BREXIT – What The Hell Happens Now? Ian Dunt. Canbury Press. 2016
On June 23rd 2016 British voters delivered a slim majority (52/48) in an advisory Referendum on whether the UK should remain or leave the EU.
What happened immediately afterwards was even more shocking than the actual result (which not even the ‘Leave’ camp had expected). British politics suddenly did a screeching 180 degree U-turn on decades of commitment by both Conservatives and Labour to the EU – “Brexit means Brexit”. The Referendum was transmuted to unchallengeable Holy Writ – the people had spoken.
The problem is, as Ian Dunt’s book admirably sets out, “the people” and that includes most of our politicians, had no real idea of what had just happened and what the consequences would be. Dunt’s book tries to educate us all, in eye-opening and eye-watering detail.
I should say at this point I rarely read non-fiction books from cover to cover. I don’t have the time – as an academic you quickly learn to skim, dip and dive into books to gut them for what’s essential. I read this, all of it.
There is way too much in the book to review fully so I’ll just highlight what were the key “take-aways” (as we now say) for me.
Christmas for Quangos
I study the organization of government, broadly defined, and even I am shocked by the amount of administrative challenge Brexit will bring. Dunt shows how a host of functions – mainly regulatory – have been taken over by the EU over the past 4 decades and as we leave we will have to reconstruct them a UK institutions. In 2010 the new Coalition government set out on its only very partially successful cull of so-called quangos. Brexit will be Christmas for quangos.
The Great Repeal Bill – a license to kill
Dunt accepts that the only sensible way to even try to extricate the UK from 40+ years of entanglement of EU law with UK law is the proposed “Great Repeal Bill”. This will repeal the Act which took us into Europe but fix all consequent legislation as it is now. Then the Government will, over time, get rid of or replace the bits of EU law it wants to. However, and here’s the problem, it will do so mainly through secondary legislation – statutory instruments. These get little Parliamentary scrutiny. Ministers will suddenly have the power to effectively get rid of Acts of Parliament they don’t like without the tedious process of Parliament passing laws – giving them effectively a “license to kill” and fundamentally undermining the very “Parliamentary Sovereignty” Brexit was supposed to re-establish.
Trading Places – the EU for the WTO
The favorite argument of the hard-Brexiteers at the moment is that UK has the whip hand in negotiations with the EU because we can always walk away and trade under WTO rules. What Dunt shows is this is another bit of fantasy. WTO doesn’t have trade rules, it has rules about how trading rules should be formulated. These take the form of a set of “schedules” for each country – at the moment ours are the same as the rest of the EUs.
As soon as we leave the EU we have to have our own. Whether these are just copied from the existing EU schedules or are a new bespoke set (which will be fiendishly hard to create in short order) they are immediately open to challenge by any other WTO members state. Some will challenge because they don’t like aspects of current EU trading rules – agricultural producers in Africa, for example or, more likely, US multinationals in areas like Pharma and Tech that hate many existing EU rules . Some may challenge for extraneous reasons to pressurize the British government on other issues – for example Spain on Gibraltar or Argentina over the Falklands.
Whatever happens in detail with “WTO Rules”, as Dunt points out in a post-script, complete national sovereignty is an illusion unless you seal yourself off from the world like North Korea. One could add that so is “free trade” – all trade between nations is based on mutually agreed rules and therefore to some degree shared-sovereignty.
Time After Time
The final, most worrying, thing that comes across from Dunt’s book is the time factor. A lot of ‘Leave’ voters and far too many Leave advocates thought, and still seem to think, all this is “simples” and all we have to do is “Brexit”. We certainly will have to Brexit the EU within 2 years once Article 50 is triggered. But that is nowhere near enough time for trade deals with the EU or our other major trading partners. But moving to WTO rules” isn’t a simple or quick option either.
Dunt’s book is a heroic attempt to convey the consequences of the Brexit vote in as balanced a way as possible. He tries, very hard, to see the positives but the reality is there are very few of them.
This was a book written quickly and it sometimes shows – some passages seem incomplete or shallower than others. But overall it is very well done.
It was also completed before the election of Donald Trump. So some of its positive assumptions – that for example the US would be encouraging us to maintain as close a relationship with the EU as possible – are now gone.
Worse, soon-to-be President Trump is threatening to destabilize the whole world trading order by ripping up US trade pacts in North America and the Pacific and effectively declaring a trade-war with China. He has also welcomed Brexit and made it clear he sees both the EU and NATO as unnecessary.
If Brexit looked challenging before, it will be a whole lot more so with Trump in the White House.