Brexit – more on Path dependency/Slippery Slope

October 20th, 2019
by Chris

Theresa May’s speech after the defeat of the government yesterday included, according to the Sun, these words:-
“Because we have, today, to make a key decision. And it is simple, do we want to deliver Brexit? Do we want to deliver on the result of the referendum in 2016? When we voted to trigger Article 50, did we really mean it? When the two main parties represented in this House stood on manifestos in the 2017 general election to deliver Brexit, did we really mean it?”
 “I think there can only be one answer to that and that is yes, we did mean it. Yes, we keep faith with the British people. Yes we want to deliver Brexit.”
“If this Parliament did not mean it, then it is guilty of the most egregious con trick on the British people.”

I think this beautifully examplifies the path dependency I referred to in my previous post.

David Cameron stood on a manifesto of holding a referendum, and then campaigned against a leave vote, never expecting that it would actuallyu result in a “leave” vote. That’s the first step.

The second was when parliament agreed the proposed referendum, on the basis that it was a non-binding indication of preference, and NOT that it would be binding on every subsequent government. Mrs. May referred to the fact that the legislation had passed with overwhelming cross-party support; we cannot now know for certain, but it seems to me overwhelmingly likely that it would NOT have had cross party support if it had been couched as mandating the government to leave the EU – it might well not have got a majority, given that at the time polls of MPs indicated that over 60% of them opposed leaving.

The third step followed the referendum result. Suddenly, it was taken as a binding obligation on parliament to implement Brexit (and I note this is the view Mrs. May is still pushing, despite the fact that it’s probable that when parliament agreed the referendum, that is not what they thought they were doing). When there was a snap election called by Mrs. May (and agreed by Labour) to try to get a better majority (and with the actual result that the existing majority vanished, leaving her in the hands of the DUP to get anything done), both Conservative and Labour stood on a manifesto of leaving the EU, a mistake on the part of Labour which the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru did not make. Mrs. May is therefore right to say that Labour supported some Brexit at that point. However, Labour’s preferred continuing relationship was in that campaign, in general terms, a “Norway” deal (which would have kept us in the customs union, kept all the environmental, labour, food and product safety rules, kept us trading in exactly the way we always had), and on the doorstep not a few Conservatives were also campaigning on the basis that we could leave and still have such a deal.

A “Norway” deal, as I’ve pointed out before, would be pretty much a case of agreeing to all EU law and paying for common institutions but not having any say in how they were made, something which was, of course, totally unacceptable to the UKIP/Brexit party bloc (of which Conservatives and, to a lesser extent Labour were scared, with some merit, given that our first-past-the-post voting system might actually have given them an absolute majority despite having only around 31% of the vote) or to the 150-200 Conservative MPs who favoured leave at all costs. Nevertheless, at that point it was still a live option.

Then it became apparent that the EU would not negotiate unless an Article 50 notice (which committed us to leaving if not first withdrawn, without any certainty of a future trading agreement) was given, and again, Conservative and Labour MPs voted overwhelmingly to do that. That was the fourth step – Mrs. May again rightly points out that that was agreed by parliament.

Then we had Mrs. May’s “deal”, which, under EU rules, didn’t actually specify what the future trading agreement would be. OK, technically it couldn’t, we had to leave before the eventual agreement could be negotiated, but the accompanying political declaration could have specified a “Norway” deal, or a “Canada” deal, or a “Switzerland” deal – but it didn’t. That was the fifth step. The likely outcome had now become something less beneficial to us than any of those options.

The reason for this is that the hardline Brexiteers wouldn’t support any of those beneficial agreements which could have been made under any circumstances, and as we progressed down the path towards a harder and harder Brexit, their votes became more and more vital if any progress was to be made, as those MPs who had expected not less than Norway, Canada or Switzerland stopped being willing to support anything further. As everyone know knows, that is the point at which Mrs. May no longer had a majority…

Finally, the “Boris deal” arrives, trampling all over the lack of a customs border in Ireland (mandated by the Good Friday agreement, which is the basis for peace in Northern Ireland) and the lack of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (an absolute requirement of the Ulster Unionists whether DUP or otherwise) as well, and anticipating that on a simple majority vote of the Northern Ireland Assembly we could crash out of the Good Friday Agreement as well. It is hardly suprising that MPs are digging in their heels at this point. We are so far down the path to a “no-deal” or a very damaging deal Brexit that MPs with a lively interest in the welfare of the country cannot support it.

Does Mrs. May have ANY merit in her suggestion that to stop Brexit (or even delay it) would be “an egregious con-trick on the British people”? I am totally confident that she does not. Let’s look at the votes cast: 52% voted in favour – but although that 52% were in favour, how many of them at the time were prepared to go so far down this path as “no deal”?

My very strong suspicion is that the answer to that is something around 31%, namely the proportion of people who voted Brexit in the 2019 European election – after all, everyone who wished to leave expected at the time that the MEPs elected then would either never take their seats or only sit for a very short amount of time, and it was a “regional list” PR election so tactical voting was pretty much ruled out, so it was in effect a fresh “free vote” on what kind of Brexit people were prepared to countenance. Yes, one can argue that a proportion of the Conservative voters thought the same way, perhaps as many as 70%. The thing is, the Conservatives only polled 9% of the votes, and even if every single one of them was a “no deal Brexit” supporter, that only gives “no deal” 40% – and that is a long way from a majority.

But, watching the BBC coverage of yesterday’s debate, I noticed that there was virtually no mention of the possibility of stopping the whole thing in its tracks by revoking Article 50. Path dependency seems to have removed that possibility from the table completely; the only options really being talked about were the “Boris deal” and “no deal”.

A similar thing seems to have happened in the minds of many of those who voted Leave in the first place. People who told me that they wanted a “Norway” deal in 2016 became willing in 2017 to accept “Canada” and, by this year, would accept “no deal” just in order to have the thing over and done by (and I note at this point that the only way for it to be over and done with quickly IS to revoke Article 50, as the Boris deal means we will then have uncertainty until a new trade deal has been negotiated and agreed by Parliament, and that will take at least another year, and more probably two or three).

It looks a lot like a “slippery slope” rather than a true path dependency, and that seems to have infected the minds of a lot of the population, the BBC and a fair number of MPs, including Mrs. May (assuming for a moment that she was not just being disingenuous…). The thing is, it is not too late to stop the whole sorry mess. Yes, a lot of damage has been done (see my previous post), but we don’t have to have any more damage.

Please God, revoke the Article 50 notice now, and put us out of our misery. At least 60% of those who voted this year plainly don’t want a no deal Brexit, and that is what we are inexorably heading for.

If there’s a con-trick, it’s those who lured people into voting on the basis of a decent trade deal and are now telling them they have to accept a bad one – and yes, I’m looking at you, Mrs. May, and you, Mr. Johnson…

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