Roland Smith, a fellow of the Adam Smith institute and a self described Brexit “Liberal Leaver”, has produced 3 documents which together present the mainstream Liberal Leaver position. But what is this position, what compromises are its supporters comfortable with in order to bring it about and what does this say about the democratic validity of the referendum result?
There is a subgroup of the Vote leave “intelligentsia” known as “liberal leavers” who favour a very particular Brexit approach, namely the Norway (or EEA/EFTA) model. Supporters include Daniel Hannan MEP , almost certainly Boris Johnson and certainly Roland Smith, fellow of the Adam Smith institute. This group also extends into the Leave Alliance, which has put together “the Flexcit plan” (though, apparently all is not well in the group).
The core of the intended plan (which has been championed by its supporters for several years) is that the UK would move to a Norway style model as an interim step to minimize economic & social disruption. Once established, the UK would begin to write new trade deals.
This post isn’t about the pros or cons of the Norway option (Nick Clegg has already produced an excellent paper on this), instead its purpose is to highlight the democratic anomaly the UK finds itself in as a direct result of the Leave Campaign’s deliberately vague approach, and how liberal leavers are prepared to exploit this anomaly to drive a minority position. Roland Smith’s papers will be the backdrop to this and most quotes are from those papers.
The deliberate vagueness of the Leave campaign is almost comically illustrated in this exchange which happened a few weeks after the vote.
Essentially, the Leave vote is completely divided. The most informed (Liberal) Leavers are pushing for an EEA/EFTA (Norway) approach, other leavers believed the Vote Leave hype and think we can end immigration, increase wages, invest in the NHS and essentially ignore globalization. A number of hard brexiteers in the Tory Right believe we should simply cut loose from the EU, absorb the significant economic damage, have a regulation bonfire and turn the UK into a globalisation paradise. And finally there are the EU haters, economically secure in their isolation they care little for the economics and just want Brexit at any cost. There is no consensus or democratic majority in the Leave position.
And meanwhile Remainers look on in despair as facts and pragmatic reality are displaced by populism and post-truth politics. This is the democratic anomaly, a win for Leave that makes no sense because there is no majority in the winning camp.
Indeed (the EU) is famously anti-democratic. It is not a “bottom up” organisation but a “top-down” one, ignoring national votes and preferences at will (especially national referendum votes that go against it) and regularly thwarting the will of the people through its institutions.
Before I discuss Smith’s (and other liberal leavers) approach to this anomaly I’d like to highlight the above statement made in his 3rd paper. It’s a concern often repeated by other leave supporters, liberal or otherwise.
Despite this and other criticisms, the aim of Smith & the Liberal Leavers is to retain a very close relationship with the EU including full membership of the single market and therefore full freedom of movement and a re-calibrated EU contribution. The only practical difference would be that the UK would be free to create its own trade deals. The problem is, this is not what a large number of Leave supporters voted for.
However, although Remainers might take this option as the least worst alternative to EU membership, this position goes directly against the wishes of the vast majority of the Leave vote. How therefore does Smith plan to address this crucial division in his winning camp? By bypassing it.
Pushing towards EEA/EFTA Adoption
We can look to the section “How exit would happen” in Evolution not Revolution for insights, this outlines the series of events the author hopes will lead to this Norway style option following Brexit.
Any Leave plans or intentions that were aired in the referendum campaign will fall away on 24th June and it will then be in the interests of the entire governing party to strike a pragmatic Leave deal
So in other words the £350 M savings, controls on free movement, NHS investment, elimination of the EU contribution and all of the “Take back control” rhetoric can immediately be jettisoned once the Leave win is secured.
That brings us to…those who see this referendum as a proxy vote on limiting free movement. In the event of a Leave vote, Conservative Leavers will repeat that this is their goal but getting there will be “a process” to ensure a “safe ordered exit”… Further checks on free movement will be addressed as part of a next step.
Those Leave voters who are focused on Free Movement will need to be placated…though actually, when discussing a table showing EEA characteristics the author says:
Notably, freedom of movement for EU/EEA nationals is shown in green, indicating that it’s a good thing. That’s because, largely, it is….(The Norway model) would keep the good things from the EU – genuine cooperation in a series of areas, and yes even free movement .
So actually, Smith would prefer that this key concern for many leave voters is permanently shelved. The “EU contribution” would also continue, rebadged, but essentially the same.
Remember, Smith is talking here about his fellow leave voters, who he and other liberal leavers joined with to get the win. Discarding plans announced prior to the vote immediately after the vote is won and postponing or ideally shelving key issues for those voters sounds an awful lot like “thwarting the will of the people” and “ignoring preferences at will”. In fact arguably as immigration was seen as the key issue this could be seen as ignoring the spirit of a “national referendum vote” if not actually the vote itself.
Civil Service analysts will be clear that Brexit can be complex and risky if bungled…and they’ll be seriously up against the clock. Not only from the two year time limit set by Article 50 … but also the political need to achieve a deal within the electoral cycle and the pressing need to address “uncertainty”.
All of that would kill any prospect of a bespoke deal – desirable though that may be – … Instead they would look at existing “off the shelf” and de-risked models and quickly conclude the most optimal way to exit would be to take up a position inside the European Economic Area (‘EEA’), (and) European Free Trade Association (‘EFTA’).
Finally we see a recognition that leaving the EU is incredibly complex, that no possible “Bespoke” deal is possible and that the Civil Service analysts (“unelected UK bureaucrats?”) will drive the government into a Norway style arrangement. There will be no choice, the government’s hand (and therefore the country’s) will be forced. This in turn sounds a lot like a “top down organisation…thwarting the will of the people through its institutions.”
So where does this take us?
We already know that Vote Leave ran a distinctly dishonest campaign, we can get into whether £350 M is worse than £4,300 or not but the central point is that Leave presented no plan, no blueprint and essentially kept everything vague. Although it would be unfair to say that all Liberal Leavers connived in this lack of clarity (many in fact spoke out against it) it’s also fair to say that at least one Liberal Leaver, Dan Hannan, played his cards very close to his chest. If you support Leave and the result, you have to be more or less comfortable with this deliberate lack of detail.
We also know that there is not even a consensus within the Leave Leaders. This recent article in the Financial Times by former Chancellor Lord Lawson advocates forgetting the single market completely, and he is not alone in that view. John Redwood MP and others are agitating for immediate Article 50 activation.
There is clearly an excessively divided leave constituency. “Brexit means Brexit” means any one of 6 different models and is the singularly most inane political statement for a generation. The Government is spinning at the moment trying to reconcile this divide.
But most importantly, we know that unrealistic expectations have been set for one particularly large group of leavers who still believe in the inflated image of the UK’s bargaining position given to them by the Leave campaign and therefore are convinced that the UK can strike it’s own bespoke deal. This group also prioritizes ending FoM and the EU contribution above everything else (in fact May has made immigration her red line), yet these 2 items will be largely unaffected by a Norway model.
So we have a divided leave leadership, a divided leave vote, a 48% remain vote who only barely lost to this divided leave vote and in the middle, Mr Smith and the Liberal Leavers who perhaps hold 10-20% of the vote, very much a minority position.
Mr Smith recognizes that most of his fellow voters have been gravely misled. However, to address this, he is prepared to simply bypass them, by means of an inevitable bureaucratic process which will force the government to abandon any Leave promises made and to adopt, after all the talk of the greatest democratic event in UK history, his 10% minority liberal leave outcome.
Further, in an attempt to push this model through Smith and other Liberal Leavers are looking to Remainers to form a post brexit coalition in order to override their fellow Leave Voters:
Apart from the fact that there is no evidence that Remain will swing behind EEA this intent by 10% of the winning vote to cajole the 48% losing vote in order to override the remaining 42% winning vote is deeply undemocratic and utterly shocking. In fact the liberal leave camp look on their fellow voters with anything from mild annoyance to open contempt.
Which brings us back to the core issue I have with these papers and in fact the Liberal Leave approach generally. I’ll repeat that comment on EU democracy, the same complaint made in effect by Hannan, Johnson and many other Leave Leaders:
Indeed it is famously anti-democratic. It is not a “bottom up” organisation but a “top-down” one, ignoring national votes and preferences at will (especially national referendum votes that go against it) and regularly thwarting the will of the people through its institutions.
Lets examine that.
We have the vague Vote Leave campaign which has created this splintered Leave vote. Some Liberal Leavers may have had concerns with the campaign however now we have a willingness on their part to exploit it, to jettison any promises made and to postpone or even ignore core issues raised by the winning vote. We have moves in some Liberal Leave quarters to corral the Remain vote in order to override fellow Leave voters who foolishly believed what they were told by their leaders and weren’t sophisticated enough to see it was all a bit of a con.
And finally we have active support for a bureaucratic process, driven by institutions (Civil Servants or if you prefer “Unelected UK Bureaucrats”) which will force all sides into adopting a minority position of 10% that wasn’t even on the ballot paper.
What was that about the EU being famously anti-democratic? That “liberal” title is looking a little suspect as well.
There is evidence to indicate that, given the distinct choice between the EU and Norway models the British public would have chosen the EU, most likely because they would see little difference between the 2 and any differences would be perceived as negative. Certainly in a 3 way vote of Hard Brexit, EEA/EFTA and EU then EU would have come out on top. Unfortunately the public were never given that choice.
Conclusion – what of Democracy?
The referendum result is already undemocratic simply because there is no consensus or majority position on what Brexit looks like. In fact there is little common ground in the winning camp, nothing to say what the 52% are for, only what they are against. The May government has filled this vacuum by assuming immigration is the primary issue, a decision which may lead to economic disaster for the country.
If the country is forced (albeit for pragmatic and/or desperate reasons) into a Norway model this is doubly undemocratic, as the wishes of Remain and a significant number of Leave voters (pulled in for their vote and then discarded) are dismissed for an outcome supported by perhaps 10% of the population.
To put this more simply. Liberal Leavers are saying they have won, and having won they are happy to dispense with the priorities of the vast majority of their fellow winners. Further, they are now saying to the losing side “Join us, or there will be a hard brexit that neither of us want”. You have to admire their cheek if nothing else.
Liberal leavers are now talking of EEA as a “compromise”, something we can all get behind. This is deeply disingenuous as they have been pushing this agenda for 4 years.
Yet by any measure the Liberal Leave position is far closer to the Remain position than any Hard Brexit position. Forced to choose between Hard Brexit and Remain, liberal leavers would likely choose Remain which is why it’s Remainers rather than other Leavers they are reaching out to. In any functioning democratic process the 10% would align with the 48%, not the other way around. It is ironic that those who criticize the democracy of the EU are happy to see the will of 10% override 90% and can be so dismissive of their fellow voters.
However, Liberal Leavers talk of Remainers “accepting the result” – on the contrary, Liberal Leavers need to accept that we all potentially lost on June 23rd. The smooth transition into an EEA model long campaigned for by this group is simply not going to happen and instead the country is at risk of significant and potentially long lasting social and economic damage as the government tries to put the square peg of controlling free movement in the round hole of keeping the Single Market. For various reasons the Vote Leave campaign has made a move to a Norway model (already far more complex than the Liberal Leavers predicted) difficult if not impossible, even if Remainers were to accept it.
Whatever the outcome, Remainers cannot easily reach out to hard brexit supporters, it is up to Liberal Leavers to step up and engage, to help the rest of their constituency understand that Hard Brexit would be deeply damaging. Bypassing them is not a solution.
In the meantime this fractured vote, and the willingness of certain people to exploit it in order to force a result only a small minority wanted, is deeply damaging for the country and our democracy. A group that joins with one side only for as long as necessary and then plans to discard that side and its objectives, preferably with the help of the losing side and a bureaucratic process it knew would freeze out its fellow voters, has no place criticizing democracy of any kind, much less the EU.