A striking feature of the post Referendum period is the radicalization of Leavers. Amongst leading protagonists, many supported remaining in the EU’s single market during the campaign. Subsequently, the focus shifted towards leaving the single market and customs union in order to fulfil a revised definition of true Brexit by enabling an independent trade policy. Now, control of the Governing party rests with a faction that openly embraces leaving the European Union without a deal, outriders deployed to dissemble about constructs like ‘managed no deal’, or ‘WTO deal’.
The radicalization has not just been on the part of the Leaver oligarchy. Polling suggests that about 40% would choose no deal over Remaining in the EU.
There has been no parallel radicalization on the Remain side. The initial position on the Remain side was to preserve the status quo of our membership with the European Union, subject to some largely cosmetic modifications to freedom of movement negotiated by Cameron in the 2015/2016 pre-referendum period. There is no popular movement for entrenching our membership in the EU by dropping our exemption from the process of ever closer political union, for example; there is no movement for taking the UK into the Euro and foregoing independent control over monetary policy.
What accounts for this asymmetric radicalization?
Two explanations I can think of are that the radicalization is more apparent than real.
The first is that, at least on the part of the Leaver oligarchy, they always wanted the more radical Brexit options. Appearing to want the softer Brexit options was a charade to attract moderate voters in the referendum. Once the referendum was won, these moderate voters could be dispensed with.
A second possibility is that the radicalization reflected the unravelling of sincerely sought, but inconsistent features of Brexit. Brexit itself was about the confronting of a series of demands, with an offer from the EU. That process revealed what was and was not going to be feasible. The kernel of Leave was always underpinned by a desire to leave at all costs if necessary, and this kernel was revealed by the process of the EU explaining to us what was not going to be possible.
For my own part, I have undergone something that one might describe as radicalization. The UK polity has shown itself to be far more fragile than most would have thought possible before 2016. Both major parties are siezed by different varieties of racism and economic populism, and regularly dissemble to the public about Brexit and other matters. [Viz Labour’s offer of a ‘jobs first Brexit’; the Tories early and lately embraced mantra of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’]. The approaching deadline of October 31 has thrown up ambiguities in our informal constitution over the powers of Parliament, the Courts and the executive, which are being actively exploited by the latter.
In light of this, slowly depriving ourselves of autonomy by submitting to ever closer political union seems like a good thing. If autonomously wielded policy levers are going to be pulled for ill, better not to be able to pull them.
I would even suggest that joining the European Monetary Union looks more attractive than a few years ago. The problems with the euro are well documented. The conservative biases and inflexibility built into the monetary policy mandate and policy deliberation; the lack of fiscal union and the bias against counter-cyclical fiscal policy, both in major states like Germany and the instituion of the Stability and Growth Pact. However, if the UK were embedded in this union, it would raise the costs of extricating ourselves from the EU greatly and make it less likely [caveat – it would of course politically antagonise the leave constituency].
These are versions of the arguments used by some constituents of the former Communist bloc in Eastern Europe for accession into the EU and the euro. Unable to generate healthy institutions domestically, they could free-ride on the stability conferred by the imperfect and unwieldy coalition of Western European countries. Before this, similar arguments were of course used to argue for membership by the ‘peripheral’ countries of Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal. Those countries had been plagued by decades of monetary and financial mismanagement, and joining in with the EU’s political and monetary integration was about tying the hands of domestic policymakers so that they could not continue this mismanagement.
The UK has to be seen in the same light now. Old analyses of otherwise well functioning polities conducting independent versus Euro monetary policy miss the new larger picture:that Euro membership would involve a swap of worse monetary and fiscal policy for some measure of basic institutional stability that we otherwise will lack. Seen this way, this is not ‘radicalization’, but figuring out a new optimal solution for the UK subject to a revised view of us being less able to function independently.