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.


5 Responses to “A ‘no deal’ Brexit?”

  1. Hi, Duncan,

    Your observations always help to clarify any question you address, but there’s something I find really strange about your recent posts, that what you appear to offer is a View From Nowhere, as if this fight were one in which no dog of yours was involved.

    As you admit, the situation is so chaotic that even the most sophisticated calculation is worthless, and, where this is the case, the only wise course, surely, is to commit yourself: to say what you think “we” ought to do and why.

    My own view is that the provisions on which most people rely for a decent life, – housing, health, education, age-care, even the prisons, – are increasingly precarious, that any damage to our terms of trade can only make this situation worse, and that, as even hard-line Brexiteers admit, the economy might take a short-to-medium-term hit from Brexit. Putting social provision on an adequate and sustainable basis would require a large increase in taxes on income, wealth and property, so I believe the Article 50 notification should be withdrawn until that condition has been satisfied.

    What chance there is of this policy being adopted is not one I care to calculate, but it’s what I think “we” ought to do, and I’m willing to give my reasons to anyone for whom they’re not intuitively obvious.

    ATB, Chris

  2. duncan Says:

    Hi Chris –

    That’s a fair point (/criticism) about the view from nowhere. I guess I’m trying to be more analytic / ‘social scientific’ / descriptive and less normative, in what I’m writing here, lately. That’s not because I think it’s a better way to write – as you say, it has big shortcomings. It’s partly a spillover from the academic writing I’m doing, where this kind of voicing is more expected; and it’s partly because I feel like I want to sharpen my analysis atm more than I want to sharpen my politics.

    On the political issue w/r/t Brexit, I also have quite conflicted feelings – and part of why I’m doing more analytic posts is probably also that I don’t think there is a particularly clear route forward. I voted Remain, and I wish Remain had won. Leave having won, however, I don’t think A50 should be withdrawn (subject to some provisos which hopefully I’ll get to). That’s for two reasons. First: although obviously the referendum was, strictly speaking, non-binding, the referendum was not presented to the public that way; the major parties all committed in advance to honouring the result; the Conservatives in particular were elected to majority government on a manifesto that promised to hold the referendum and honour the result; and A50 was triggered via a parliamentary vote, which had been constitutionally legitimated by the Supreme Court. So I think the triggering of A50 was very clearly expressing the democratic decision of the voting public – via at least two different routes (direct referendum result and elected representatives). I’m a democrat, I think that basically we need to respect democratic outcomes even when they’re bad, and therefore I think triggering A50 was justified, and it would be unjustified to un-trigger it (assuming we even could, the legal/political situation seems a bit murky here) – again subject to some provisos which I hope I’ll get to.

    Second, I think untriggering A50 would be a disaster from a domestic political point of view. UKIP has basically collapsed since the referendum result – untriggering A50 would put rocket fuel under, if not UKIP, at least some far right ethnonationalist horrorshow of a social and political movement. I think a widespread perception that politicians are ignoring the referendum result would be a gift to the far right, iow, and I don’t think we should give them that gift.

    Against this position, obviously, as you say, is the economic argument – and the political argument that crucial political goals are conditional on the economic outcome. (Also, separately, directly political arguments about the political virtues in themselves of elements of EU membership – e.g. human rights law, or the – very great imo – intrinsic virtue of free movement of labour; likewise concerns about the impact of Brexit on the GFA.) Here I’m quite cautious – I’m not a macroeconomist or trade economist, and I don’t regard myself as having a particularly informed opinion on likely outcomes. That said:

    – I think Brexit is extremely likely to have significant negative economic impact.
    – I think some of the presentation of that negative economic impact on the ‘Remain’ side of the argument is a bit apocalyptic. I wouldn’t say that ‘apocalyptic’ outcomes can’t happen – they clearly could – but I think they’re being given too much weight in the presentation of the Remain case. Specifically, I think an accelerated but still pretty gradual decline in relative national wealth is a quite likely outcome – and that decline will be more striking over the long term than over the short and medium (which is not necessarily to say there won’t be a negative economic shock eve in this scenario).
    – Although I think the Brexiteers are mostly living in a fantasy world, I don’t think it’s unimaginable, either, that Brexit could in fact be a net benefit. This is very very far from a likely outcome, in my view. But one can imagine a scenario, for example, in which the major powers of continental Europe go fascist (fascists are, after all, knocking at the electoral door in lots of European countries), the UK remains non-fascist, and UK citizens are very glad, in retrospect, to have severed some of the UK’s legal and political ties with the continent. Again, I’m not saying this is likely, but it’s not a scenario that seems to be playing into most people’s calculations, as far as I can tell (Brexiteers often regard the EU as *already* egregiously authoritarian; Remainers often regard the EU as intrinsically and forever liberal).
    – If the likely Brexit outcome were truly looking catastrophic enough, I think the argument from democracy is weakened (or, at least, the tradeoff changes) – this is one proviso on the point about democracy above. People didn’t vote for economic disaster, and at some point I would be willing to decide that the foreseeable economic outcome is so bad that the democratic Brexit mandate doesn’t legitimate it. However, my ‘bar’ for that decision is very high – certainly higher than anything we’ve reached yet.
    – For these reasons I basically don’t buy the Remainer argument that a progressive agenda is incompatible with Brexit. This might be so, depending on the Brexit, but I think the degree to which this is a certainty is often overstated.


    So in terms of what “we” ought to do, in my view, it depends on the “we” and the ‘level’ of strategic goal.

    – My totally ideal outcome is probably one that increases freedom of movement of people, but puts greater constraints on the power of capital relative to democratic decision-making. I think that outcome is basically impossible, in any realistic practical terms. It’s definitely worth pushing hard in the public sphere on the intrinsic virtues of freedom of movement, as well as on its economic benefits. It’s also, I think, worth highlighting the legitimacy of some left critiques of EU governance, because if we’re going to be negotiating some kind of bespoke deal (again not at all certain, but possible), it’d be nice for a ‘left’ bespoke deal to at least be part of the discussion.
    – My next best outcome – I think the best realistic outcome – is a ‘soft’ Brexit of some description, and here I really feel underqualified to specify terms: I just don’t know enough about the issues, and, moreover, this is a negotiation, and is a maze of decisions to be picked through by technocrats, essentially. Unfortunately, there’s no real positive outcome here imo that doesn’t basically involve us hoping that the technocrats handle things passably competently.
    – The prospect of basically indefinite can-kicking with repeatedly renewed transitional deals is I think a live one, and not a terrible one at all in the circumstances.
    – Then we’re into varieties of ‘hard’ Brexit, and here at some point the outcome becomes bad enough that revoking A50 starts to become a live option for me again. I think if it’s a choice between revoking A50 and crashing out on WTO terms without preparation, the former is very clearly superior (probably couched politically in some kind of “just for now!” fudge). But again this is all subject to political constraints.

    Basically, the situation is very complicated, my own position is neither ‘hard Leave’ nor ‘hard Remain’, and this means that my position is necessarily locked into the maze of actual negotiations which are (a) carried out by political enemies; (b) carried out, on the UK side at least, by incompetents; (c) incredibly complicated. So it’s all very unsatisfactory from a ‘taking a stand’ pov, which is probably part of why I’m writing more analytic posts recently as well.

    All that said, imo advocacy for the basic principles of 1) anti-racism; 2) open borders, and 3) greater power of people against capital, are I guess things that can be pushed independent of the complexities of negotiations and political strategy.

    Clearly we differ on quite a bit of the above, but that’s my more normative perspective fwiw, or some of it.

  3. Hi, Duncan,

    Thank you for your very full response.

    You’re willing to consider withdrawing A50 in the face of a no-deal Brexit, so we are at one on the principle. You’re anxious not to give the far right a rhetorical advantage by rejecting Brexit as such, and I agree. I have no attachment to the EU as such, but I’m deeply attached, as most Brits are, to adequate social provision, so I’m saying we should withdraw A50, but only until basic social provisions have been adequately safeguarded, i.e., “just for now”, as you say. This condition is one that most people can recognise as reasonable, and it will become ever more urgent as no-deal looms, but it’s one the right will never meet.

    It seems to me fairly obvious that the far right are in a classically reactionary position, i.e., they know what they’re against and that’s all that matters to them, so they’ll treat anything but a no-deal Brexit as treachery, and this will eventually isolate them, because In opinion polls, the EU as such has always come very low on most people’s list of reasons for voting in general elections. The EU was causing trouble within political parties faced by UKIP, but the referendum, which was motivated entirely by party-political considerations, gave it a salience for the electorate which it hadn’t previously had.

    A perspective that particularly interests me is that Brexit is a very specifically English obsession and there are possibilities latent within it that present the English self-image with some interesting challenges. The prospect of Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit, might strengthen rather than weaken the tendencies to separation in the other “home nations” of the UK. The barriers between Ireland, North and South, are weakening, and it’s not difficult to imagine them continuing, separately or together, inside the EU, but outside the UK if there were a no-deal Brexit which created problems of trade and citizenship between them. The situation in Scotland is obvious: a no-deal Brexit would do it. Even Wales, though it voted to leave, might find itself so damaged after a no-deal Brexit that it would eventually follow the same route. These developments may seem improbable now, particularly to the English, who don’t like to think about them, but they are possibilities which becomes less difficult to imagine with every year that passes.

    The United Kingdom would then have ceased to exist and England would be on its own. How “great” could the English feel if even the other home nations no longer wanted to play the British game: if they were no longer a “United Kingdom”, no longer “Great Britain” and no longer even an “Island Nation”, since they would have land-borders with two foreign countries. England then would have no greater claim than Scotland or Wales to be the “successor nation” to the UK and to occupy the non-existent UK’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and would be relegated from the world’s Premier League in a way that might strike some as humiliating. The English haven’t even begun to consider how much of their identity is predicated on the willingness of the other home nations to go on playing the British game, and I think this is a point that deserves a greater prominence because the signs are that the English are becoming more interested than they were in identity politics.

    Withdrawing A50 until my condition is met (just for now) is what I think would be right, but I also believe it’s defensible in tactical terms.

  4. In the above I realise I failed to address your point about democracy and that my response was therefore inadequate.

    I’m sure I don’t need to rehearse for you the standard reasons why referenda have no place in a system of representative democracy and therefore why all those who called or voted for a referendum owe us an apology and a recantation. There is, of course, something absurd about politicians apologising for historic actions for which they were not themselves responsible, but most people believe Blair led us into Iraq on a false prospectus and that a public apology from him and from all those who allowed him to deceive them is the least we are entitled to expect.

    Of course, apologies and recantations aren’t easy: when Nick Clegg reneged on an election pledge, he offered a public apology and received nothing but mockery for his pains, and the consequences of Blair’s deception have been so horrific that acknowledging it would require an almost superhuman strength of mind; but, if individuals can make mistakes for which they owe us an apology, then so can institutions, e.g., corporations, political parties, states: the idea that parliament can do no wrong is absurd, and, when mistakes have been made, they should be withdrawn, as laws are repealed when their erroneous character is recognised.

    If general elections had been by a genuinely proportional system of representation, the problem the referendum was intended to solve wouldn’t have arisen: UKIP would have taken seats from all parties, but not enough to achieve their aim, – as evidence Scotland, where they had no success at all. Tories and Labour resisted PR for party-political advantage only, and supported the referendum for the same reason. In the process they have subverted the constitution and plunged us into Brexit and I see no reason why, as a democrat, I should honour the result.

  5. duncan Says:

    Hi Chris –

    I think those are all reasonable, defensible positions. Obviously I agree that the referendum was a terrible mistake, but for myself the legitimacy it acquired via its parliamentary mandate is sufficient for me to regard the result as binding (subject to provisos as above, of course). I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility of undoing it, at some future point, but to me again that possibility doesn’t seem politically feasible at the moment. In my view, then, for what it’s worth, the best politically-feasible approximation to your preferred course of action is probably a rolling series of A50 extensions / ‘transitional’ arrangements that are, in practice, EU-membership-equivalent. I think there’s some possibility that if actual implementation of Brexit can be postponed for long enough, public opinion could, eventually, turn against Leave in a way that would in principle enable an outcome functionally equivalent to never having activated A50 in the first place. I don’t think that’s very likely, to be honest, given how the Tories are behaving, but I don’t think it’s an impossibility – whereas for me, sadly, full revocation of A50 just doesn’t seem to be on the political table. I’ve been wrong before, of course, but that’s how I see things…

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