On June 23, 2016, British voters chose to leave the European Union. Over the last three years, the UK has attempted to negotiate their withdrawal from the EU but to very little progress. Prime Minister Theresa May resigned from office in June as a result of these political failures and the ruling Conservative Party chose Boris Johnson to replace her. But what does the election of Johnson mean for Brexit and a polarized British public? What is the future of the British economy? What will the UK look like in 2024? Doug Becker speaks with Russell Foster, Paul P. Craig, and Simon Radford about what a post-Brexit Britain will look like.
Russell Foster is a Lecturer in Britain and European Integration at Kings College, London. He is an expert in Brexit and national identities in Europe.
Paul P. Craig is a Professor of English Law at Oxford University. He is an expert in administrative and EU law.
Simon Radford is an independent scholar based in the UK.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Doug Becker: Paul Craig, Theresa May was not able to negotiate an agreement acceptable to both the EU and UK. Why has it been so difficult to get an agreement?
Paul Craig: Well I think there are multiple factors, but the bottom line is the sticking point which prevented Theresa May getting her deal through parliament was the Northern Ireland backstop. Now the Northern Ireland backstop can be simple or complicated it depends on how you approach it. You need the backstop for the following reasons: economic and peace. In Northern Ireland you have an open border at present between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The big fear if the UK leaves the EU, that border will become a hard border and that will be very prejudicial to peace between the two Irelands and very prejudicial to trade. So what they devised in the withdrawal agreement is something called the Northern Ireland backstop and the rationale behind it was to keep an open border between the two Irelands until a trade deal could be structured between the UK and the EU in order to obviate the need for that Northern Ireland backstop.
Now that didn’t please many of the hard-line Brexiteers in the European Research Group who argued that the EU was indirectly bent on keeping the UK forever in a customs union. That is not true. That is mistaken. Look at it from the perspective of the EU: in a post-Brexit world the Northern Ireland border is an external border for the whole of the EU so goods can come into the EU over that border and then they have free movement in relation to the rest of Europe. Although much of the attention of the Northern Ireland backstop has been focused on the customs part, actually the EU is much more concerned with product safety. What they are worried about is whether your child’s teddy bear which comes from a third country and ends up in the EU is going to be safe in accordance with EU product safety rules. So I think that the idea that the Northern Ireland backstop is some sort of Machiavellian plan by the EU to keep the UK in a customs union and tied to the EU forever is misleading. But that is the view which has been taken by the hard right in the Tory party. And let’s be clear, they have had an agenda of their own and their agenda has been they want to push for a no-deal Brexit. So they saw opposition to the withdrawal agreement as a way in which to tilt the balance of power towards a no deal, which is what they are getting.
DB: Russell Foster, is it the ideal of the leave group to break completely with the EU and is this is an example of the UK turning their back on the continent and looking some place else?
Russell Foster: The British have always been the most reluctant member of the EU. So when we joined the European Economic Community in 1973 almost immediately there were concerns, and because of the general chaos at the time a referendum had to be held as to whether we should stay in the EEC less than two years after we joined it. And since the early 1970s, we have always been reluctant, a bit like the guest at a party who doesn’t really want to be there but they will be there for diplomatic purposes. There has always been a strong Euroscepticism among British politicians both on the right and on the left – we can’t forget the very hard left are equally opposed to the EU. But this sort of Euroscepticism was quite marginal, it was vocal but it was marginal until the early 2000s. The Brexit vote in 2016 I argue was not really a vote against the EU. Of course it was the core issue, but we have to remember that by 2016, this was eight years into a period of austerity, this was a period of increasing disillusionment with the general system of British politics, and this was riding on the back of very emotional politics that came around the time of the 2014 Scottish referendum.
So when the 2016 referendum was held, yes it did tap into and reflect a long term Euroscepticism among the British, but to a great extent it was a vote not against the EU but a vote against the Conservative Party, it was a vote against then-Prime Minister David Cameron, it was a vote against austerity, it was a vote against a system which for millions of people has forgotten about them. In the last thirty to forty years we have seen a capital city in London having an extremely disproportionate say over British politics, media, culture, and in 2016 when the referendum was held whereby every vote counted, people used this as an opportunity to express their despair, their anger, their contempt for the system. Let’s not forget that during the Brexit campaign, it was almost taken as a given that the result would be remain, that whatever emotions that were released during the campaign would die down again. And when the country woke up on the Friday morning to the news that leave had won, it was quite a shock because people didn’t really expect it to happen. But in the three years since then, emotions have become much more heightened and the EU has ended up becoming a bogeyman for so many issues which are not really related to the EU. So the referendum was borne out of a very wide variety of concerns and there were many reasons people voted leave, but in the last three years emotions have split and become much more polarised to the point that people who voted differently to you are now seen as consciously wrong, as malevolent, almost evil in a way. And this makes it extremely difficult for either side or for any party or politician to put forward a proposal or a solution which doesn’t end up seriously angering a large portion of the population.
DB: Now into this breach has stepped Boris Johnson who is one of the most polarising political figures in British history. How did he become PM and is he likely to further polarise the nation or to possibly unite it?
Simon Radford: I think in terms of finding out the origins of Boris Johnson depends on how far back you want to go. There has been plenty of coverage on his time at Oxford, even Eton, a school which has produced twenty British prime ministers. But it is clear it has been a job he has wanted since he was a boy and he has been working to get there for a long time. There are two pillars to Boris Johnson. The first is a sense of his charisma and electability, the second is based on his leave credentials within the Tory party. The Tory party members are very scared of a Jeremy Corbyn prime ministership, they are worried that they are losing their ability to win elections as their voting base gets older. In some ways there is an acknowledgement there is a crisis in conservatism even as other parties face their own challenges. And the way they think they can address this is by having a charismatic leader who can reach parts of the country which traditionally the Conservatives have not been able to do, and by having someone who won’t betray them given the vast majority of the Tory party grassroots are leavers and very much in the hard Brexit camp. So Boris, who played such a prominent role leading the Vote Leave campaign has that credibility with the Tory grassroots but he is also considered charismatic and has the ability to convince others to their banner in the way that some other characters on the Tory right might just be preaching to the choir and not have the ability to reach beyond the Conservatives natural base. One of the other interesting things about the Vote Leave campaign is that it was highest in many ways in traditional Labour heartlands, in places that had suffered the most from de-industrialisation under Thatcher and places which had an antipathy to the Conservative party. During the last election there was some thought that the Conservatives might make inroads in these areas and pick up some seats and now Boris Johnson is seen as someone who might be able to help traditional Labour voters that jumped to the Conservative party possibly through the gateway drug of voting for the Brexit Party first. But if they are going to vote for the Brexit Party first, they need to vote for a Conservative party who the think truly believes in Brexit and that’s what Boris’ brand is.
DB: Part of the picture I am getting here is that there seems to be vested interests in ensuring there was no deal on Brexit. Paul Craig, was Theresa May’s desire for a deal a bit of an illusion and was a deal realistically probably never possible?
PC: One needs to step back a bit to shortly after the result of the referendum. There has been a fault line running through British politics since then which no one has ever owned up to, because the bottom line is the number of hard Brexiteers who really want a no-deal Brexit are rather limited in the Tory party, probably somewhere in the region of eighty MPs. One of the interesting stories is how the hard Brexiteers have continually punched above their weight even before the referendum. So everything that the coalition government under David Cameron did in relation to the EU was almost always explicable as a result of pressure being put on Cameron by the numerically limited but nonetheless very effective hard Brexiteers. Indeed the very promise he made to hold the referendum was as a result of that kind of pressure. If you fast forward from 2013 to after the referendum what you actually had was something the governing class didn’t really want to own up to which was a very simple tension, a simple tension that was easily expressed between a soft Brexit and a hard Brexit. The bottom line is, if you have a soft Brexit this entails some continuing close ties with the EU, either in the form of something akin to the European Economic Area plus a customs union, the sort of deal that Norway has. The bottom line there is, if you have a soft Brexit then you minimise the economic hardship or harm caused by Brexit but at the same time what that entails is you are bound by the regulations and have no voice at the table. And actually part of the problem with the soft Brexit is that it is very difficult to think of arguments why a soft Brexit is better than being in the EU because if you are going to be bound by the single market rules and the customs union rules but you don’t have a voice at the table, then it is quite difficult to think why that is a better world than being in the EU.
Now on the other side of the scale, a no deal Brexit, no matter what the hard line Brexiteers say, the predominant view and I think correctly of most economists is that a no-deal Brexit will have a pretty cataclysmic effect on the UK economy, and not just in the short term but in the medium to long term. Economists tend to think that a no-deal Brexit will make an economic hit to the country of somewhere between eight and twelve percent of GDP. That is enormous in terms of jobs. One of the tragedies of Brexit is that many of those people in Labour heartlands who voted to leave will be the people who are effected when their jobs are lost. When the inward investment dries up, when car plants move their production to the continent, those are the people who are going to be hurt. So this kind of rock and a hard place between soft Brexit on the one hand and a no-deal Brexit has been there from the very beginning and one of the tragedies politically about Brexit was that decision and choice should have been explained to the voters before the referendum, or at the very least after the referendum and before we triggered Article 50. But it didn’t happen.
Just one more point. I think the metaphor that if you are not at the table you are on the menu, I think it is metaphor that has bite, if you like. But equally, there is a further twist to this because one of the paradoxes of this is even if we end up with a no-deal Brexit, the government will then be scrambling to maintain as many ties as it can with the EU in order to minimise the damage to the British economy. So what is going to happen is even if you have a no-deal Brexit, because we are very much an eighty percent service economy and we are so dependent on London, financial services, banking etcetera, what is going to happen is in order to minimise at least the flight of bankers from London to places like Amsterdam and Frankfurt, our rules around financial regulation and banking regulation will continue to track those of the EU. So the bottom line is that even in a no-deal Brexit world you will still end up being a rule-follower and not a rule-maker, and you will still be ending up bound by rules where you are not at the table.
DB: Russell Foster, the potential economic pains of the leave vote were part of the pre-vote campaigns. It isn’t as though these economic challenges of leaving were not known at the time of the vote, but the British people seem to have a legacy of fighting through these difficult economic times. Does this explain the lack of concern for economic hardship among the leave voters?
RF: This is certainly something that exists in British discourse. I mean for the last three years it is impossible to live in this country without encountering someone talking about Brexit on the TV, radio, newspapers. And there has been a lot of this sentiment of we are the British, we saw off Phillip of Spain, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler, all of this, we can pull through this. This is something which has only appeared since the vote. At the time of the referendum this was almost non-existent, this historical memory just didn’t factor into discussions of leave or remain, it is something that has come about subsequently. And this is because, for both sides, the mechanics and the details of Brexit have become less relevant to people than the emotional side of it and the resurgence of different forms of nationalism. There is a lot of discussion that we are a very badly divided country and that we have got two groups of people that now view the other as the enemy. The old divides between Labour and Conservative they have largely become irrelevant – the defining divide in British politics now is leave or remain. The economic arguments which were certainly well discussed in the build up to the referendum and which have been discussed constantly for the last three years have for most people become much less significant than the emotional side of it. What this points to is that the biggest problems in British politics now are a complete lack of faith in the system and this is found among remainers and leavers, very low faith that the system represents people, a great sense of betrayal by remainers and by leavers and a sense that the nation is something to rally around. Among leavers we have got appeals to British nationalism and the resurgence of English nationalism which is something that was much less visible the last few decades. But we are also getting the exact same nationalist arguments from a lot of remainers who have built up European identity into something which is imagined to be perfect and something which is the solution to the UK’s problems. So we have two sides both appealing to an imaginary nation, both appealing to a historical memory.
Remember that European identity was not really something that was discussed in British politics until the referendum was called. In the last few years we have seen scenes on the TV and in the streets where we have got people painting their faces in the European flag and marching on parliament shouting ‘Never going to give you up’. We would never have seen that kind of sentiment before 2016 but it has emerged as a nationalist rallying point in contrast to the traditional British nationalism that existed before. And that is why it is absolutely impossible for any government and any party to satisfy the British nation with any form of Brexit. A soft Brexit along the lines of Theresa May’s deal will end up dissatisfying everyone, a hard Brexit will satisfy some but will alienate the other half, and simply revoking Article 50 and saying we are not going to have any Brexit will satisfy half of the remainers but alienate the leavers. So there really is no satisfactory solution. And let’s not forget that it is now August 2019, we have already had one extension to the Brexit deadline to the 31st of October, it is quite unlikely that the EU is going to be in any mood to grant us another extension and people like Emmanuel Macron are already making very public overtures that frankly they want the British to go because we have always been a brake on the European project. So simply by the calendar it seems the default position is going to be no [deal] Brexit because there is no way to negotiate a new deal short of some sort of miracle and change of heart in Brussels. So no matter what happens it is going to alienate at least half of the British population because, as I say, this has come down not to rational, economic, or constitutional arguments but to a sense of people wanting belonging, people getting their voices heard. It is about emotion and emotion is not something which can be legislated.
DB: Simon Radford, it appears this is a wonderful opportunity for political realignments. Is there an opening for a realignment of the political parties that might reflect the actual division of British voters? Within say five years could new or reconstituted parties create a new party alignment for the country?
SR: If we can all agree on one thing in British politics over the last few years is that people making brave predictions about the future tend to look very foolish shortly thereafter. So I won’t say for sure that there is definitely going to be a realignment. Recently we had some people leave the Labour Party to form a part called Change UK, many people were drawing analogies back to the last time people left the Labour Party for seemingly being out of step with their values which was the Social Democratic party in the 1980s. They used to talk about the mould of British politics, but the mould of British politics is made of pretty stern stuff and it is largely so because it is based on the first past the post voting system. I think one of the things we have seen with different elections based on different voting methods is that there are opportunities for people to vote Liberal Democrat, or people to vote for the Brexit party or what have you, basically to take a holiday from reluctantly voting for the regular parties. Last time we had the European elections, UKIP did tremendously well, however during the subsequent general election they very much didn’t repeat their form and people came back to the Conservative Party. I think what is interesting perhaps is what it might mean in terms of what happens on the margins. So rather than Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson thinking she is going to vault into Number Ten, what she has a good chance of doing is bleeding voters from a Labour party that doesn’t particularly convince either remainers or leavers, in turn keeping Boris in Number Ten. What the Brexit Party will equally be trying to do is casting Boris as a sell out to the leave cause and might well be taking votes away from the Conservative Party which might have the effect of putting Jeremy Corbyn in Number Ten. So what you have is three dimensional chess to a certain extent and perhaps the one thing that holds it together is this negative partisanship. Brexit Party voters dislike not many people more than Jeremy Corbyn; most remainers can’t think of people that make their skin crawl more than Boris Johnson. Jeremy Corbyn has to bet that people who might flirt with Lib Dems will come home to the Labour Party, and Boris will be hoping the same thing, that the Brexit Party voters will eventually put their cross next to the Conservative Party candidate because of the threat of a Jeremy Corbyn Prime Ministership. So what is interesting is the fact that we have got these parties taking votes from the two main parties and there is a very good possibility that whoever is the next Prime Minister they will be leading a party which gets a very low vote share.
DB: Paul Craig, a post-Brexit UK will likely need to negotiate a trade deal with the US to replace some of its trade with its current EU partners. What can the UK expect in trade negotiations with the US?
PC: I think there is no doubt that the UK will seek trade deals with other countries including the US, including India, Japan, the BRICs countries and it will be able to do so autonomously in its own right, won’t have to ask anybody’s permission. All of that is a plus. There is no doubt that the first port of call for trade talks will be the US. President Trump has already given positive vibes in that respect, welcomed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and shown that he is willing to open the door to trade talks with the UK. But I think there are two cautionary notes to bear in mind here. One in economic terms, there is no doubt that trade with the EU is more important than trade with the US and it is difficult to see how a diminution in trade with the EU will be made up by an increase in trade with the US. Equally important is the fact that when it comes down to it, trade talks tend to be pretty much hardball talks. And they are hard ball talks even between friends. President Trump has already made clear that if there are trade talks and a trade deal between the UK and the US then in his words pretty much everything has to be on the table, including possible opening up of markets, including the NHS, including UK financial markets to the relevant firms from the US. So the idea that we are going to walk away from any trade deal with the US who is a much more powerful trading country than the UK with some sweetheart deal is I think very unlikely.
DB: One issue that dominated the Brexit debate was the presence of a large immigrant labour population in the UK. Russell Foster, how important was the reaction to a large immigrant population in the UK and what can you imagine will be the post-Brexit scenario for this population?
FR: Well, as I said there were a lot of factors. About seventeen million people voted for Brexit and so theoretically there are seventeen million different reasons for it. And of course, one of those reasons was a concern over high levels of immigration. It is uncomfortable to talk about but of course there is a widespread concern in British society that immigration has become too high. Now this is not purely far-right, white nationalist, xenophobia, or racism towards people, there are legitimate queries as to whether large levels of immigration are driving down wages etcetera. So there were these rational arguments against it. In terms of what might be called irrational or more emotional objections to immigration, we should split these into two parts, of concerns about immigration from other EU countries and immigration from outside the EU. Now it must be pointed out that the UK is not a member of the Schengen Zone and a few years ago there when countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Poland joined the EU and then had access to the Schengen accords and could move across the EU there were concerns that Britain was being invaded or flooded by cheap labour and by foreigners.
This is something which is possibly going to be affected by the Brexit deal but a much wider concern is about non-European immigration into the country and specifically immigration from Islamic countries and the Middle East. That is probably not going to be affected in any way by Brexit, in fact it might actually increase after Brexit because the Islamic world is not part of the EU. Now in the immediate aftermath of Brexit there was a great discussion in British politics that there would be an exodus, basically an evacuation of EU citizens from the UK going back to EU countries. Now immigration levels from the EU have fallen and of course we have had small numbers going back but the claims of a mass exodus have not happened. So immigration was a factor in the Brexit vote, it is still a factor today otherwise we wouldn’t have Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn constantly talking about immigration. Now in the event that we get a hard Brexit, it will almost certainly lead to a further reduction in EU immigration into the country. But a concern is that in order to make up the shortfall it will lead to an increase of immigration from non-EU countries which for many people is precisely why they voted leave. One serious problem that has emerged in this country in the last three years is we have seen a very vocal group of remainers who say that anyone who voted leave is obviously a racist. That is clearly not true and clearly not the case. Immigration has been weaponised by both sides and has led to an even greater split. It is effectively two nations living within the same country, a nation of leavers and a nation of remainers who view each other as the enemy and both of whom have picked up on immigration and multiculturalism as a way to demonise everyone who has a different opinion to them.
DB: I know many in the US have described Boris Johnson as the British Donald Trump. Simon Radford, how accurate is that? What are the similarities and differences between Boris and Trump?
SR: There are certainly some similarities which one can draw. I mean, Boris has a history of using racial and racialised language for political gain. He described black British people as pickaninnies. He has mad very casual and derogatory comments about people who wear traditional Islamic dress. He is quite happy to play divide and rule politics in a way that Trump has and in a way that is hidden behind a hint of a smile or some humour, so that when people take it seriously they can be seen as being too PC or not getting with the joke. And in that way he has always been able to hint to the right that he understands their concerns with these issues all the while being a Mayor of London and a resident of what was called the Notting Hill set which was kind of a cosmopolitan enclave of London. And so just like Trump can say things about guns and trade and other things that might make him out to not be a typical Republican, Boris is happy to perhaps nudge and hint at these darker sides of things which play at the right wing base. So in that sense he is quite adept at playing on these different political notes and emotions and frankly not letting substance get in the way of these rather brighter more primary colours he paints with. I think this is part of his appeal. I think the fact he is not your typical politician from central casting at a time when politicians are in disrepute is very much a thing that plays in his favour.
There is currently an anti-elite reaction and anti-politics-as-normal reaction which has powered a lot of Brexit. I think this goes back further, we used to have complaints when Tony Blair was PM about the spin culture in Downing Street. I think the one thing we haven’t bought up today which I think plays a huge role in this is the financial crisis and what that means for people’s trust in institutions as well as the economic consequences. There is a kind of interesting hypothetical which is: would we have had Brexit if we had not had the financial crisis? And clearly that poured salts on some wounds which were already there from back in the days of Thatcher where people feel like they were in places which were quite forgotten. And in that sense people are quite happy to be entertained even if they don’t feel like they are being listened to and Boris is a politician who like him or loath him people don’t seem to be able to take their eyes off him and that is something he has used to great effect throughout his political career. He has been able to barge his slightly greyer colleagues off the stage and capture the limelight for himself. One of his old friends is a guy called Michael Gove who was perhaps the more substantial leader of the Vote Leave campaign, he has been nudged aside at every turn by Boris simply on the basis that Boris is more fun to listen to than Michael Gove. So there is an element of both the celebrity, the ability to not take politics too seriously, and use entertainment, and perhaps that ability to realise that politics is at heart emotional rather than rational and that he can activate certain feelings by essentially drawing from quite a wide pallet. It is easy I think for people to have underestimated both Trump and Boris as quite skilled political operators.
DB: Do you think Boris Johnson purposefully portrays himself as not being intellectually up to the task of being Prime Minister? When he does things like mumble his words, analysts have said he knows exactly what he is doing in trying to appeal to the common voter.
SR: I think there is an irony in that while he seems to be bumbling physically, he also has a kind of whimsical use of Latin which he throws in now and again because it makes him stand out. I think this word ‘authenticity’ gets used a lot without being problematised, but there is something about the way Donald Trump communicates staccato style, in simple words, in a way that everyone can understand, in a way that conveys an emotionality and that derives a certain authenticity. So too Boris Johnson’s slightly mad Latin-affected prose and slightly irregular visual imagery, which I think cuts through the noise and conveys a certain difference to politicians who all too often seem indistinguishable from one another. I think if you look at Ed Miliband versus David Cameron, if you came down from Mars and you didn’t know anything about them you could quite easily get them confused in some ways: they both went to Oxford, they both came from quite political families and studied the same course at the same university. In terms of Boris Johnson and Donald trump you would be able to pick them out on the line up of politicians as being quite different from one another.
DB: If you could imagine what the UK is going to look like in say 2024 with its relationship with Europe, with social issues, and political leadership. What do you imagine the nation looking like in five years as a result of Brexit? Will we still be talking about Brexit?
PC: Predictions are never easy. Assuming we have left and we have left without a deal, I think that the situation in 2024 will be one in which we are economically poorer, probably in the region of eight to twelve percent of GDP, it is very difficult to work out how much though, it depends on how many CEOs of companies decide to relocate etcetera. So I think that bit is reasonably obvious, but actually I think the bits that are less obvious are equally interesting and I think there are two other dimensions which are equally interesting. One is I think the UK will have a skills shortage and I think not withstanding all the rather regrettable and embarrassing anti-EU, anti-immigrant rhetoric which came out from the UK both from voters and politicians I think what you will find that we will have a skills shortage. Because actually again one of the paradoxes and one of the terrible tragedies of that dimension of the Brexit debate is that everything that has been said about voter reaction to EU immigrants, everything that has been said about the perception is correct. But the reality is almost entirely otherwise. All the detailed studies which have been done have shown that the UK has in the past got a net benefit from EU migration of somewhere in the region of twenty billion [pounds]. And the idea that these people have come across and have been welfare scroungers and that sort of thing, there is no empirical evidence for that. All the studies basically show that these people are less likely to make claims on UK welfare services than British people. Now that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been an immigration problem, there has because the spread of immigration is not even across the whole of the UK and there have been problems in particular towns or areas where there has been a disproportionate number of EU immigrants and that has not been handled well politically. But in any event, I think there will be a drop off of EU migration, people will not come, they will not feel secure, they will not feel welcome, and those people bought skills which complemented those in the UK and they were also doing jobs that UK people didn’t want to do. So I think in 2024 we will miss the people that we shunned in the referendum. One final element which will be evident in 2024, again, less obvious but equally important, much of the leave campaign was sold on let’s bring back sovereignty to the UK, let’s regain autonomy over our own laws. If you look at what the UK’s laws will look like in 2024, they will not look very different from what they do now, the reason being that even if we are outside the EU there will be a plethora of direct and indirect reasons why we continue to track EU laws. So the idea that we are going to suddenly recreate a whole set of regulatory provisions is simply nonsense. If you are making washing machines in Birmingham and you want to sell them into the EU, you are going to have to comply with EU rules still whether we are in the EU or not. There will be many areas where the status quo will be replicated in 2024.
This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the participants and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.