Note to the 48%: Why Brexit may not mean Brexit

May clappingUPDATE: Thursday 14 July 2016.  The post below was written on Monday 11 July, and things seem to be passing out in much the way I was predicting.  Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary has taken many by surprise, and her general positioning of Brexiteers in senior Brexit-related roles is a way to endure that when the complexities of the situation start to appear there can be no claim that those involved didn’t have their hearts in it.  Messages from Phillip Hammond and retired civil servant on Radio 4 Today this morning both stressing the need to take it slowly.  We still have no idea what Brexit means – apart from Brexit.

We are all getting up this morning in (yet another) politically new world.  Today’s news is that Theresa May is leader of the Conservative Party and will soon be Prime Minister.  She is pictured on the right, apparently getting ready to lead her party colleagues in a bout of Icelandic clapping*.  Mrs May faces a tough few days getting her government together, and then a tougher few months and years untangled the mess into which the UK has allowed itself to slide.

One of Theresa May’s key statements so far has been ‘Brexit means Brexit’.  To those of us who fought (and continue to fight) for Remain, this sounds like a death knell.  Even though she was (nominally, anyway) on the side of Remain in the great ludicrous EU referendum of 2016, she was lukewarm on the subject and even proposed abandoning the European Convention on Human Rights (even though that would appear to involve leaving the EU, bizarrely).  However, all the main Tory Leavers have assassinated each other, and so Mrs May is probably the least worst person to step in at this stage.

The sudden withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom yesterday seems to have marked the end of the more ludicrous versions of Brexit.  The ashen-faced men in suits surrounding Mrs Leadsom on the doorstep of her campaign headquarters yesterday were ashen-faced for good reason.  Their dream of broadly ‘doing a Farage’, quickly triggering Article 50 and embarking on a Patrick Minford-inspired buccaneering future on the high seas of tariff-free trade have just vanished.  The arrival of Mrs May holds out the hope allowing the wave of Leave enthusiasm to break and dissipate its force onto the stony beach of reality.

So, what is Theresa May saying when she says ‘Brexit means Brexit’?  A few thoughts:

  1.  At this moment, she has to sound tough.  She can’t possibly make any reversing noises at this moment (and for quite a while).  To immediately start backtracking, looking at second referendums, etc would be politically impossible right now and in the foreseeable future.
  2. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is, when you look at it, the least controversial thing that she can say.  I am, amongst other things, a visiting research fellow in Philosophy at a British university and this statement is as close to meaningless as anything could be.  It must be true, by definition.  How could it not be?  (Indeed, any statement that ‘Brexit means not-Brexit’ would be even more crazy, leading us into a pit of paradox.)
  3. The harder part now, of course, is to expand on what Brexit means, apart from (obviously) Brexit.  I am expecting Mrs May to be making a lot of noise about starting this process in earnest in the coming days.  A new government department, perhaps?  Cabinet Minister with responsibility for Brexit?  Even some kind of commission or inquiry, co-ordinated by select committees?  There will be a lot of noise about ‘getting on with it’.
  4. So, how come this should not be viewed as dispiriting for the 48%?  The clue, as ever, comes from that Whitehall insider Sir Humphrey Appleby (from TV’s Yes Minister in the 1980s).  In this case it’s not actually Sir Humphrey, it’s his boss Sir Arnold who is Cabinet Secretary, who in the very first episode ‘Open Government’ expounds on the law of Inverse Relevance: : “The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it.”
  5. So, expect to see a great deal of talking about it in the coming days and weeks.  That’s not, strange as it may seem, a bad sign.  And Mrs May will certainly be getting things set up.  However, when the new ministers get to their desks late this week, they will be greeted by civil servants clutching huge piles of paper – things in every department that will need to be untangled for Brexit to happen.  Farmers wanting their payments, fishermen wanting their fish, research programmes, medical profession standards, food import/export – this list is endless and reaches into every corner of government.

When the task of Brexit becomes clearer – then we might start to get a handle on what Brexit means.  And it may or may not mean big Brexit.  It may mean very small Brexit indeed.

*hat tip David Baddiel.

You can enjoy the clip about the law of Inverse Relevance below:

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