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How Britain could change its mind about Brexit

Anatole Kaletsky in London | January 17, 2018 00:00:00

Will 2018 be the year when the United Kingdom changes its mind about leaving the European Union? Conventional wisdom says that stopping Brexit is impossible. But what did conventional wisdom say about Donald Trump? Or Emmanuel Macron? Or, for that matter, the original Brexit referendum? In revolutionary times, events can go from impossible to inevitable without ever passing through improbable. Brexit was such an event, and its reversal could be another.

Just ask Nigel Farage, the former UK Independence Party leader, who has suddenly said that the June 2016 Brexit referendum could be overturned. "The Remain side are making all the running," Farage warned his fellow hardline Leavers this weekend. "They have a majority in parliament, and unless we get ourselves organised we could lose the historic victory that was Brexit."

The votes for Brexit and Trump are often described today as an ineluctable result of deep socioeconomic factors like inequality or globalisation. In some ways, this description is right. Political upheavals of some kind were to be expected after the 2008 economic crisis, as I have argued for years.

But there was nothing inevitable about the specific upheavals that happened. Brexit, like Trump, was a contingent outcome of small perturbations in voter behaviour. If just 1.8 per cent of Britons voted differently, Brexit would now be a forgotten joke-word. If Hillary Clinton's popular majority of three million votes were distributed slightly differently among the states, the phrase "President Trump" would be as laughable today as it was in January 2016.

To stop Brexit in the year ahead, four similarly modest shifts in behaviour need to happen. Public opinion must shift slightly further against the Brexit decision, which is already viewed as "wrong in hindsight" by a 4.0 per cent point margin. Politicians who privately detest Brexit must speak out publicly. Reasoned opposition to government policies must be recognised again as a hallmark of democracy, not an act of treason. And the sense that Brexit is inevitable must be dispelled.

These requirements are interdependent. Politicians will speak out only if they sense public opinion shifting; but public opinion will shift only with credible political leadership. Politicians are cowed into silence if all opposition is branded as anti-democratic. And if Brexit appears inevitable, why should voters bother to think again?

The sense of inevitability, opinion polls and focus groups show, is the most important obstacle to a reversal. About 30 per cent of British voters oppose the EU so passionately that they will always back leaving, regardless of the economic costs, just as Trump's "base" will always support "their" president regardless of how he behaves.

But these diehard Eurosceptics would never have won a majority without some 20 per cent of voters who cared little about Europe, but treated the referendum as a protest vote. Many of these low-conviction voters are now dismayed that Brexit has distracted attention from their real grievances about health, inequality, low wages, housing, and other issues. Yet, for this very reason, they want the inevitable departure from Europe to happen as quickly as possible so that the country can get back to business as usual.

Now suppose these voters began to believe that Brexit, far from being inevitable, might never happen. They would demand that politicians "should stop banging on about Europe" and start dealing with the people's real concerns.

The sense of inevitability could be dispelled by recent shifts in the internal politics of both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition.

Labour has begun to realise that its only possible route back to power is by opposing Brexit. Detailed analysis of the 2017 election returns has shown that Labour's unexpected gains were due almost entirely to affluent young voters whose motivation was the hope of derailing Brexit. Had it not been for these anti-Brexit voters, Prime Minister Theresa May would have won the widely predicted landslide.

If Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, now becomes "the handmaiden of Brexit," in Tony Blair's memorable phrase, by shying away from effective opposition, these new voters will feel betrayed, the party will split between the Marxists and centrists, and its hopes of ever winning a general election will be dashed. If, on the other hand, Labour decided to fight Brexit, public opinion would rapidly shift.

Opposition to Brexit would start to be treated as a natural feature of democratic politics. Labour would start to benefit from the government's negotiating blunders. And the sense of Brexit's inevitability would vanish.

That, in turn, would give courage to pro-European Conservatives. Tory MPs are unlikely to vote against their party leadership if the absence of Labour opposition allows the government to win anyway. If, however, concerted opposition from Labour created a genuine possibility of stopping Brexit, Tory MPs who put national interest ahead of party loyalty would find themselves praised for their mettle, not ridiculed for folly. They might even calculate that their own careers would prosper if their party reconciled itself to Europe.

This chain of events now seems to be starting. In December, May lost her first important Brexit battle, when Labour MPs united with 12 Tory rebels to pass an amendment requiring a specific Act of Parliament to approve whatever deal is negotiated with the EU. This means that any Brexit plan that arouses serious opposition, either from hardline nationalists or from pro-European Tories, could be used to trigger a new referendum. Following this breakthrough, the first serious cross-party campaign explicitly aiming to stop Brexit, and not merely to mitigate damage by seeking a "softer" divorce deal, will be launched later this month.

To succeed, this campaign will need to persuade disillusioned Remainers that Brexit is not inevitable. It will need to show protest voters that whatever their problems, Brexit is not the answer. It will need to convince Labour politicians that collaboration with Brexit is electoral suicide, and persuade pro-EU Tory rebels that a rebellion would not be futile. Finally, it will need European leaders to state unequivocally that Britain is legally entitled to change its mind about leaving. These requirements are challenging, but not impossible.

David Davis, the pro-Brexit Tory who is now leading the UK's Brexit negotiations, once said that, "If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy." Britain is still a democracy, and it can still change its mind about Brexit.

Anatole Kaletsky is Chief Economist and Co-Chairman of Gavekal Dragonomics and the author of Capitalism 4.0, The Birth of a New Economy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.


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