Liberal Brexit – It’s Democracy, Jim, but not as we know it

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.

One of the most complete discussions of the approach is provided by Roland Smith in 3 documents, the Liberal Case for Leave,  Stuck in the middle with EU and Evolution not Revolution.

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.


Project Vague

The deliberate vagueness of the Leave campaign is almost comically illustrated in this exchange which happened a few weeks after the vote.

What price a free trade deal-01

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.


“Famously Anti-Democratic”

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.



12 thoughts on “Liberal Brexit – It’s Democracy, Jim, but not as we know it

    1. Yes, I’m planning a post on why the Norway model doesn’t make sense, this is more about the flawed (undemocratic) process they want to use to get there
      thanks for comments Alison they are much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Tony Its good to see someone take on the ‘liberal leavers’ and call out their duplicity. There is clearly a need for a detailed critique of the Norway model, and indeed the ‘liberal leave’ arguments for it (good article on reality of Norway from two Norwegian academics in the New European 2 issues ago), but as you indicate that should be a stand alone blog post. One argument that does need to be taken head on is the “if we’d pushed openly for EEA/Norway, do you really think UKIPers would have voted to stay in the EU” – I think the reality is that having successfully split the leave campaign with Farage, Banks and the head bangers having gone off in a racist huff, then a significant number of Kippers would have abstained and started campaigning for a ‘real referendum’, and there may well have been a group of folk who would have voted remain because leaving the CAP/CFP doesn’t really balance up not having a say in EU law making. BW Andy CM


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely – funnily enough someone I know has done a detailed analysis on this, I reblogged it but here is its link.

      Need to tighten this article up and get to the point quicker, that because the Leave vote is split and because liberal leavers are prepared to abandon the kippers the whole process is undemocratic.

      You can’t say “it’s democracy – get over it” and then say “but we’re going to ignore all the things half the 52% voted for”


  2. Another interesting piece and accords with my view of where and how Remainers are being pushed. Clegg’s second Brexit Challenge paper published a day or so ago (posted on the Remain Facebook groups yesterday) sets out a detailed critique of Norway and WTO options. One crucial point with Norway (in addition to the well-known fact that they have no say or veto over the EU legislation that binds them) is they are free to make their own trade deals because they are not in the Customs Union. If UK wishes to make its own deals it would need to be outside the Customs Union with the following consequences (quoting Clegg):

    – We lose access to FTAs which give UK business preferential access to more than 50 markets. Open Europe estimate that these trade deals mean that an additional 14% of UK trade on top of our trade with the EU takes place on preferential terms.

    – We will also lose MRAs with 3rd countries (including major trading partners like the US) which allow products to be imported having been certified as being in conformity with EU rules and regulations. Assuming we leave the Single Market and continue to maintain similar regulatory frameworks, these agreements will need to be renegotiated in order to avoid the creation of non-tariff barriers for importers.

    – Outside the Customs Union, all goods exported to and imported from the EU will need to be declared to the customs authorities. This will introduce delays, extra paperwork and costs for British businesses, including customs checks, value declarations, inspection certification, and advance cargo declarations. It will also make continental businesses less willing to include UK-produced goods in their supply chains.

    – If we sign an FTA with the EU, or seek to adopt a Norway-style relationship, then British exporters will also have to comply with complex ‘rules of origin’. These rules require UK exporters to obtain proof of origin certificates from their national customs authorities to guarantee that the product (or an agreed percentage of the product) originates in the UK. Under an FTA, goods have to be shown to come from the country in question in order to benefit from the preferential tariffs agreed under the FTA, and to prevent third country imports from being passed off as domestic products. These rules are not applied to countries inside the EU Customs Union. The economic impact of rules of origin has been estimated to increase trade costs by between 4% and 15%. The impact would be particularly pronounced on companies with highly integrated cross-border supply chains like the British aerospace and automobile industries.

    – Leaving the EU Customs Union will require the introduction of new customs controls (a “hard border”) between Northern Ireland and the Republic, in order to prevent goods from crossing the border in contravention of customs checks.

    – Perhaps most importantly, the FTAs that the UK manages to negotiate once outside the EU will lack an advantage that the UK had as a member of the EU. Negotiating as part of a market of 500 million consumers gave us far greater leverage than we will ever have as a market of 65 million consumers. This is simply matter of arithmetic: third countries will find our market relatively less appealing and so will make fewer concessions in negotiations than they would do if we offered a larger market for their products. It is highly unlikely that we would be able to negotiate equivalent access to that which we currently enjoy as a member of the EU, let alone to improve on it.


  3. The difficulty I have with this post is that it fails to outline a plausible alternative. In the absence of any likelihood that a parliamentary majority would block Brexit or require a referendum on the terms of Brexit (and we have to assume several difficult things to get to either of those situations anyway), our choice is between hard Brexit and soft Brexit. I agree with the view that the liberal Leavers took a huge risk in their own terms by allying with Farage et al, but we can’t change that now, we are where we are. And if the argument here is purely tactical – force a choice between hard Brexit or Remain – that could backfire as well. The democratic argument doesn’t work because there’s no majority for any Leave option OR Remain. So all choices face the same handicap you describe; and thus if we accept political reality, our choice is, again, between hard and soft Brexit. Not to choose soft Brexit is to make the hard Brexiteers’ life easier.


    1. Hi Steve, thanks for comments – think of this as a cry of frustration for our democracy. We may well be forced into Soft Brexit and we may be forced to ally with the Liberal Leavers – it doesn’t change the fact that this would make a mockery of our democratic process.

      I’m not closing the door on Soft Brexit, however neither do I think Brexit is inevitable. A month or so ago I would perhaps have said we have to accept it but now each day shows just how complex it is and just how unwilling the government is to engage. Personally whereas I don’t think there’ll be a crash reality will bite. My hope is that perhaps enough people start thinking “hang on this isn’t what we voted for”. But right now, this is just intended to point out the cynicism and to act as a counter to the charge “you remainers are undemocratic”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Evidently, Lemming Thursday was a kick against not only the EU but also “the powers that be”. From what I’ve seen, the liberal leave plan is currently the only vaguely coherent agenda. That most who voted against something did so with no thought as to where to go next.

    It’s great to see an article like this, outlining the pitfalls in possible exit scenarios. Where the liberal (neo-liberal/libertarian) agenda leads is something which needs a bright spotlight shone on it. Whatever people thought they were voting against, I see zero evidence that more than a cabal of self interest voted “for” anything meaningful.


    1. Bright spotlights are exactly what we are missing right now, clear sunlight on events. One of the most disturbing sights at the moment is seeing the MPs, Press, Government doing everything they can to avoid talking about this.

      You’re absolutely right – plenty voted against something – I suppose there’s a certain frisson in being destructive – but “for”? For what? Beyond as you say a narrow cabal who have their own motives that would likely horrify most of the Leave vote.


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