Photography for Prospect by Paul Black

We got a Remainer and a Leaver to agree on Brexit—sort of

Six years on from the referendum and three years since we left the EU, the sunlit uplands that we were promised are yet to materialise. We asked a passionate pro-European to sit down with a prominent Eurosceptic who recognises that it has not all gone to plan. Could they agree on a way forward?

Alex Dean, managing editor: Iain, how has Brexit differed from your expectations?

Iain Martin, journalist: I’d say that it’s turned out to be suboptimal—not quite as I envisaged. I’m disappointed at the way in which it became a kind of radicalising event. I thought, in a potentially pretty naive way, that people would meet in the middle and that you’d get some kind of compromise Brexit, which may yet emerge in the next five or 10 years. But it turned out to radicalise people on my side—myself included—and obviously radicalised people on the second referendum side of things. It meant that I found myself in a position in 2019 that I would never have anticipated, advocating a clean break, and even at various points being prepared to contemplate “no deal”, if it was “no deal” versus Brexit not happening.

In terms of the actual effects of it economically, I’m not convinced it’s as disastrous as people say. I think it has turned out to be negative, but a blip compared with Covid or the effect of a war in Europe. Still, I think the negative effects need to be faced up to. And people on my side of the argument need to be realistic about it: if it can be improved and made to work, let’s try.

Alex: Patience, what’s your reaction to that?

Patience Wheatcroft, crossbench peer: I think it’s a very reasonable assessment of what’s happened, and I’m delighted to hear Iain admit that things haven’t turned out quite as he anticipated. I think the whole process was flawed. ­Actually, I was pretty much in the middle because I’d never been a huge Europhile and thought the EU was an imperfect organisation. But when it came to the vote, I was very clear that I would rather be in than out.

I think that the ramifications of leaving have been disastrous—I don’t agree with Iain on that point. Economically, Covid was an international problem and the war in Ukraine is affecting every country, but that doesn’t explain why the OECD has us near the bottom of the league of 20 major economies for growth prospects. Brexit, in my view, was a ludicrous thing to do. But as somebody who’d been on the Remain side, I feel really guilty that we didn’t make the case well enough. And when it came to the People’s Vote, we underestimated the opposition.

Alex: Iain suggested that there was radicalisation on both sides. Do you accept that?

Patience: Yes, I do. Absolutely. I think that the Brexiteers were already disaffected to some extent. But on both sides it did become much more extreme. And so the hard right—the European Research Group, the Tufton Street gang of right-wing campaign groups—were very vocal and very effective, and they got their message across. The Remainers were equally devastated at the prospect of leaving something that they hadn’t actually been particularly keen on in the first place. But the divide in society became very clear, and it was largely between those who’d gone to university and those who hadn’t, the haves and the have nots. I think a lot of people who became radicalised on the Brexit side were disappointed with how their country was faring and they wanted dramatic change. But I’m not sure they were clear what leaving the EU would actually bring.

Alex: Iain, there have been problems that you didn’t anticipate in practice, but do you still subscribe to the principle of Brexit?

Iain: Completely. For me it’s part of a big historical sweep. I think ultimately it comes down to Britain’s position in the world and our strategic choices, our defence obligations, our geopolitical obligations. It always seemed to me that we went into the EU on the basis of a deceit, and that it was ultimately a mistake. In the long run—we can talk about whether that’s 10 years, 50 years, 100 years—it’s better to have a situation where you can kick out those who govern you, without having a permanent transnational government above you. Now, I was always for reform of the EU—and exhausted that idea in many completely pointless columns, it turns out. But the reform process and the renegotiation process ultimately didn’t work.

Patience Wheatcroft: We do benefit from trying to act as one—other world powers are mighty and frightening

I would have preferred a two-speed Europe—ironically, something a bit like what Macron is proposing now with the newly formed European Political Community. If you could have had a beefed-up version of that, I might have settled for it. But for me it comes down to democratic fundamentals. I know the government is unpopular at the moment, but having your own government and your own country is ultimately what it’s about.

Patience: I think the idea of a two-speed Europe does have merit. The economies of Europe are different and trying to squeeze them all into a single model brings difficulties. So at one stage, I would have been in favour of the UK being in the outer tier of Europe. But when it comes to matters of defence, for instance, I think we do benefit from trying to act as one, because the other powers in the world are big and mighty and frightening.

Of course the democratic process could be improved but it’s easier to campaign for that from within rather than without. And most people who’ve been involved with the EU—not the incorrigible Leavers, not the Daniel Hannans of this world, but others—will tell you that when it came to rulings of the EU, the UK was a very effective voice and generally got what it wanted. I understand to a certain extent where you’re coming from, Iain. But I do think that looking at where we are now, what we have gained from leaving the EU is very, very hard to pinpoint.

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Polling day in 2016: Remain didn’t make its case well enough, says Wheatcroft. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Iain: If you take the defence example—and I accept that this is debatable and subjective—but nonetheless there is an advantage to a Brexit state of mind which shows up in a greater degree of autonomy. I hear it said all the time at Westminster that Britain has lost global influence, but that simply doesn’t tally with what’s happened on Ukraine. The second leading power in terms of military aid spending has been the UK. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have acted like that if we were still in the EU, but I think it would’ve been slightly different. And we would still have been in the room at one o’clock in the morning arguing with ­Viktor Orbán about sanctions, rather than operating as a truly sovereign state with allies. On vaccines, it’s all fading into history now. I think those on my side, me included, who claimed that Brexit gave us a great advantage here—it probably turned out to be a six- to eight-week head start from Britain acting alone. So the advantage isn’t enormous, but it seemed to matter at the time, when we were in the depths of Covid. So a Brexit state of mind has actually turned out to be a net positive.

Iain Martin: The ultra-Brexit model has been tested and found wanting

Alex: Patience, on Ukraine in particular, do you accept Iain’s point?

Patience: I have to say, it’s just about the only issue on which Boris Johnson behaved well. It was the right thing to do. I think that this country would’ve done it whether or not we were in the EU. On the vaccines issue, I think it’s now absolutely accepted that actually we could have done exactly what we did while we were members of the EU. We would’ve had the option to join the EU scheme, but we could have gone on our own. And so I think one has to be careful about blaming the EU for making life difficult—and that actually applies in general. It reminds me, in a way, of when people in business said “we want to get rid of regulation, we want to be free of EU regulation”. But then when you ask them which regulations they want to be free from, there are none.

Iain: On the regulations point, you have hit on the great flaw in my side of the argument. It was always the thing you dreaded as someone in favour of leaving the EU, that someone will say “give me a list of five regulations that you want to scrap now”. And people will bluster a lot about red tape and all the rest of it. There are specific things around financial regulation; there’s a debate about what digital regulation will look like in the future; but you are absolutely right and this is unresolved. It’s at the heart of the split in the Conservative party, which is ironically bigger than the split over Europe for the last 20 or 30 years, because it’s about fundamentals. Do you have an open or a closed economy? Are you in favour of protection or free trade? How big should the state be? And Brexit has actually in a way made that split worse and presented the Conservative party with a choice which it is struggling to resolve.

Patience: Absolutely right. And I don’t think it can resolve it.

Alex: You both seem to agree that, whether because of some inherent flaw or just the way it’s turned out, Brexit’s been suboptimal so far. What is the way forward?

Iain: Looking at the polls at the moment, it will fall to Labour to try and fix it. Now, that’s where the debate gets really interesting in terms of how you improve what we have now. I wrote about this a few months ago, went to Sweden, turned off my phone and then turned it back on 48 hours later to find tens of thousands of people shouting at me from both sides of the argument. For the Leave side I had betrayed Brexit by saying we need to fix the flaws, and for the Remain side I had conceded that it was wrong all along—neither of which I’d done. I was simply asking: “can a sensible middle ground be found?” There are people on both sides of the argument starting to say, “can you find a landing spot?” We even saw the government floating a Swiss-style agreement in the press before it back-pedalled.

Switzerland is closer than we are to the single market. In the long run, is there a Norway- or Swiss-style endpoint? Should the aim simply be better cooperation? I’m relatively open-minded about it, but I think that’s the general direction we’re headed in. The ultra-Brexit model has been tested in terms of free trade agreements and deregulation, and found wanting.

But then there’s a question about trust on both sides, which is in short supply at the moment. Can Brexiteers be sure that it’s not a ruse? That we won’t get so far down the line, closer towards the single market, and then it becomes: “Ah, well, you see, we might as well rejoin”? So is there a landing ground, Patience?

Patience: I think it’s very difficult to see at the moment, because a lot of the Brexit camp were in the “red wall” seats, and their lives are getting harder, and I think their distrust will mean that they move even ­further into the Brexit camp. Actually, I think there will be a real reluctance to compromise. Nigel Farage is still around and will pop up and say, “your lot is worse because actually it’s not been a proper Brexit.” And I’m quite fearful about that. I think that, on the other side of the argument, there are extremists and some of them want to rejoin without another vote, a completely mad thing to do.

Patience: Keir Starmer just doesn’t want to talk about the EU

Iain: Imagine the renegotiations—I couldn’t imagine what getting back in would be like.

Patience: I think that there are sad Remainers who hope that one day relations will be restored. And actually, from a purely practical point of view, it’s already happening. One of the things that we banged on about was Northern Ireland, because it was quite clear all the way through that what Brexit did was cause an enormous—unsolvable, really—problem with Northern Ireland, and Johnson lied about it and Brexit minister David Frost negotiated a settlement which he himself thinks is dreadful. But ripping up the Northern Ireland protocol would trigger a trade war, and I think Sunak and Macron agree that the last thing either of us want is a ­real trade war. It looks as if they’re going to come up with a compromise, a fudge, and it was always going to have to be a fudge.

Iain: Which that border has always been, since partition. The Brexit side messed up on Northern Ireland, obviously, and assumed that a compromise would be found; and the EU was, I think, rigid because its legal status and its borders were at stake. It refused to understand that there is only ever one answer when it comes to Ireland and Northern Ireland, and that is fudge.

Patience: I think that’s where we’ll get to, and that’s a promising start to rebuilding relations, but it will take a very long time. And of course Keir Starmer, understandably, is concentrating on alienating as few people as possible. And so at the moment he just doesn’t want to talk about the EU. I suspect once Labour is in government and looking at quite a long time there, 10 years perhaps, he will begin to move things gradually towards a single market arrangement if we can do it, but the EU ­understandably might not make that easy and it probably won’t be on the terms that we had before.

Iain: I agree that the direction of travel is towards repairing relations, and Johnson having left the scene helps a lot. With Starmer, I think there is a chance that Labour gets lucky.

The example is like Labour in the 1960s. I think a lot of what the party will do will be in that spirit of 1964 to 1966. It’ll be an updated version of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology”, a narrative of rebuilding Britain. Now, if that’s their pitch and they get lucky on economic growth—let’s say the Office for Budget Responsibility turns out to be wrong, the war ends with a global economic bounce and you get back to growth of 1 to 2 per cent—in those circumstances, quite a lot of the arguments over the single market will fade a bit into the background. So I can see Starmer using that extra space, and political capital, to get closer to the opportunity to rejoin the single market. But you’re right, if he wants to win back some of those “red wall” voters, he’ll have to be careful not to be seen to be giving away too much.

Alex: Patience, could you talk a bit about public opinion on all this, which does seem to have moved quite a lot since 2016?

Patience: Well, certainly the polls show that there’s actually a high level of regret over the decision to leave the EU, but I think that’s for a variety of reasons and not necessarily any great love of the EU, but concerns about what’s going on here in the UK.

The issue that is still a really difficult one is freedom of movement, and the influx of all the small boats across the Channel has added to that. In fact, the number of people arriving hasn’t gone up exponentially. They used to come in lorries, in all sorts of other ways, but they’re much more visible in boats. And it has made some people who are unhappy, who’ve seen their real wages go down over a long period, blame immigration and asylum seekers for their plight as a knee-jerk reaction. I don’t think that’s going to get better anytime soon. And I think that’s the biggest problem that Starmer will face.

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Making things worse: the Truss government had the wrong answers to Britain’s challenges. Stefan Rousseau—WPA Pool/Getty Images

Alex: Iain, moving to the economy and the markets, has Britain’s position been undercut by Brexit there?

Iain: I think if you take the story of the last 15 years—if you take the financial crisis, austerity, a eurozone crisis in the middle of all of that, the worst pandemic in 100 years, an outbreak of European war—then the fact the UK economy was hit by 0.1 per cent to 0.5 per cent to 1.2 per cent or whatever, depending on whom you listen to, immediately after Brexit, is a historical blip. In terms of the financial markets, I said at the time and continue to believe that Brexit’s a potential opportunity in terms of finance. And with the City of London’s 500-year history, it’s not going to disappear anytime soon. The stock market is not in great shape, but as a global financial centre London is still in the top three, and as a global debt market and hub of activity it doesn’t have a major European rival yet—though that could change. But I think it’s fair to say that on the City, not much has been done with the opportunity. And there’s no doubt that there is a run of confidence on Britain, and Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss made this worse. Internationally, people don’t necessarily see it as a great place to invest. But I think we will look back and see all this as part of a really destructive, difficult story that begins with the financial crisis—not Brexit.

Alex: Just to come back to you on that, there is one line of thought which says that when all these other crises are happening, whatever negative consequences might be caused by Brexit fade into the background. But there’s another line of thought which says that the very worst time to create problems is when there’s all these other crises going on.

Iain: I voted on the basis that I was never going to be asked again

Patience: In the grand scheme of things, Brexit is not the major component of the problems that we find ourselves with now. But I agree that if you are going to do Brexit, it was the worst possible time to do it. I think that we’ve lost a lot and it will be a long time before we regain it.

Iain: I voted ultimately on the basis that I knew I was never going to be asked again. By a series of Fawlty Towers-style disasters and miscalculations, the British establishment stumbled into allowing a referendum, and like many Brexiters, whatever doubts I had about the economic practicalities and what it would actually be like, I knew that I would never get another chance. It’s all there in Hugo Young’s This Blessed Plot, the key text on how Britain got into the EU by a process of deceit, and which was published when it was seen as impossible for us to leave because we were so enmeshed in the whole thing. It is an extraordinary book in which Foreign Office insiders effectively admit how it was done. And so the British establishment was celebrating then: we were in a situation we could never get out of. And thanks to a series of accidents, we were presented with the choice. For me, it was vote to leave now or never be asked again.

Patience: Staging the referendum, and being so confident of a positive result, was one of the rare occasions when Cameron didn’t listen to Osborne, and had he done so things would look very different now.

Iain: One positive: is it possible that it’s a good thing that we no longer have the EU to blame? So much of what’s wrong and needs fixing—productivity and the health service, problems with infrastructure and education underfunding, local government needing to be empowered, the Treasury needing to lose power and disperse it to other parts of the UK—all of those things are our own responsibility now. The arguments you heard for 30 years—that there’s a simple answer to this, which is to leave the EU—now no longer apply. It’s our mess to fix.

Patience: I completely agree with you. If there’s any positive to be found, it is that we are now responsible for putting things right. We can’t blame anybody but ourselves, and we’ve got some big decisions to take about how to rebuild Britain.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity