What if? What if? What if? – three counterfactuals about Brexit, and how they may have not turned out as Remainers would have liked

22nd December 2020

As the United Kingdom is now fewer than ten days away from the end of the Brexit transition period, and there is still no agreement in place, it is tempting to ask ‘what if things had been different?’ and to ponder whether if only [x] or [y] had happened everything would be ok.

So here are three counterfactuals, as thought experiments.

(Counterfactuals can be instructive, as long as you do not take them too seriously.)


The first counterfactual is about the 2016 referendum.

What if there had not been a referendum, or if Remain had won the referendum?

Surely then the last few years would have been different?


As the then prime minister and the Conservatives had won the 2015 general election – that party’s first outright victory since 1992 – with the manifesto commitment to hold an ‘in/out’ referendum, not having a referendum would have had a political consequence.

And that consequence would likely to have been a continued rise in support for UKIP – in local elections and the European Parliament election –  resulting no doubt in a strong showing at the general election set for 2020 under the Fixed-term Parliament Act.

The matter of Brexit may not have gone away.

Similarly a narrow Remain victory – say, ahem, 52:48 – also would not have disposed of the issue, with Leavers then seeing that only one more heave was necessary for Brexit to happen.

By 2015-16, it is difficult to see that anything other than an emphatic Remain victory in a referendum ridding domestic politics of significant demands for Brexit.


The second counterfactual is about the manner of departure.

The referendum result provided a mandate for the United Kingdom to depart the European Union.

But the referendum result, by itself, said nothing directly about the means and timing of the departure.

So it would have been open to a government to take its time, and to put in place a cross-party and thought-through plan, taking full and serious account of the immensity and complexity of Brexit.

Instead, however, we got Theresa May and then Boris Johnson wrongly treating Brexit as if it could be done easily and quickly, and driving it through on a highly partisan basis.

But – and here Leavers have a point – a Brexit delayed was likely to mean that Brexit would never happen.

And so unless Brexit was done briskly those opposed to Brexit would have attempted to subvert the exercise, regardless of the referendum mandate.

If a government had been rational and diligent in its planning for Brexit this, however, would have led to increasing backbench, Ukip and media pressure to ‘get Brexit done’.

And so unless Brexit was done on a cross-party basis – perhaps with a national government – it is difficult to see how long any prime minister who sought to avoid a botched Brexit would have lasted.


The third counterfactual brings us to the current predicament.

What if there had been an extension to the transition period of one or two years?

This blog yesterday set out how that extension did not happen, and this is why the United Kingdom is now dealing with both a pandemic and the end of the transition period at the same time.

No sensible person would disagree that an extension should have been sought and secured, if only in view of the pandemic.


Does anyone seriously think that an extra year or two years would have resulted in the United Kingdom government actually deciding what it wanted out of Brexit?

Would the next year or two be any different to the last four years?

If there had been extensions to the ends of 2021 and 2022, we would then be in the same confused state as we are now – the only possible grace would be there not being a concurrent pandemic.


My own view is that the counterfactual with the most force is ‘what if’ any government of the United Kingdom – or the Conservative or Labour parties – had made a positive case for membership  from the 1980s onwards?

Instead we had opt-out after opt-out, with both those parties competing with each other to boast of how the United Kingdom was apart from the European Union.

And the print media in turn both encouraged and fed off this political antipathy.

So by 2015-16 it was difficult to see how the Brexit issue would go well for Remainers, even if certain decisions after 2015 had been taken differently.

Only a counterfactual which posits a different political context for the Brexit issue by 2015 seems to me to be plausible way of showing how Brexit could have been avoided.


Another Brexit pundit once wrote about the various possible branches of history to do with Brexit.

That pundit, despite their wrongness on other issues, had a point.

There was no inevitability about any stage of the Brexit story.

Things could have turned out differently.

But there is also no reason to think they necessarily have turned out any better.


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46 thoughts on “What if? What if? What if? – three counterfactuals about Brexit, and how they may have not turned out as Remainers would have liked”

  1. I think you will find that the compelling argument in favour of the continued memebership of the UK in the EU is about to be given!

    The EU has had a major failure in outreach. Its advantages and successes are always seen as national whereas anything contraversial or unpopular (which, by dint of logic, its member states actually support) is always seen as “Brussels’ failure”.
    United we stand: our place is at the heart of Europe and once this nasty wave of populism has subsided, politicians need to strive to mend the damage and have us rejoin the EU.

  2. What about a two question referendum in 2016: the first on leaving the EU and the second on leaving the single market? That would have led to a different (and better) debate on the UK’s options and produced a clearer outcome.

  3. Given the manifesto pledge, could the referendum have been an indicative vote, ie a series of questions rather than a single in/out question? Eg
    “Should the UK leave the single market?”
    “Should the UK leave the custom union?”
    “Should there be a customs border between Northern Ireland and mainland GB?”

    Personally, I wasn’t really aware of these concepts pre-referendum. It wouldn’t have changed my vote (Remain) but I think it would have encouraged more debate/awareness about the complexities involved, and confirmed whether Theresa May actually had a mandate for all her “red lines” during subsequent negotiations.

  4. While I appreciate this is speculative, I think there are some assumptions in the post which should be considered. I will let others explore these further, however, one point strikes me as particularly important. I believe that the wide acceptance of the result among remain politicians gave T May and the bexiters the ability set a more extreme agenda. If instead there had been a narrow vote to remain , the remain camp could have claimed the same legitimacy. Although some would have continued to campaign to leave, the same arguments could have been deployed by the wining remain side and some more moderate leave voters would also have accepted the referendum result as settled. This would have affected the post referendum landscape.

    1. I think you may have overlooked the different mindsets of Remain vs Leave voters. Remainers are almost by definition more about building consensus, and working with others towards a common goal. Many Leavers are angry and resentful even though they won.

  5. I was campaigning for Labour in the 2015 election. I believed very firmly at the time that a referendum wouldn’t be winnable and that, as Cameron had promised one, a Tory majority would mean leaving the EU. Some people may choose to blame Cameron for recklessly offering a referendum. Some may prefer to blame Miliband for being an ineffective election campaigner. Personally I suspect even if Miliband had won, the Tories would have been back in 2020 with another referendum promise, and if they kept at it, they’d only need to win one election to get us out.

    With hindsight, hard Brexit was also inevitable once Cameron decided not to define “Leave” before the vote. The only semi-realistic to prevent the gradual radicalisation of Leave politicians would have been to present them with a mandate for a particular form of Brexit.

    Of course, that might not have worked. There would have needed to be a debate among Leave supporters to decide the position, they might have chosen to go for hard Brexit. But perhaps they might have decided to go for an EEA-type option as a tactic to help win the vote.

    So, for the reasons you set out in your blog, I agree our current predicament was more or less inevitable once Cameron had started us down the slope.

  6. This all seems reasonable, but there are other “what ifs” that might have turned out quite differently.

    Pre-referendum, EU membership wasn’t a national issue. It was a Tory issue. The press banged on about it but nowhere near as many voters rated it over, say the NHS or the economy as they do now.

    If you gave Cameron the benefit of hindsight, there’s all sorts of things he could have done differently that might have left EU membership just simmering as it had been for long time.

    If he knew he was going to win the election outright, he might not have promised the referendum at all and just gone with continuing to tough it out with UKIP and the ERG. Particularly if he knew that Brexit ultras could never be placated (I know this assumes the manifesto commitment didn’t tip the election).

    If he knew that the vague referendum question was going to become a blank check for the hardest of Brexits, he could have structured it differently. Brexit means lots of things. If the referendum had put even modest bounds on how it would be approached it may have splintered leave support in much the same way that the Australian republic referendum failed despite presumed majority support. That referendum hasn’t been re-run 20 years later despite only being narrowly more decisive than than ours.

    1. If he thought there was a real risk of losing there are multiple things he could have done.

      Votes for 16-18
      Votes for EU citizens
      Had both happened for Indy Ref in 2014 but would have been seen as cheating by Brexiteers

      4 country lock as demanded by SNP, would again be seen as cheating by Brexiteers

      Timescale he wanted to get it over with quickly and get on with the rest of his term. Built round an assumption he would win. Doing it in 2016 at hight of Syrian immigration crisis summer or doing it in 2018/9 with more preparation

  7. I agree that the boil had to be lanced, but would argue that there was a lot of contingency in the outcome. Two key issues: firstly, had there been a Labour leader campaigning energetically and sincerely for Remain, there would have been a good deal less political space for the Faragists to occupy (or occupy with so little plausible opposition). I don’t think Corbyn’s / Milne’s role in this is sufficiently acknowledged.

    Secondly, had the referendum not followed so close on the heels of the refugee crisis (and the terror attacks in France and elsewhere that were linked by the populists, with some success, to the refugee crisis), the atmosphere might well have been less febrile.

  8. Much of the economic damage comes from leaving the single market, which was not covered coherently in the 2016 referendum. I’d be interested to see an analysis of both the feasibility and potential merits of the UK rejoining the single market (if the EU would permit this) in say 5 years’ time, if the Brexit sunny uplands prove elusive. Not being part of the EU’s political structure but still gaining from economic integration may actually be close to the mainstream of UK public opinion.

  9. You fail to mention how, in the event of any remain win, no matter how marginal Mr Cameron would have taken it as a resounding endorsement of his person and his policies.

  10. But the referendum was consultative. And we know it was, shall we say, flawed. It should have been annulled but the Electoral Commission had no power to annul it as it was not binding.. No serious country would have acted on it with such a narrow majority for Leave.

    1. This is the fundamental issue which has almost entirely been ignored: simply dismissed by the assertion that the public trusts the government to keep its promises…

  11. I agree gov’ts have failed to explain the benefits of EU membership since the 80s.
    But I think it was a mistake to promise the referendum because of the NI:RoI situation and because of the Scottish Indy ref.
    I agree there is not much point extending the transition agreement; an extension wil not change the deal available. But I think an “implementation period” IS required.

  12. Indeed there are other “what ifs”. Go back to James Goldsmith and his Referendum Party for a start. How did a taste for a referendum grow? Why were certain Tories dementedly in fear of Farage? Much as Thatcher did a great deal of harm in other ways, wouldn’t she simply have hit Farage with her handbag and demolished him? Why did Margaret Becket vote for Corbyn for Labour leader? Why didn’t Cameron think of a better Referendum question or questions? Or a 60/40 outcome? Why did and do Tories ignore the North? Why are we so unco-operative with other parties in this country? And so on?

    1. All good questions the internal Labour one I understand.

      Miliband won leadership in 2010 around a media chatter of the wrong brother won, and based on a complicated voting process with MP’s, members, Trade Unions having separate voting constituencies and Ed won on the back of slightly more Union votes.

      2012 Eric Joyce gets into drunken brawl in Parliament and resigns from Party, creating vacancy for new MP for Falkirk. Safe Labour seat (then) so whoever gets selected wins. There are allegations of dirty tricks with Unite Union.

      Ed over reacts and proposed widespread changes to both candidate selection and election of Leader.

      New system gave MPs total control over who got nominated to go to wider membership but zero influence over who won once it got to wider membership, opposite of historic system of nominate anyone, have “wide debate” and then MPs still have veto on who wins.

      Lots of MPs had not understood the importance of the change so nominate JC out of tradition of “having a debate”.

      JC then wins.
      At this point it’s already known there will be a Ref campaign at some point in 2015-20, it was barely on agenda!

      So long story short we Brexited because Eric Joyce can’t hold his beer without hitting people!

  13. What if the referendum had been run on the basis of supermajority with mandatory voting and a requirement for 65pc to make change?

    1. Plus a broader electorate e.g. – Brits debarred in the EU; including 16 and 17 year olds etc. And of course, emulating those countries that know how to conduct referendums.

  14. To my mind the UK has always had (and continues to have), broadly, three paths:

    1. EU state
    2. EU satellite/vassal state
    3. Failing state

    There is another counterfactual in there: the UK withdrew from the political aspects of the European Union and left it at that. The UK would remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union, kept itself subject to EU law and EU courts and, indeed, future EU law. That would be simple and deliverable.

    The complexities arise from trying to implement something that is not an option, “proud independent country”, “global Britain”, “jobs first Brexit” and other fantasies.

    (And extending the transition period can been seen as just allowing the UK to put off the decision between the three options and continue with its fantasies).

    Wouldn’t things have been very different had, on 24th June 2016, Cameron given notice under Article 50 and then arranged the lightest possible Brexit?

    1. I agree with your suggestion that withdrawing from all political aspects of the European Union would have satisfied many of the Leave voters and also with your conclusion. That would have minimalised the UK’s discomfort at having to consider itself ‘European’. But remaining subject to EU law and its courts was anathema to so many other Leave voters, especially those whipped up by Farage.
      I think it’s worth mentioning too that Cameron didn’t have high hopes of winning the 2015 election and nor did Johnson/Gove expect the Leave vote to win. For anyone in any doubt about the latter, check the video of the occasion when that duo finally, at least two days later, appeared stunned and blinking before the press. They were scarcely able to conceal the shock of what they’d brought about. Coffin-lid faces hardly covers it.

  15. Another counterfactual.

    I think Gove, for one, knows one of the reasons why “Leave” won.

    We will find out what it is if and when there is a Scottish referendum. The UK will make sure the “leave” option is well defined to the satisfaction of some independent committee before any referendum.

    This was the great failure of the Brexit referendum. Cameron was a careless optimist who couldn’t be bothered to frame the referendum correctly which allowed the “Leave” option to be “all things to all people” (totally undefined with unknown issues) to the status-quo (defined with known issues).

    Interesting to know what the result of that counterfactual would be – a well-defined Brexit counterfactual.

  16. “‘what if’ any government of the United Kingdom … had made a positive case for membership from the 1980s onwards?”

    But to do so, the UK political class (left and right) would have had to understand or at least get comfortable with:
    1 – multi-tier government – for which the UK’s own fiscal strangulation of local government and growing storms over “devolution” provide ample evidence. Don’t mention or even think about EU federalism … a bridge way too far.
    2 – coalition government – proportional representation in European legislatures means that governing there is about a continuous series of often complex representative negotiations. To UK eyes, this seems slow, tedious and “undemocratic” … it being the custom here to periodically elect unassailable majorities with unarguable manifestos. In the UK political culture, negotiation is a sign of weakness in government, not strength.
    3 – pushy, smart foreigners – other European countries, like the UK, also have their power elites: the French enarcs, Italian Bocconi economists, etc. Too many in our own media and political class seem uncomfortable listening to, validating and finding compromises with Europeans who do not share their own Oxbridge stamp of approval. Rupert Murdoch’s well-known remarks about disliking Europe because no one listens to him when he goes there have a ring of wider truth to them amongst our governing classes.
    4 – equality – The EU governance framework is built on ensuring small member states have, in many cases, an equal voice to the larger countries. There is nothing in UK history or culture that prepares UK policymakers, much less our media, for treating the views of Danes, Bulgarians, much less Irish or Maltese, as anything other than annoyance … “surely Frau Merkel (or maybe Macron) can just sort things for us?!” is the oft-heard refrain.

    The political complexities of Europe, where success means being prepared to constantly engage, persuade, negotiate and compromise, means the aphorism that “if you are explaining, you are losing” has always been, sadly, too true here.

  17. All of these “counterfactuals” are plausible. There is no doubt that the Remain case was never strongly made pre-referendum and badly made during the campaign. As they say, we are where we are, and the mandate given by the referendum, such as it was, is about to expire definitively. That does not mean we can easily go back. We can’t, principally because the EU would be very unlikely to want us back while we have a seesaw political system and a significant opposition to membership. Nor should we want to. It is time now to put our house in order. Our political system is not a sensible way to govern or run a country. It needs reform which makes it harder for ideological groups such as that within the Tory party (it cannot sensibly be called “Conservative” anymore) to seize power and act against the wishes of a significant chunk of the population. There is no single reform that will do this. But there is, I believe, a set of reforms, including changes to the electoral system, plugging the holes which the Tories have exploited with regard to Parliament, and re-establishing the rule of Law, which may, in time, create the conditions which would allow us to think sensibly about our place in the world. Right now, we aren’t.

  18. Another counterfactual. The Yes vote to change the electoral system to the alternate vote wins the national referendum in 2011.

    Voters will behave differently but on the European Union issue as well as others during General Elections, the big parties would no longer be able to claim, if you vote for A, B will get in; reduced tactical voting etc. Conservatives used to say that, vote UKIP, Get Labour. Alternative vote could have stopped that sort of messaging.

  19. I disagree with this statement: “Similarly a narrow Remain victory – say, ahem, 52:48 – also would not have disposed of the issue, with Leavers then seeing that only one more heave was necessary for Brexit to happen.” Certainly Farage said that he would continue to campaign to leave, but it is irrelevant that he and other Leavers might have hoped for another chance to get a referendum on Europe, however hard they heaved. Just as Leavers now still call the actual result “The will of the people”, Remainers would have been able to do just the same if the result had gone the other way, and a likely riposte to Leavers would have been “You had your chance and blew it”. The strongly pro-EU leadership of all the main parties would have survived the odd Ukip by-election victory as time went on, and the 2020 pandemic would likely have cemented the interdependence of Europe nations on each other.

    1. The issue would have come back inside the Tory party in time for leadership election replacing Cameron who had already announced he was going pre 2020.

      Osborne clearly pro EU pro Cameroon candidate.
      Boris manoeuvring to be Eurosceptic candidate.

      Narrow remain win probably still means majority of Tory voters and certainly Tory members voted leave.

      So in this scenario, we have 2018 or 2019 Tory leadership election. What we would have done with 2020 scheduled election in pandemic lockdown I don’t know,

  20. To repeat something that I’ve said elsewhere: it’s a common observation that the Referendum might have gone differently if Labour’s leader had been someone genuinely committed to the EU, and there’s doubtless a lot of truth in that. But there’s another counterfactual – what if Cameron had chosen to campaign for Leave? It would have blunted the Leave campaign’s very effective attacks on austerity and perceived elitism, and turned the vote into a more party political issue. Would Labour Leavers have been so keen? Would the Remain campaign have been tougher, freed from the shackles of Cameron’s reluctance to criticise the character of Tory leavers?
    We’ll never know, but what if the EU’s mistake wasn’t giving Cameron too little, but giving him anything at all, when he’d said he’d campaign for Leave if he didn’t get enough concessions?

  21. David Cameron pushed ahead with a referendum pledge in advance of the 2015 election because he thought the nettle of the UK’s relationship with Europe had to be grasped at some point.
    However, there is an interesting counterfactual to be considered: if Cameron had held off on that pledge for one more electoral cycle, and then yielded in advance of the next general election -which was scheduled for May 2020 under the terms of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.
    By the time the referendum came about, Covid-19 would have hit the world, and the outcome could have been very different. Tearing up our trading relationship with our biggest market, in the midst of a global pandemic, would be an indulgence the UK electorate might not have been inclined to take.

  22. “What if” counterfactuals are great as talking points, because anyone can have an opinion and there is no way test the result.

    What if the UK had joined the EEC on its foundation in 1957? What if De Gaulle had not said “non” in 1967? What if the UK had remained out in 1973, or left again after the 1975 referendum? What if the article 50 process had been properly worked out when it was put in the treaty? (Indeed, what were people thinking at the time? Surely someone must have pointed out that the drafting would need to work if it were ever needed, even if that was thought unlikely.)

    What if Cameron had not rushed into a referendum in 2016, but rather built up to it over a couple of years, with a process of outlining what sort of alternative relationship we could have with the EU before the vote? (For example, we might have voted to leave the EU and join the EEA instead, like Norway.) What if Cameron had remained in office to chair a similar consensus-building process after the vote, or manage it towards the softest possible exit, instead of May rapidly entangling herself in a mesh of red lines?

    Instead we have seen the rhetoric inexorably ratcheting up from “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market” and “the Norway option looks the best for the UK” (that is, EEA membership) to it apparently becoming impossible to “recover” the UK’s “full sovereignty” without leaving the customs union and the single market, and from a trade deal that would be the “easiest in human history” to one that is all but impossible to agree.

    Don’t get me wrong – EEA membership is deeply problematic, but a “no deal” exit from the EU is too. All of the options involve difficulties and compromises. Or to put it another way, decisions and leadership are required to get through this, and those have been sorely lacking.

    Apropos, see the cartoon here: http://www.progressivepulse.org/brexit/misleading-a-nation

  23. Unfortunately, i fear that for all the what ifs, the UK was destined to be in this position, pandemic notwithstanding.
    The Ref and the 2 subsequent Elections have reinforced the view that British public is unaware of what the EU is and what it does for GB and NI. The next decade will set that straight and our eventual reentry will be in a greatly diminished state.

  24. “Many involved with this extraordinary episode feel the need to justify themselves and this means a lot of rewriting of history. I also kept no diary so I have no clear source for what I really thought other than some notes here and there. I already know from talking to people that my lousy memory has conflated episodes, tried to impose patterns that did not actually exist and so on – all the usual psychological issues. To counter all this in detail would require going through big databases of emails, printouts of appointment diaries, notebooks and so on, and even then I would rarely be able to reconstruct reliably what I thought. Life’s too short.“
    Another counter factual, if the VL campaign was run by anyone other than DC.

  25. To add to the list of “What-Ifs”: what if the devolved administrations had been allowed the right of consent (read, veto) to any change resulting from the EU referendum outcome?

    This was attempted on 16 June 2015, by means of a proposed amendment to the EU Referendum Act. The government opposed it. The reason given by the then Deputy Prime Minister, David Lidlington, was that there was no requirement for consent because the referendum was purely advisory. Check Hansard.

    I find it hard to express the significance of this without sounding like I am overstating it. First, by relying on the referendum’s advisory status as reason for not requiring consent, the government acknowledged implicitly that if the outcome were mandatory then consent would be required.

    It’s obvious why that would be so. Without a consent mechanism –

    1. Northern Ireland would be pulled out of “ever closer union” with the Republic within the EU: the foundation (with the quiet ever closer union of the Republic with the UK) on which peace in these islands was built.

    2. The bargain on which the Scottish independence was won would be traduced.

    3. The constitutional fates of NI, Scotland and Wales risked being decided by the weight of numbers in England.

    Leaving aside the impact on Brexit of the 16 June 2015 turning point, I think it has enduring implications for the United Kingdom. It blew apart the notion that the United Kingdom is a union of peer nations rather than “Greater England”.

    Had the devolved administrations had a consent right then, I believe, the United Kingdom government’s approach to the shaping of Brexit’s eventual form would have been very different. The outcome would have had to be something closer to a moderate position (EEA membership, maybe) that would keep the Union together. It would also, as it happens, have avoided most of Brexit’s negative effects on the Good Friday Agreement.

  26. The key argument that by 2016 it was too late broadly aligns with my own long-standing opinion. It’s refreshing to see it. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily to say that the particular outcome was baked in by that stage, but rather that the issue was going to be divisive and the end result, while unpredictable in its exact manifestation and which faction it would favour, was likely to be a volatile one that left the country ill at ease with itself.

    Rather than looking for counterfactuals that start by working back from a different relationship with the EU per se, I tend to think in terms of what could have left us more content as a nation with whatever form our EU membership/relationship took. The counterfactual that seems to me most interesting is the one that has the public being directly and explicitly involved much earlier on in giving a mandate to our relationship with the EU. Maybe back at Maastricht, maybe under a fresh, thrusting Blair government, but certainly years before the inertia had build to the stage that a referendum could no longer be resisted, an environment that was a tough place to look for a positive, confirmatory mandate.

    I can’t pretend to know where we would be under such a scenario, it’s a counterfactual after all. But I’d like to think (and maybe I’m being naive) that whether we we had enthusiastically affirmed out membership, decided to remain trade partners only, or ended up with some kind of “this far and no further” compromise, the undeniable legitimacy of a public mandate would have left us more reconciled to our collective decision, before the pressure cooker had been allowed to build. On a purely anecdotal level, I wasn’t surprised by the split of acquaintances who told me they’d voted either way in the wake of the referendum. The one thing that did surprise me was quite how many told me independently: “In the end I voted leave because they’ll never give us another chance”. That’s a reasoning fixed in the decades prior to the actual referendum.

  27. My feeling has always been that the terms of the referendum were wrong – making it a simple majority vote always seemed to me nutty given the magnitude of the change. The BBC’s recent three-part documentary on Rupert Murdoch, however, I think gives the longer-term key. The documentary claims that Murdoch chose to back Tony Blair for electionin return for Blair’s promise not to take the UK into the euro. Nigel Farage then says that without Murdoch Brexit would not have happened – once in the euro, the UK would not have left.


  28. My preferred counterfactual is one where the quality of our thinking culture is much better:
    – Where we can better consider positives and negatives, rather than allowing the power of a one or two negative factors to completely outweigh multiple positive factors;
    – Where we can consider information separately, without only considering its power to support a particular argument;
    – Where we can think about different elements of things and consider multiple possibilities for elements, rather than being drawn only into (often polarised) central ideas (such as ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, or ‘In’ and ‘Out’);
    – Where we can better manage the interplay between logical positives and negatives, and our emotions.

    With better thinking, we may or may not have had Brexit, but even if we have Brexit it would be a better Brexit.

  29. Maybe if Hitler had successfully invaded the UK……?

    Two things Tony Blair might have done:

    (a) adopted a more cautious approach towards allowing Eastern Europeans into the UK after enlargement like other EU states;
    (b) introduction of ID cards and making them the basis of receiving HMG services;

    but maybe that would only have bought time.

    Overall the main point is UK Politicians (and media) who thought they could safely play the EU ‘blame game’ without consequence. As early as 1984 Yes Minister was making us laugh about the Euro-sausage relying on well-established stereotypes.

  30. For me the fundamental issue sits with the casual use of referendums within a representative democracy without clarity about their purpose or power. There is, to my knowledge, no constitutional framework for these although, since Harold Wilson first used one in 1975 to extract himself from a similar problem of party management, they have become more frequent. Another counterfactual might suppose that Cameron had first passed a Referendum Act, before he embarked on the three he held, which defined how referendums were to be structured and used so that the relationship between these and the authority of Parliament could be more closely defined. Such a piece of legislation, modelled perhaps on the Irish approach, might have avoided the current mess.

    We are now dangerously close to the majoritarian authoritarianism feared by such sage thinkers as Lord Hailsham fifty years ago. The history of other states which have governed themselves with a mix of general elections and plebiscites is not encouraging. One does not need to refer to the overused examples from recent German history to be convinced. Napoleon III’s regime did not, for example, end well either!

    One lesson of the past fifty years of British political history is surely that you approach constitutional change with great caution. Certainly such innovation should never have been left to a Prime Minister who was unable on an American chat show to identify what the Magna Carta was; so much for an Eton education!

    1. To be fair to Cameron, and I’m not saying he deserves much in the way of fairness, I don’t think that was the question. It was which year was the Magna Carta signed.

      1. It’s possible that The Independent may be mistaken but here is the reference. It seems that Cameron did not know what Magna Carta actually meant- truly a school boy error- my Year 7s would all know this! So much for an Eton education although, to be fair, I doubt if young Cameron paid very much attention in class …! https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-cameron-champions-magna-carta-2012-he-didn-t-know-what-it-meant-when-he-appeared-david-letterman-s-late-show-10320601.html?amp

      2. Well, the Great Charter was not signed. It was given legal effect by affixing the king’s great seal.

        In any event the 1215 version didn’t last very long – it was annulled by the European Court of Justice Pope (Factortame [1215]?) – but further versions were passed in 1216 and 1217, and subsequent decades. Bits of the 1297 version remain in force.

  31. “What if ” Jeremy Selwyn hadn’t taken that picture? We might have had chaos with Ed Milliband rather than chaos with Boris Johnson and leaving the EU!
    Maybe Leave was always going to win because the EU was so successful in what it did (or does) that the majority of UK voters didn’t realise how it effected their lives largely for the better. In turn this enabled the Tory EU sceptics/ Leave/ tabloid press to wage an emmotive campaign to win votes.
    Your post and comments are very interesting and l have enjoyed reading all.

  32. Overall agree with you to bring about a big change you need a change much earlier than 2015.

    Narrow remain victory 2016, leads to radicalised Tory party electing not Osborne, to succeed Cameron in 2018/9. Not Osborne (likely Johnston) wins next election 2020 or pandemic delays to 2021, as JC still leading Labour so of course Tories win. Very Eurosceptic Tory Government still inside when EU is trying to expand to deal with pandemic lots of opportunity for clash.

    Can we do change better agree press and leavers pushing for let’s just get this done stop any alternative Tory leader. Alternative Tory leader who agrees to all but national government to deal with this existential issue involving 4 nations and other parties, feels hard to imagine. It’s impossible if leader of opposition is Corbyn.

    Could we make use of transition. It would have made total sense if we used it as was intended. Get deal by Dec 20, examine in U.K. and European Parliaments in detail Jan-April 2021. Spend 21-2 training people to use new workflows, IT systems etc etc. Unfortunately you are prob correct extend transition 12 or 24 months would have been excuse to extend negotiations 11 or 23 months then ram through at last minute.

    How about 2002-3 pro EU Blair aligns with Chirac and Schroeder against Iraq, Murdoch press and Tories flip out. Bush goes ahead regardless and Iraq quickly seen as total disaster and thank goodness we stayed out. Stronger support for pro EU mindset??

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