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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