivery of a particular kind of fruit with a price attached. So although the Brexiters and May’s intentions in triggering Article 50 were undemocratic (remember she didn’t want MPs to vote), MPs made it democratic through their own folly. They signed the country up for whatever rotten fruit May produced.

May and the Brexiters’ plan would have worked if it hadn’t been for the Irish border, which the EU decided quite rightly should be part of the withdrawal agreement. They insisted that in any deal Northern Ireland would have to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland whatever the rest of the UK agreed on trade (the backstop). The withdrawal agreement was now in part about trade. The fact that the Irish border was hardly discussed in the 2016 referendum campaign illustrates how that referendum cannot be a mandate for a particular deal.

The Brexiters did not want the UK to be part of the Customs Union or Single Market, and were quite happy to see a hard border in Ireland. But as the EU had ruled out doing any trade deal on these terms, that logically meant that the Brexiters required just one type of Brexit: leaving with no trade deal with the EU at all. This was certainly not what Leavers had talked about in 2016. May and the rest of her party were not prepared to suffer the economic consequences of this form of leaving, and so the actual Withdrawal Agreement (WA) May negotiated with the EU involved the UK staying in the Customs Union.

For Brexiters, this type of leaving was in many ways worse than being in the EU, so they refused to vote for the WA. Because most of Labour’s members want a second referendum the opposition dare not vote for the WA. We are therefore stuck. Stuck because of a badly conceived and poorly thought out referendum, because of May’s undemocratic nature (reflecting the very undemocratic Brexiters), and the EU’s laudable insistence on the backstop.

The curse of Brexit is that while a thin majority of voters wanted to leave in 2016, they cannot agree on how to leave, and many Leavers would prefer to remain in the EU rather than accept a form of leaving that was not their preferred (and often imaginary) option. The WA is much less popular against Remaining compared to the unspecified idea of Leaving. Quite simply allowing a decision to leave based on a thin majority in 2016 based on fantastic notions of what Leaving meant almost guaranteed that any particular realistic form of Leaving could not get a majority over staying in the EU.

This in turn is reflected in parliament, where neither the WA or No Deal can command the support of a majority of MPs. If MPs cannot find a deal that commands a majority (which they may well fail to do [1]), in a democracy that should mean no Brexit, or if MPs are too timid to make that decision themselves it would mean a People’s Vote. This is where the UK has departed from the representative democracy it is supposed to be. May refused to allow a vote on the WA, and therefore denied parliament its ability to work its way out of the impasse we are currently in. They say parliament is sovereign, but it appears this is not the case if the Prime Minister is determined to sideline it and MPs protect their party rather than their constituents.

We are trapped in a poker game between the two forms of Brexit few people want. The Brexiters are happy to continue to oppose May’s deal, because they know we leave with No Deal by default in March 2019. Furthermore huge amounts of money have been spent on preparing for this eventuality, an outcome only a minority of people want. The NHS is spending money on refrigerators rather than training nurses or doctors. May, who is known to be extremely stubborn, is not shifting from wanting parliament to pass her deal (also only wanted by a minority of the UK public), and she hopes as the March deadline approaches she can scare MPs into voting for it.

If either she or the Brexiters win their poker game we will embark on a form of Brexit that most people do not want, achieved by means that no one could call democratic. People do not want the WA or No Deal [2], MPs do not want the WA or No Deal, but we could well get one or other through a process of blackmail. On this issue the UK does not have a representative democracy, which is disastrous when it concerns one of the most important decision in my lifetime. Even if one side folds, we must remember the politicians who wasted so much public money, and squandered many UK jobs, just so they could play their silly poker game.

As this may be my last post before Christmas, have a good Christmas despite it all. 

[1] Corbyn dares not vote for any form of Brexit for the reasons I have given (which is why a government of national unitywill not work). The Brexiters only want No Deal. That means a majority is extremely difficult for any form of Brexit without some form of coercion (like a threat to allow No Deal). It seems many Conservative MPs have not understoodthis.

[2] As the experienced pollster Peter Kellner says: "All the signs are pointing to the public losing faith in Brexit fast. It’s clear we need a People’s Vote." If you do not believe the polls, then lets find out with a real vote. 

Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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