A ‘no deal’ Brexit?

October 12, 2017

It seems like an increasing number of UK political commentators are adopting a ‘no deal’ outcome as their baseline projection for Brexit negotiations. I’m not close to informed enough to warrant anyone giving my views on this question any weight – but I feel quite a bit more bullish than those commentators on the prospect of some kind of Brexit deal. With all due allowances for severe lack of expertise, I wanted to briefly spell out the baseline ‘priors’ behind that attitude.

As a first pass, I think there are maybe five and a half categories of political force operative in my crude qualitative ‘model’ of the UK side of the Brexit negotiations. (Obviously Brexit negotiations are not carried out by the UK government alone; nevertheless, like most UK political commentary, this post is, perhaps excessively, focused on the UK end of things.)

1) Declining US hegemony is leading to deglobalisation, as the international ‘rules based’ liberal order, which has been grounded in US military and economic dominance since WWII, loses influence. States are increasingly, and rationally, shifting to competition outside rather than within the ‘rules based’ liberal order; there are ideological shifts associated with that changing geopolitical reality; and Brexit is in part an expression of those shifts. We therefore shouldn’t assume that the traditional internationalist and, latterly, neoliberal arguments for economic and political cooperation still carry the weight they used to.

2) The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Of course the bourgeoisie (understood here as business interests, not the middle class) is not unified behind a single ‘class consciousness’ or unitary set of class interests. Nevertheless, the dominant bourgeois interest is in a Brexit deal, and avoiding the ‘cliff edge’ of a shift to WTO rules or similar.

3) A significant minority of lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party have strong ideological commitments pushing against any kind of ‘soft’ Brexit deal. Because the Conservatives lack a majority in parliament, these commitments have a very substantial influence on government policy.

4a) The UK government regards itself as bound by the democratic mandate of the EU Referendum (either in principle or as a matter of electoral strategy); that vote is widely regarded as mandating both the end of freedom of movement and the extraction of the UK from EU legal institutions, and it seems reasonable to believe that those goals, if fully pursued, are incompatible with anything other than a ‘hard’ Brexit.

4b) Against that, the government of course has its eye on re-election, and it also seems reasonable to believe that the likely negative economic consequences of a ‘hard’ Brexit are sufficient that an electorally self-interested party will do what it can to avoid that outcome.

5) The government is not functioning as a unitary or rational decision-making entity, but is behaving closer to a ‘public choice’ model of state actors’ behaviour, in the sense that individual politicians are primarily pursuing extremely narrow individually self-interested political goals, and therefore the government as a whole is conflicted and incompetent in a way that may be incompatible with reaching an agreement in negotiations.

Ok – that’s five and a half arguments about the forces at work on the UK government’s Brexit strategy (I’ve grouped the two ‘arguments from democracy’ together as (4a) and (4b)). More of those arguments than not, can be taken to suggest we’re headed for a ‘hard’ Brexit – or even a ‘no deal’ Brexit. What matters, though, is how we weight the different arguments.

My feeling is that many of the ‘no deal’-forecasting commentators give particular weight to arguments (3) and (5). That is to say, they think that there is a strong ideological commitment to hard Brexit among a significant minority of Conservative Party MPs, that many important Conservative politicians are pursuing internal party advantage rather than the national interest (no matter what you take that interest to be), and that the combination of these two factors is pushing us towards a ‘no deal’ outcome.

By contrast, although I agree that all these factors are in play, I give greatest weight to argument (2): the role of the executive as committee managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. I think there’s quite a high likelihood that, when we get to the pointy end of negotiations, the dominant interests of UK-based capital will knock heads together, twist arms, have quiet words, and persuade the UK government that a softer Brexit than Eurosceptic Conservatives think they want, is actually not so bad after all.

I would never say that this is a foregone conclusion, that other countervailing political forces are unimportant, or that a ‘no deal’ outcome is impossible. The future is uncertain, and, additionally, what do I know? Just as, in nuclear deterrence theory, the logic of mutually assured destruction is powerful, but can quite quickly be undone by somebody going ahead and launching a bomb, so, in Brexit negotiations, it would be foolhardy to assume that ‘centrifugal’ forces are clearly stronger than ‘centripetal’ ones. Still, it seems to me that at the very least, some of the ‘no deal’-projecting commentators are much too confident in their ‘no deal’ forecasts. More strongly: were I were a gambler, I would certainly be gambling on a deal.