Hard Brexit is a Remainer myth

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Hard Brexit is a Remainer myth

A real Brexit would have been a huge success, not the Hard Brexit caricature of the Remainer elite, writes Nick Turner. 

It started the moment they called it. Having allowed Laura Kuenssberg and Kamal Ahmed to parrot Project Fear, David Dimbleby then asked three Remainers to give their gloomy reactions to the BBC’s referendum result call before poor Steve Hilton could express any of the joy that over half the country then felt. Thus was the BBC’s war on Brexit declared. The corporation was conscious of how it had let down its Guardian reading target audience by even giving airtime to the Leave side, one of the opening fronts was the canard of ‘Hard Brexit’.

Many myths have been attached to this promiscuous phrase, not least that it would ever be achieved, but let us consider what a Hard Brexit would have looked like had a true Brexit government taken power following David Cameron’s resignation. If one had listened to Will Straw, head of the Britain Stronger in Europe (BSE) campaign, it might have been expected that roughly three million British residents would be rounded up and summarily dumped in the Channel, halfway between St Michael’s Mount and Mont Saint-Michel, in rubber dinghies recycled from the beeches of Lesbos and Lampedusa. This was obviously never going to happen, not least because the British government has trouble evicting convicted terrorists from their shores. No one, not even Nigel Farage, had argued for such a policy, the trolling of tattoo parlours not withstanding.

A more realistic Hard Brexit scenario would actually have seen the rights of EU citizens living in the UK being confirmed before Article 50 was triggered. Moving on from the hyperbole of liberal-fascist Remoaners, what would a real Brexit government have done differently from Theresa May’s Hokey-Cokey administration? For a start they might have challenged the assumption that there actually are any benefits to the Single Market, beyond slightly easier travel than that enjoyed by Canadian or Chinese tourists. Article 50 could not have been triggered much earlier than it was, Gina Miller’s High Court case aside, the contingent-less civil service needed a good six months to prepare. Parliament could have unilaterally repealed the 1972 European Community Act, but as the EU Withdrawal Bill that has just cleared the House of Commons was authored by the Godfather of Brexit, Sir Bill Cash, it is unlikely that this radical step would have been taken. Hindsight would obviously suggest they would not have called a general election, but a government of legitimate Brexiteers would have had no need for a further democratic mandate.

It is at the negotiating table that the real divergence can be envisaged. It is doubtful that a Brexit voting Prime Minister would have repeated their predecessor’s mistake of even playing Brussels’ game. An alternative strategy would have been to declare that the UK would put up no tariff barriers upon leaving and dared the EU not to reciprocate. Or a more mercantilist tactic might have been to state that as the UK imports much from the EU than it exports, how much was Brussels willing to cough up for continued access? Realistically though it is likely a Hard Brexit government would have made it policy that it would only put up tariffs in response to barriers being raised by Brussels. How would this putative Hard Brexit government responded to the EU’s ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy? Would it have walked away? Most certainly, if only to control the domestic narrative given the vehemence of the BBC-led continuity Remain campaign.

Indeed, it would have been in their interests to play the role of the plucky underdog. So rather than ‘meaningful progress’, a standoff could have resulted, with Britain heading for WTO terms and the EU insisting that alone of all the countries in the world, it is the UK that has to pay to trade with a block that actually sells more to Britain. How might our Hard Brexiteers have handled this? Would they happily have waited for saner voices in Europe to point out that the so-called cliff edge would damage the EU far more than Britain, potentially leading to the collapse of the Euro and the breakup of the Eurozone once markets realised the EU was bankrupt without British cash? Or would they have embarked upon a more imaginative play? Might an ennobled Lord Farage have been dispatched around the continent to stir up separatist movements? Maybe a Brexit government would have offered trade deals to individual nation states, knowing they would be re-buffed but confident that, as the EU disintegrates further over the coming years, Britain’s oldest allies like the Portuguese and the Dutch, and special friends like Ireland and Poland, would remember those proffered hands?

There would be no transition period for a Brexit government, the two years of article 50 being more than adequate to sign free trade agreements (FTAs) when on average, with anyone other than the EU, they take eighteen months. It is not even clear why Britain needs such deals when it could return to the policy of unilateral free trade (UFT) that served it so well in the past. Sure there are some deals that have to be made; US law does not allow the sale of liquified natural gas (LNG) without an FTA, but as the current President wants to export more energy a UK-US deal could be written on “a single sheet of A4”, according to longtime Republican economist Steve Moore. A UFT policy would also avoid potentially problematic talks with countries like India, where the prize of tariff free access would have to be offset against politically sensitive migration demands. Opponents of UFT claim it would destroy British manufacturing, but this is a short sighted view that does not take into account the gains from purchasing raw materials at world prices and the innovation this encourages.

Furthermore, the UK’s manufacturing sector is lean and efficient since the reforms of the 1980s and has a comparative advantage in producing those high end goods the growing economies of the world are increasingly demanding, nor does it account for the trend of a lowered labour count in automated factories that has led to re-shoring and new investments in the developed world. For a services dominated economy like the UK’s where the consumer is king, it makes perfect sense to buy the goods that meet British regulations at the lowest price, no matter where they are sourced.

The myth of Hard Brexit presented by the British media-political class is one of little Englanders pulling up drawbridges and beating up foreigners while only they, the anointed elite, have the vision to keep Britons from barbarism. Their vision is intrinsically linked to membership of the EU, without which Britain would enter a new dark age, like that which followed the withdrawal of old Rome. Britain rejected that vision just as it rejected the EU, though it still suffers both; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “Myths fade into legend” and as the myth of Hard Brexit recedes under Theresa’s Maybe in, Maybe out ploy, recall that it was not so long ago that Britons could dare to dream the legend of their freedom once again.

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  • Nick Turner
    Nick Turner
    Nick Turner is a classicist. He is currently studying the history of economic and political thought.
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