Brexit is both simple and complex.
I am reminded of a meme that was doing the rounds in response to President Obama’s intervention into the Brexit debate. It mocked the Remain campaign’s tactic of painting the post-Brexit era as something scary and unknowable by featuring an image of Lord North and the mock quote “Those campaigning for independence can’t tell us what life would be like outside the British Empire” and the strap line “America Stronger In Empire”. It made me laugh.
In the years between 4th July 1776 and now, the USA and the UK have had periods of very close co-operation and periods of open warfare; we have oscillated between what some Americans might have described as “hard independence” and “soft independence”. The relationship between our two countries wasn’t set forever in the years immediately following American independence: it has evolved and changed depending on circumstances and the political will of the respective governments. And that’s the point of repatriating political decision-making.
At this level, Brexit is a remarkably simple concept, it is binary: we are either a member of the EU or we are not. It’s rather like being pregnant. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, there is no hard or soft pregnant, you are either pregnant or you’re not.
Similarly, there is no such thing as soft Brexit or hard Brexit, there really is only Brexit or no Brexit. We are either members of the European Union or we are not. There is no middle option or third way.
Those people who talk about Brexit as if it were a continuum are confusing and conflating two subtly but significantly different things. The first of those is our membership or non-membership of the EU; the second is the policies we pursue on issues such as trade deals, migration limits, and the interaction between them.
Because of our membership of the EU, we have slipped into the habit of thinking of these things as being inextricably linked, but doing so misses the whole point of Brexit. Once we leave the EU these things are no longer EU/Brexit political issues – they are just political issues.
We will have to decide what our appetite is for tariff-free trade with the EU and decide what concessions we are willing to make to get it. We will need to weigh up the costs and benefits of not having tariff-free access to the European single market and compare those with the costs and benefits of tariff-free access to other trade markets. Those aren’t Brexit decisions, they’re just political decisions.
Once outside the EU we will need to ask (and answer) some serious questions about our migration policies. How many immigrants, with what skills, from where in the world, for how long, etc?
The idea that is being kicked around by Clegg, Blair, Major et al at the moment is that because the post-Brexit future is impossible to predict and that we don’t yet have detailed answers to all these questions, we should call the whole thing off. I have no idea what jobs my two boys will have in the future, whether they will marry and have children of their own, whether they will live happy and fulfilled lives. Does this uncertainty mean I should never have had them?
We have had the referendum and we have been given an instruction by the British people, the political equivalent of weeing on the stick and watching the little blue lines appear. Our government, and future governments, will need to make tough decisions on issues we have handed over to the EU for decades and they will then be held accountable by the electorate for those decisions. This is how democracy is meant to work and now that we have decided to leave the EU it has a chance to.