Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday, 29 November 2018

On the many meanings of ‘politically impossible’, with applications to Brexit


Many people, and perhaps particularly economists, will have been told at some point that whatever policy idea they are trying to put forward may make perfect sense but doing it is ‘politically impossible’. Sometimes this has some real meaning which the proposer needs to address, but sometimes the statement can stand for little more than village gossip, or the wisdom of crowds, where the village or crowd is Westminster, Washington or wherever.

Take, for example, simplifying the tax system. Any simplification generally creates winners and losers, and politicians are often reluctant to embark on such schemes because the losers always seem to matter more than the winners. In this case being politically impossible means something concrete.

But not always. As my first Brexit example take starting the Article 50 process. It seemed to me at the time that anyone with any expertise on the issue, or who had given it some thought, had concluded that starting A50 when the UK did was a terrible idea if you wanted to make a success of Brexit. It was, to be honest, blindingly obvious. As we are now all too well aware, the A50 process ends in the UK leaving in March 2019 whether a deal has been done and approved or not, unless the EU decides otherwise. It is a negotiation with a gun at the head of whichever country is leaving, and it was designed to be exactly that way.

Some argue that the UK had no choice because the EU refused to negotiate outside the A50 framework, and indeed were encouraging the UK to start as soon as possible. But given that the whole process was designed to put the screws on the leaving country they would of course say that. Even if they had given no hint at what was possible and what was not before that process began, the UK could have at least got their own act together before starting the process. As we now know, most of the two years was wasted because of internal negotiations within the Conservative party.

But at the time we did start A50, the consensus at Westminster was that it was politically impossible not to start. I think this is an example where politically impossible just meant the wisdom of the Westminster village. Brexiters and their press backers pushed for it because they couldn’t quite believe their luck at winning the referendum and feared popular support would quickly vanish, but that was never a rational reason for the majority who were not Brexiters to follow their twisted logic.

The responsibility for this failure in doing what was obviously the wrong thing to do must lie primarily with the Prime Minister. If she or her advisers had understood what a disaster an unplanned A50 process would be, she could have easily resisted her Brexiter MPs and press by going over their top to explain the dangers of an unprepared A50 process to the people. But instead her advisers probably told her it was politically impossible to delay. Once she had decided this it was difficult for the opposition to oppose, because to be frank they do not get the exposure and perhaps also it would have been personally embarrassing to Corbyn given his immediate reaction to the result.

I wonder whether we are seeing the same problem with planning after May’s deal is voted down. Sure the Brexiters want us to crash out with no deal, but the overwhelming majority of MPs do not. Yet many MPs seem to think that having come this far it is politically impossible not to end up with a deal of some sort. If not May’s deal, then some other deal. But this is nothing more than the wisdom of the Westminster crowd. The reality is that any deal is going to look terrible. You could reduce the economic damage with something closer to BINO, but that just makes the loss of a UK say in the rules it has to obey that more obvious.

There may be a similar problem with those calling for a second referendum, suggests Steve Richards here. It is deemed politically impossible for MPs themselves to revoke Article 50, because faith in democracy will be destroyed. Richards suggests a betrayal narrative will develop whatever parliament does: it is already there every time a second referendum is incredibly described as overruling the wishes of the people. If No Deal is not on the ballot (can we seriously risk the possibility of the Brexiters doing yet more damage through a No Deal win?) those who incredibly favour No Deal will say they have been disenfranchised. 

Whether its through a second referendum or directly revoking A50, it is time MPs started doing what is best for the country. We have had two years of chaos, economic damage and neglect of other issues because MPs have slavishly followed the result of a referendum illegally and narrowly won. That referendum result was based on a view of what is possible that events have shown is simply false. It is time for MPs to start winning back the trust of those who think the EU, or EU immigration, is at the heart of their problems by being honest, and enacting policies that actually addressed the problems of those who have been left behind. It is only this that will stem a revival of UKIP or worse: the EU referendum process is a lesson in why pandering to the false tales of the far right is a road to ruin. 

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