Banging on about Brexit to the banker: my rejoinder to Jeremy Marshall

One thing I learnt from Jeremy Marshall’s reply to my post here (his original you can read here) is to discover that Oldham and Sevenoaks felt similarly about Brexit. Oldham was a bit more vociferously for leave (61%-39%) but not vastly so. I am also grateful to Jeremy for his excellent tone, even as he disagrees with me. I will apologise now if any of this sounds less gracious. It’s not meant to be but when pushing back against what claim to be points of fact these things are sometimes necessarily (if accidentally) so. 

Whilst this will inevitably not be my final word on Brexit forevermore (we are just about to find out whether our current Prime Minister will be the one to lead us through it or not, after all), I will make this my last response to my friend Jeremy. Not because there isn’t more to say and not because I don’t think any response he offers is unworthy of an answer. I just don’t want us to get stuck into an endless back and forth in which, if we’re being honest, neither of us are saying anything new but are simply marshalling and rehashing the existing arguments from our respective side of the debate. We’ve both got better, and more important, things to discuss.

I strongly suspect I’ve said nothing that Jeremy didn’t already know and I have heard all his arguments before too. Notwithstanding all of our talk about gracious tone and friendly dialogue (which it has certainly been), both of us remain unconvinced of the case being advanced by the other, at least in part, because we know the arguments already and were unconvinced by them then. Just because I am hearing them from my pal, rather than some unknown quantity I neither respect nor admire, doesn’t change how I view the argument itself. Just as I love Jeremy the same despite his paradoxical adherence to democratic principles and parliamentary sovereignty alongside a desire to cede such things to a supranational organisation that can overrule our parliament and doesn’t permit the demos a say over its law-makers, my love for him, which is genuine, doesn’t make his argument seem any better.

Let’s, again, start where we agree. Whether it was right or wrong for David Cameron to call the referendum at all, we agree it is entirely academic. He called a referendum and so now we must abide by the result, for good or ill. I am neither of the view it was right or wrong for him to call the referendum; I am entirely sanguine either way. Obviously, it went the way I voted, so I’m happier about it than Jeremy. But the point is moot. We had a vote thus we must abide by it.

But the two big points of disagreement centre on (1) what people expected when they voted leave; (2) the position of Northern Ireland. Jeremy casts my view – that a vote to leave the EU entailed leaving its mechanisms – as having nowhere been made clear before the vote. Indeed, he argues lies from the Leave campaign stated the opposite.

The problem he has is that none of the examples he cites state we will remain in the Single Market. The first example he offers, from David Davis, doesn’t even mention the Single Market. He merely states that businessmen will find a means of continuing trade (which, of course, they will! Radio 4’s PM programme did a series of interviews with companies planning for a no deal scenario, all stating confidently trade would continue). The rest say we would have access to the Single Market. The question, of course, is what access means? It doesn’t mean being in (or, in hoc) to the Single Market, otherwise the word ‘in’ rather than ‘access to’ would have been employed. Any country in the world that trades with the EU has access to the Single Market. The BBC explains this here. All the examples he offers state we would have access to the Single Market and (see below) and this is stated categorically by those same people as not being ‘in’ the Single Market. In effect, ‘access to’ means we would continue to trade with the EU.

The only example Jeremy offers that implies we will remain in the Single Market is his quote of Owen Paterson. The problem is, it is both a misquote and has been taken out of context. This video explores what Paterson actually said (along with others):

Paterson did not say, ‘only a madman would leave the Single Market.’ He said, ‘only a madman would leave the market.’ He then went on the clarify that his use of ‘the market’ didn’t mean membership of the EU, nor being ‘in’ the Single Market, but that we would continue to trade and have access to the single market. Which is, in point of fact, entirely in line with every other example Jeremy offers where nobody states we will remain in the Single Market.

Andrew Neil sums up the point here:

And here:

So, yes, I maintain it was clear that a vote to leave meant leaving the EU and its mechanisms, including the Single Market.

What is more, as Brendan O’Neill points out forcefully here, most voters knew full well that a vote to leave the EU meant leaving the Single Market.

That Leave could, and very likely would, lead to withdrawal from the single market was a central talking point of the referendum. Michael Gove, one of the most senior figures on the Leave side, said it. Out loud. In May. Voting Leave would ideally mean Britain being ‘outside the single market but [having] access to it,’ he said. Other Leavers regularly slammed the single market. David Davis laid into the ‘burdens of the single market regulations’. Vote Leave’s campaign bumf was packed with criticisms. ‘[T]he single market does more harm than good,’ it said.

Leading Remainers also made it clear that voting Leave would likely entail pulling Britain out of the single market. David Cameron said: ‘What the British public will be voting for is to leave the EU and leave the single market.’ George Osborne echoed him: ‘We would be out of the single market.’ There you go: the two then most powerful men in Britain saying Leave would mean leaving the single market.

Were there disagreements in the Leave camp over the single market? Of course. It was a big, mixed coalition. But Leave was shot through either with doubt or outright hostility towards the single market. It is a myth — dare I say a lie — to say people didn’t know single-market membership would be thrown into question by their voting Leave. They knew this very well. We can deduce that they voted Leave either because they also wanted to leave the single market or because they believed the risk of leaving the single market was a price worth paying for getting out of the EU oligarchy. In fact, a YouGov poll this week shows that 74 percent of Leave voters want a hard Brexit. Among the population more broadly, 39 percent want a hard Brexit and 25 percent a soft Brexit. People didn’t know single-market membership was at risk? An insulting lie.

I agree with Jeremy that all the terms of leaving the European Union were not decided or made clear by the vote to leave itself, but to suggest that membership of the Single Market is one of them is evidently not true. As I noted in my original response to him:

It may be true that the referendum itself did not set the terms of Brexit, but certain lines in the sand were most certainly drawn. It is evident that leave necessarily meant leaving the EU and its mechanisms. As such, whilst there is a degree of wiggle-room to be had on the kind of Brexit we get, there are certainly parameters. Whilst EFTA would potentially be an option, a Norway-style agreement (including EEA inclusion) wouldn’t because that would link us to certain mechanisms that we were categorically told we would leave should we vote for Brexit.

I am sure Jeremy recognises how it looks too. Those who voted to Remain and lost the referendum suddenly begin insisting that the terms weren’t clear after the vote was lost. Nobody suggested from the Remain side – when Cameron and Osbourne (and a multiplicity of others) – announced that Leave meant leaving the EU and its mechanisms that, actually, there were a range of options including remaining in the Single Market. Not one voice. All seemed unified in the view that leaving meant leaving the EU and all its mechanisms. That is until Leave won the vote.

Given numerous attempts to actively overturn the vote (cf. Gina Miller’s legal challenges), or the glee with which some Remainers leapt on the fact that the referendum was only advisory so could be thrown out, good faith is hard to come by. Given that Jeremy recognises the ‘very valid and well argued points especially about the contempt that elites have for “the plebs” being so stupid as to vote for something they didn’t really understand’, leads us inexorably to the conclusion that leave meant leaving the EU and its mechanisms, including the Single Market.

The second point at issue is the Irish border question. I am surprised that Jeremy waves away the comments of David Trimble so quickly. I wasn’t so much quoting him in support of Brexit as his authority on the Irish border question (which he believes has been well overplayed). I’m not sure it’s fair to say quoting the man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for drafting and implementing the GFA on the border issue is ‘like quoting Boris.’

Indeed, doesn’t it make some sense to weigh the Remainer claim that bombs and bullets would return to Ulster in the wake of Brexit against the fact that the man who signed the GFA, David Trimble, and the current ruling party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, all supported Brexit? If that threat was really credible – and it is notable that only mainland British Remainers appear to be making it – we do have to explain why anybody in Northern Ireland supported Leave, especially those in government who have most to lose by a return to violence.

Jeremy rather paints me into a corner. On the one hand, he asserts the border is a problem. On the other, he won’t allow me to cite any Brexit supporter who denies the border problem. Which is a bit of a rhetorical trick that is reminiscent of when, as a child, my Dad used to hold my arms and legs and challenge me to ‘get out of that without moving.’ This even renders me – with my undergraduate degree centred on the politics of Northern Ireland (particularly Loyalism) and my MA thesis also looking at the overlap of Evangelicals and politics in the region – unable to comment. But unperturbed, and recognising that as a supporter of Brexit my views may be cast aside like chaff – let me make the case anyway. 

There are a host of ways we may deal with the issues of free movement. These range from simply granting all EU citizens free movement anyway (which, if you speak to certain brands of Socialist, they will tell you they would like to see world borders removed) all the way through to placing the border check on the British mainland or at Dublin airport. This is precisely what the USA already do – all border checks from Ireland take place in Dublin. Jacob Rees-Mogg makes the case here:

Theresa May’s objection at the end doesn’t hold water. The principle is of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, not of a border of any sort, anywhere. From a Unionist perspective, the issue of the border is one of cost and time of trade moving freely from North to South. This solution would avoid the problem of cost and delays as goods and people move from the Republic to the North but would maintain the ability to have maintain an EU border.

Similarly, with customs, the same applies. If we choose, we can unilaterally determine not to put tariffs on EU goods. If the EU decide to do that, then so be it. That is, then, their problem to resolve on the Irish side. Should we choose to put tariffs onto goods, we can determine to check those things at the British mainland rather than in Northern Ireland. Trimble, and others, have elsewhere argued specifically for us to unilaterally remove tariffs on our side, even if the EU insist on putting tariffs on theirs. The DUP favour an EFTA arrangement so that we would have a free trade agreement ready made that is UK-wide. Should we reject either plan, we may insist on duties being paid when goods reach the mainland or we may insist that duties be paid before goods leave their country of origin. Alternatively, tariff collection and border checks may be done smartly. Ways have already been identified to accommodate all these options (indeed, even an EU report recommended some such actions). As Sammy Wilson, of the DUP, noted here, ‘the means for dealing with trade across borders where taxes have to be collected, different regulations have to monitored and trade measured are already in place between NI and the Irish Republic.’

Nonetheless, Lionel Shriver argues here:

The policing of any national border involves entities on either side. On the British side of this one, May has been clear from the outset that the UK has no interest in heavy-handed customs or immigration enforcement. That is what is called ‘the UK’s business’. There being once again such a thing as ‘the UK’s business’ is what Brexit is all about. Whatever happens on the Republic’s side of the border is the EU’s business.

Yet supping from that begging bowl — please, sir, may I have some more? — addles the brain. Staggeringly, the EU has persuaded the PM that the EU’s prosecution of a member state’s border is her problem. May’s offer to collect the bloc’s own tariffs, and subject importers to torturous ‘rebates’, constitutes abasement. Insofar as it is a problem, that border is the EU’s problem. Trump can put up his silly wall on the US side of its southern perimeter, but even the Donald wouldn’t presume to dictate procedure on the Mexican side. It’s therefore not up to May to concoct a ‘solution’ to a problem she need not recognise and need not own.

So I don’t see that anybody (at least on these two points) has been misled. This is why the argument that there is no majority for a hard Brexit is also disingenuous. Nobody pretended that leaving did not mean leaving the Single Market (or, at least, the very real threat of it) and even those in Northern Ireland seem less concerned about the border issue than those in the UK (incidentally, only a certain brand of Remainer in the UK who is quite keen to use the region – despite never having any interest in it before – as a means of shutting down the whole thing).

For what it’s worth, once we have implemented the decision to leave – according to the obvious lines in the sand that were drawn before the vote – Remainers are perfectly entitled to campaign for a future referendum to take us back into the EU. I believe voters, and parliaments, have the right to change their mind and I believe that right may be exercised once an initial decision has been implemented.

I also agree with Jeremy that parliament should be the final arbiters of the terms on which we leave. But just as Jeremy believes it would be anti-democratic to simply remain given the result of the referendum, it would be my contention that leaving in name only, and keeping us in certain mechanisms that we were repeatedly told we must leave and that we voted to do, would also be anti-democratic. This leaves open various options e.g. EFTA but not EEA, WTO rules, some form of Canadian-style deal (should the EU be willing to give it to us). But there are stakes in the ground such as leaving ECJ jurisdiction, Single Market and Customs Union. The rest, however, is legitimately up for grabs and must be determined by parliament.

But the key point, above all, is that parliament must vote for what the people wanted. We can cut through many of the other arguments, irrespective of what we were or weren’t told, and boil the issue down to this: what did the people think they were voting for? We may try and weasel out of the question by sticking strictly to the letter of what was on the ballot paper (an interesting parallel to be drawn, in another post, between that approach and a strictly biblicist approach to hermeneutics that gives little weight to theological considerations), but what are those who voted Leave expecting? There are some remarkably consistent noises being made that come somewhere close to those stakes in the ground I outlined earlier. If all that matters is that we leave, we must explain why so few leavers are happy with Theresa May’s deal and why so many of the Leavers her own party have just called a vote of no confidence? Could it be that, strictly speaking, just leaving in any form isn’t what people wanted?