The Koch Snowflake of Brexit

New Year’s Day, 2021

Alan Moore, in the appendices to his graphic novel From Hell, uses Koch’s Snowflake to illustrate the historiography of his subject.

Moore’s point is that every book on his subject – either with new minor details or imaginative theories – cannot go beyond certain central facts. 

New details and new interpretations can be added infinitely – but the significant events were finite.

(On the Whitechapel murders, do click and buy here for Hallie Rubenhold’s outstanding book.)


What Moore says can, of course, be said also of any group of connected historical events.

Take, for example, Brexit.

The central events of Brexit are: (1) the decision to hold a referendum on 23 June 2016; (2) the referendum result; (3) the Article 50 notification on 29 March 2017; (4) the extensions of the Article 50 period; (5) the United Kingdom departing the European Union on 31st January 2020; and (6) the end of the transition period yesterday, 31st December 2020.

These are the six tips of the Koch’s Snowflake of Brexit.

Now and in the future there will be far more detail: about the politics and the negotiations, about the content and effects of legal instruments; and about the impact of decisions made.

And there will be endless interpretations of what actually happened in these five or so eventful and exhausting years, and endless explanations of why it happened.

The amount of new detail on Brexit, and of new ‘takes’ about Brexit, is no doubt infinite.

But all the new details and all the new interpretations will not change the six central (procedural) facts of Brexit.


None of those six events were inevitable, of course.

Each event could have happened differently, or even not happened at all.

But those were the events that did happen, and so they are the things which ultimately do need to be explained.

And, as this blog has previously averred, even if certain crucial events of Brexit had turned out differently, we could have ended up with just a different form and manner of Brexit.


Now that this stage of Brexit is over – though the overall story of Brexit is far from being at an end, and may never end – it is time for me to finally complete the book I was asked to write on Brexit.

You can pre-order the book here – though the actual publication date will be later than April.

I had been waiting for the outcome of the transition period, and to discover whether there would be a relationship agreement, or not

I needed to know what would be the sixth tip of the Koch’s snowflake of Brexit.

The circumstances of the departure from the transition arrangements may explain more about else has happened since the 2016 referendum.

Of course, I could have told the story of Brexit with indifference to what happened at the end of the transition period – and there are many excellent books on Brexit already published.

But that was not the story I wanted to tell – or was able to tell in book form.

The story I want to tell as a book is how the United Kingdom went from a general election in 2015, where each major party was in support of European Union membership, to the United Kingdom leaving not only the European Union, but also (with the end of the transition period, and with special arrangements for Northern Ireland) the Single Market and Customs Union, in just five years.

People in the future will be struck by how much happened, so quickly.

(As some people are already.)

Brexit is the most extraordinary political-policy-legal-constitutional-economic group of connected events in the modern history of the United Kingdom.

It should be an interesting story to try to tell, and I hope for you to read.

A Happy New Year to all my readers and followers.


This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

31 thoughts on “The Koch Snowflake of Brexit”

  1. After following and appreciating all of your commentary during the Brexit process, especially the legal insight during the prorogation debacle, I, for one, am very much looking forward to reading this book!

  2. I look forward to reading this, although I will be ordering from my local Independent bookshop and not Amazon.

  3. I think one fascinating question is: to what extent can it be said that all this has happened by accident? Sure, there are some people who’ve always wanted something like what we have ended up with, but back in 2015 the question of EU membership didn’t feature in many people’s list of the major issues facing the country. Yet somehow the electorate has been recruited to take sides in a debate that they didn’t previously care much about, and quite apart from the EU membership outcome, the result is that we now have a bitterly divided country, and this even threatens our own UK union. What does this say about the ability of politicians to stir up trouble on previously uncontentious matters?

    1. I note though that for a lot of Leave voters, they are already bored of the subject and want to ‘move on’ from it.

      As for Brexit threatening our own UK union – the divisions have been there in Scotland since Maggie Thatcher tried out the Poll Tax on them. Brexit has only served to widen cracks into chasms.

    2. I dont profess to be any kind of history aficionado, but it seems to be a common theme that when there is some kind of economic discontent within a country, someone often comes along and points the finger at the foreigners living within the land. Especially if they seem to be prospering. Brexit had a lot of that.

    3. A very good question that I hope David looks at. I wouldn’t pin it all on politicians. We cannot discount the way social media has been used to sway opinion and divide.

      1. “social media” is like Speaker’s Corner on a global scale.
        every T, D & H now has unlimited reach to all and sundry.

      2. Yes, I agree, and of course certain elements of the print media had been rubbishing the EU for decades before that, which helped to lay the ground for this issue to flare up. But social media now amplifies this in a much more pernicious way.

  4. It is a fact that Great Britain has left the single market and customs union. The United Kingdom has not, however. Hence the “border” in the Irish sea. I wonder how long that will last.

  5. Happy New Year to you too! Thank you for all the work you have put and continue to put in, and I too look forward to reading your book.

  6. Thank you David. I will also look out for your book (uncannily, I was thinking about you putting it all in a book form (as did Sir Ivan Rogers form his lectures) and in comes your newest post!). I have found your blog interesting – a voice of reason in a cacophony – albeit that I have not always agreed (but courteous disagreement is good), in particular your blog about a written constitution v. revamping what ‘we’ have. But that is rather minor to be honest. What I think is more difficult to address is the ‘Union’. I hope your book gives Scotland the voice it did not get during Brexshit.

  7. I have very much enjoyed and appreciated your blog posts and tweets on Brexit through this whole process. They have been illuminating and educational – this is no exception.

    I am eagerly anticipating your book and have had it pre-ordered for some time. (Since December 2017, to be precise!)

    Thank you for your commentary on the law and policy implications of Brexit and the everyday work of government.

  8. For me, the most interesting and fascinating subjects were the various “Constitutional ” challenges and the related two Miller cases.

    I hope that one day, she will be remembered for the great service she did to the UK.

    Unless, of course, the Torys dismantle the cases’ outcomes.

    Anyway, unlike 1933 in Germany, the UK, so far, survived the onslaught.

    As for the Politics of Brexit as opposed to the Economics of Brexit, it was, for some at least, a foregone conclusion. But, then again, some predictions always turn out to be right, while the vast majority never does.

    A49 will always be an option for the currently younger generation until the newer generation gets to be in power with no experience of loss of having departed from the European Project.

    Until then, long live the Splendid Isolation from the real world.

  9. But this is not the end. The UK will break up within 3 to 5 years. A United Ireland and and independent Scotland in the EU in 7 to 10 years is certain. England and Wales will seek re-admittance to the EU either before Sottish independence to try and save the Union or shortly after in an attempt to avoid falling into irrelevance.
    It would not surprise me, when the current governments attempt to manage the Covid vaccination programme fails, if there is not an attempt to join the by then more successful EU vaccination programme. I expect this to happen in March, and to lead to a rejoining the EU institutions in steps, as a way for the UK to escape the disaster of the UK vaccination programme. Full membership by 2025.

    1. I think an Englexit from the UK/GB would have been the better route to take.
      Least collateral damage and all that.

    2. A good post but I am not sure about a United Ireland in 7 to 10 years. A broad swathe of Unionism currently opposes it. More fundamentally is whether Ireland could afford it. Nth Ireland receives a massive subsidy from Westminster of approximately £10 billion per annum which Ireland could not possible afford. The NI economy is like the Irish economy in the 1970s, massively dependent on the public sector. Because of this subsidy and the laxity of oversight a great deal of corruption exists. Ireland hasn’t even begun a conversation about what compromises, constitutional, political economic and social, would be required to make unification happen. And NI remains a political basket case with routine interventions required by external
      political agents in order to make things work. Bluntly it isn’t ready for unification no matter what the ardent nationalists of SF believe. The far better strategy is for the Republic of Ireland to engage on different levels including financially and continue the work towards the political and social normalisation of NI; a society which remains bitterly divided. Let’s see how being half in and half out of the EU works first.

    3. I agree that one very likely outcome of this is a United Ireland. I doubt it will be within 5 years as the powers in Westminster will try to delay that as much as possible.

      One other element of this is that Europe is also changed by this. There are real problems in the world today that require the EU to take their seat at the table of responsible world leaders (climate change and the rise of populism among others). Russia and China already have their answers to the problem of populism, and the USA’s position on this matter has been so weakened by the outgoing administration that it would take a truly great new administration to right it. Hopefully Europe finds a way to put its house in order now that the one member of the club that kept fighting against the club becoming stronger has left.

    4. Sorry I just don’t think that’s true. Johnson won’t allow Scotland a second referendum under his watch and he’s probably a two term prime minister, if not Gove won’t allow it. There’s really not much Scotland can do about it and we’re not talking 70/30 here. It’s currently 52-48…ish. I think NI even less likely considering they’re in the EU in all but name – all citizens having the option of Irish passport. The current crop of Tories are not playing nice, much to the satisfaction of their 40% support.

    5. Anthony, as one who voted remain, we must be careful not to enter that door marked alternative world. I spoke with a German friend who’s over 70 last night, who wondered if he’d be vaccinated before the end of 2021. I’ve been checking this morning, and between pre-order volumes, supply & logistics, EU vaccination is not working well at this time (to put it mildly).

  10. My first thought was that the “half-sized” triangles are rather less than we were promised. Each has sides that are only 1/3rd the length of the larger triangle to which it is attached, and 1/9th the area.

    The boundary is indeed as infinite as Brexit. The area it carves out, however, is finite – and rather obviously smaller than the area of the original circle.

  11. Happy New Year and a big thank you to David for many years of analysis and insight. I look forward to the book!

    What of the future? I do not see how the UK (or any part of it) can truly heal without a change to PR. The two main parties have become such broad churches that a large slice of each now resides in the graveyard.

    Brexit is a consequence of the division within the tories, and the catalyst which has driven the divisions throughout our society. The main parties need to split so that each sequel party can become an entity that can cohere. That would also result in the electorate being able to vote for a party of choice instead of the lesser of evils.

    Over time we will almost certainly return to the EU. This, I suspect, will be driven by financial necessity: the need to trade with the vast trading bloc on our doorstep without high overheads. Business is pragmatic, and business feeds the exchequer.

    We’ve just shifted from years of the clock ticking to Brexit to the tap dripping to rejoin the EU.

  12. I’m reminded of something John Lanchester wrote in ‘Whoops’, his 2010 account of the Great Financial Crisis: “Public rage is like lightning, and tends to discharge its energies at anyone who has the bad luck to be prominent in the wrong way at the wrong time.”

    For thirty years the Market had been the state religion, then suddenly the financial system imploded into a void, the state had to bail it out at immense cost, and the government then threw money at asset holders while squeezing poor people through austerity policies. The whole political and economic system was thrown into a crisis of legitimacy. Many of us expected severe political and social conflict to follow, perhaps something like that of the seventies and eighties, but the first few years after the crash were mostly surprisingly calm in the UK.

    In June 2016 the populist lightning finally struck. While Brexit is disastrous in many ways, we should perhaps be grateful that it was the EU that took the blow, since of all the actors in UK politics it was the biggest, strong enough to absorb English populist rage and the hate-propaganda of the Tory press with barely a shrug as it withdrew. Public anger at Parliament – evident in 2011 with the expenses scandal and again during the ‘Remainer Parliament’ of 2017-19 – is much much worrying, as Parliament’s power and reputation seem to be shrinking almost daily as the executive finds new ways to bypass it.

  13. None of those six events were inevitable, of course. Each event could have happened differently, or even not happened at all.

    My caveat on this would be that there are certain events that exert a strong force on what will most likely follow after them, and that decision space is not flat but has local optima.

    Specifically, it can well be argued that the two local optima are EU membership and the present solution, all-out of everything except an FTA, because leaving the EU while remaining member of the Single Market would mean following rules without the power to influence them. (Maybe a simplification, but so is the public discussion, which is what matters for political purposes.)

    So, even if May had not quickly set the red line of no freedom of movement I don’t really see how the long-term result could have been anything except revoke or no SM membership, for example.

  14. On (2) the ‘result’ of the referendum? We know its consequences; but I don’t think still – in law – we know its result (advisory, binding etc? And if ‘binding’, on whom and by what authority in UK law?). I accept it cannot lawfully be challenged once (3) – (6) are operative. But will a differently constituted Parliament with one or two cerebral politicians ever look at the dodgy – in law – basis of the train of events from (3) onwards and for the foreseeable future; and pass legislation to begin to unravel the whole Brexit mess

    1. that train/ship has left and will not return the same way.

      new bridge/passage needs to be found

  15. Kindle version please – and oh get it on audiobook and I’ll chuck one of my Audible tokens your way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.