Brexit may end in a whimper, not a bang

The process of leaving the EU will be so long and complex that we might forget the passion that got us into this mess

The Times

Now that he has finished his report on the Iraq war I propose that we appoint Sir John Chilcot to his next inquiry. It will be called Leaving the European Union: the Verdict and, by the time it is possible to declare success or failure, Sir John should be almost ready to report. It will need a Chilcot to make the argument about leaving the European Union crystallise. Very few things matter in politics and, strange as it may seem for such a dominant issue, Britain leaving the EU might, in political terms, be one of them.

That does not mean that leaving the EU does not matter for Britain. It does matter, although nothing like as much as its histrionic advocates on either side think it matters. The hopes of the clever-stupid people in the Leave campaign are wildly exaggerated. They are the sort of people who never think anything without thinking it to excess. But by the same token the claim of George Osborne’s punishment budget, that Britain will suffer an economic catastrophe, is surely too miserable. Even if investment does collapse and inflation takes off, economic loss may not translate into political capital for Remainers. The prevailing assumption of the lords who defeated the government’s Article 50 bill this week is that the country will come to regret its decision of last June. There is little evidence for that remorse yet but, so the argument goes, we need to prepare for the inevitable change of heart and a public confession of error.

Black Wednesday was the day that shattered Major’s government

 Yet even if those rebellious peers are right about the economics, they may still be wrong about the politics. Political consequence requires a process to become an event that becomes a metaphor for the significance of the moment. When there were queues at petrol stations in 2000, Labour’s decision to abandon the fuel tax escalator became a political event. It was suddenly about the competence of the government as well as fuel prices. Black Wednesday 1992 was the day that shattered John Major’s government. The 2008 crash was a perilous moment, to which today’s politics still refers. At a lower level of significance, there are notable moments such as the 10p tax rise, the omnishambles budget, breaking a manifesto pledge over national insurance contributions.

Most events don’t settle into a story like this. Politics is largely a liquid state. Sometimes a snowflake forms and, more rarely again, it crystallises into ice, which is when a government starts to slip. The negotiations over Britain’s relationship with the EU will dominate the political news for two years, at least. Yet for all that, its economic effects may never translate into a simple political idiom.

It is hard to make political capital of changes that are spread over a long period. Even if our future outside the EU is, eventually, a long descent, the gradient will never be steep enough for us to notice at any given point. Most measurements of decline (if decline is the right verdict) will appear in aggregate. It will be all growth rates and GDP numbers. None of us lives in the aggregate, though. We all live singular lives and an effect that looks large in the Treasury Red Book may not show up in a household budget. Much of the economic effect of leaving will be a reduction in investment which, by definition, we will not notice. Even if people do notice, that will not be enough. People need to attribute small changes in their own circumstances to a decision that they made years ago. In particular, people who voted to leave need to make that connection and then blame themselves.

That is not likely — especially as this will be a constantly contested process. Every item of economic news, from here to eternity, will be fought over on familiar grounds: “This is because of Brexit”; “No it’s not, it’s because of something else”. Any downturn can be blamed on a range of causes from lower growth in China to Britain’s historically low productivity. The world will carry on and economic news from elsewhere will complicate the argument. The emerging picture will not therefore be a clear verdict on the referendum. It will be instead an endless war of attribution in which leaving the EU is heralded as the cause of everything good or bad. Even if the Remain side wins this phoney war, remember that there is no viable opposition to pick up the political dividend.

A rule of politics is that hardly anybody really cares about Europe

If people are going to notice, care and attribute their misfortune to voting to leave the EU then the process has to crystallise into a moment in the near future. It could be a queue of lorries in Dover unable to unload their contents as the drivers struggle to sign all the customs forms. Perhaps the image of David Davis knocking on a locked door in a Brussels corridor of power from which he has been excluded as Britain gets no deal. Or maybe Nissan leaving Sunderland citing EU withdrawal. These are possibilities, but so is the euro catching fire again. After the obligatory war of attribution — “we torched the place” versus “thank goodness we escaped the burning building” — the latter verdict would win. The prospect of regret would disappear.

It all threatens to be colossally boring and strangely inconsequential. This is the last reason why the process might not crystallise. Bear in mind one of the basic rules of British politics is that hardly anybody cares about Europe. In general elections the issue of Europe is never in the top ten most pressing concerns. Of course, if you ask voters now what is the biggest political issue in the country they will say the negotiation. That does not mean they particularly care about Europe all of a sudden. The vast majority of people never noticed the EU in the course of their daily lives. There is going to be no bonanza of benefits in which they suddenly notice its absence and start singing hosannah. Neither will anyone suddenly think: “Oh no, where has the EU gone? I really miss it.”

The vote to leave is often said to be evidence of a backlash against the out-of-touch metropolitan elite. That’s analysis-as-cliché, but there is one sense in which the political class is horribly out of touch with the people. It cares about the EU and they don’t. Life and politics rumble on, in separate places, largely unnoticed, only occasionally touching. The political verdict on leaving the EU might be, as the Riddler said to Batman, like tomorrow, which is always coming but never arrives. Which is why it’s a job for Chilcot.

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