Boy's Own Brexit

The men (sic) offering idiosyncratic in-depth takes on the UK and the EU

Currently the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to give it its full name) is in the middle of a shambolic process that may or may not see it leave the European Union, the 28-member community of states united by a set of treaties and laws establishing a single market, a customs union, a common travel area, a common currency (the Euro), and a set of European-wide government bodies and related institutions.

If you’re not that familiar with the EU check out its own “easy-to-read” description, which is simultaneously informative and reads like propaganda intended to indoctrinate schoolchildren. If you’re interested in a mainstream explainer on what’s going on with “Brexit” (as it’s universally known), you can check out this New York Times explainer from one of America’s preeminent establishment media. But if you’re like me and you have a hankering for more in-depth and idiosyncratic commentary on Brexit and its political, economic, and social dimensions, here are some sources I’ve been reading regularly as events unfold.

I myself think the UK is making a mistake in leaving the EU, or at least in doing so the way it is, so in UK terms I’d be considered a “remainer”. However I’ve included several sources below who are in the “leave” camp, in order to provide balance, because I think it’s interesting in general to see arguments from people whose perspective is different from ones’ own, and (most important) because I find the political, philosophical, and personal differences among the “leavers” to be quite fascinating.

The negotiator: Ivan Rogers

When in March 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, formally notifying the European Union of the UK’s intention to leave the EU, one of the key people entrusted with the task of negotiating the UK’s withdrawal was Sir Mark Ivan Rogers KCMG (to give him his full name and title), a long-serving senior civil servant who was at that time British Permanent Representative to the EU.

Unfortunately Prime Minister May, under pressure from her Conservative Party colleagues, set out preconditions for the UK’s withdrawal that greatly complicated the task of negotiating such a withdrawal agreement, most notably declaring that the UK would leave the EU single market and end the freedom of movement required under EU laws. Frustrated with the task of squaring May’s priorities with the realities of EU-UK integration, Ivan Rogers first expressed his frustration in a private memo (inevitably leaked) and subsequently resigned his position in January 2017.

Since then Rogers has given a series of public speeches that essentially amount to an extended “I told you so” tour regarding the UK’s Brexit difficulties. These are to some degree repetitive, but are worth reading or watching just for the oh-so-British subdued disdain directed at those among the British political establishment who did not really understand how the European Union works and underestimated the complexities of leaving it. A lecture by Rogers last January 29 at the University College of London European Institute is a good recent example of the genre, available as a text document for the impatient and as a video for those who want the full Ivan Rogers experience.

The Irish (Northern and otherwise): Slugger O’Toole

One of the major stumbling blocks in the UK’s Brexit negotiations with the EU has been the future status of the land border between Ireland, i.e., the independent state often referred to as the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, the region of the UK that occupies the northeastern part of the island of Ireland. This would be a controversial topic even in the absence of other factors, since if the UK leaves the EU this border will be the only land border between the UK and an EU country.

However matters are further complicated because since 1998 Northern Ireland has had a sui generis constitutional status within the UK as a result of the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) that was intended to function as a settlement between those (mainly Catholic) residents of Northern Ireland favoring (re)unification with the Republic of Ireland, and those (mainly Protestant) residents wishing Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.

Both Ireland and the UK have been EU members since 1973, and after the Good Friday Agreement the EU single market and related aspects of the EU, along with various bilateral arrangements between the UK and Ireland, to some extent erased or at least made less visible the differences between Ireland north and south. However with Brexit, at least as Theresa May has conceived it, the UK will be out of the EU single market and no longer subject to EU mandates regarding freedom of movement and other matter of interest to Northern Irish residents and businesses.

Concern for the impact of these changes on the post-GFA settlement led to the idea of the “backstop”, i.e., some way of keeping Ireland and the UK (or possibly just Northern Ireland) in regulatory alignment should post-Brexit negotiations on future EU-UK relations hit a sticking point. However, the backstop is anathema to the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish political party with Protestant fundamentalist roots whose votes in Parliament Theresa May is dependent on to pass Brexit-related measures. That conflict plays a major factor, if not the major factor, in May’s inability to conclude a withdrawal agreement with the EU.

If you’d like a ringside seat to this battle and a guide to the Northern Irish politics driving it, my recommendation is to check out the Slugger O’Toole political blog, which I’ve been reading since the mid-1990s. Correspondent Brian Walker (formerly of the BBC) weighs in regularly on all matters Brexit, with a slight lean to the “nationalist” perspective (i.e., favoring Irish unification), while Slugger founder Mick Fealty weighs in from time to time from a “unionist”-leaning perspective.

But really the best reason to read the site is because of the regular commenters, who exhibit the stereotypical Irish “gift of gab” as they endlessly dispute with one another over matters sacred and profane. Ireland is a small place, not much larger than Maryland in population, and Northern Ireland is smaller still. Thus their online arguments have the practiced familiarity characteristic of people who’ve been stuck together in the same place all their lives and despite their differences can’t quite bring themselves to quit the field. Brexit has given them something new to argue about, and they’re making the most of it.

The reformer (?): Richard North

Now we come to the “leavers” and “Eurosceptics”. Of those one of the most prolific is Richard North, known as “Dr. North” to some of his followers, both because he has a PhD. and also to distinguish him from his son Peter, discussed below. North, a food safety consultant and former candidate for the anti-EU Referendum Party, served as at least an informal advisor to the leaders of one of the campaigns supporting the “leave” position in the June 2016 referendum, but has since had a falling out with his former colleagues over the handling of the Brexit negotiations.

A reviewer once dismissed one of the poet Muriel Rukyeser’s works in a single line: “There's one thing you can say about Muriel: she's not lazy.” The same could be said of Richard North, who posts almost every day without fail on his site eureferendum.com. North is in some ways the anti-EU version of Ivan Rogers (whose speeches he sometimes quotes), except that he doesn’t bother to conceal his contempt for those politicians whom he feels have made a hash out of Brexit.

Although he is a long-time Eurosceptic, North’s position is almost (but not quite!) that of a reformer: He believes that the geographic position of the UK means that it will always have a close relationships with the countries of continental Europe, and that the depth and complexity of the legal arrangements between the EU and the UK mean that withdrawing from the EU must needs be a long and drawn-out affair.

To that end North proposed a “Flexcit” plan under which the UK would upon leaving the EU be a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA), international frameworks through which non-EU countries like Norway have access to the EU single market, albeit on the condition that they maintain extensive harmonization with EU laws and regulations.

The Flexcit plan did not prove popular with other “leave” proponents, who wanted a more rapid and complete separation of the UK from the EU, though proposals bearing a passing resemblance to it occasionally surface in Brexit debates as variants of the so-called “Norway option”. Meanwhile North fulminates from the sidelines, offering a daily combination of entertaining vitriol and sometimes genuinely useful analyses of the impact of Brexit.

The populist: Peter North

Peter North is Richard North’s son. He doesn’t have the depth of knowledge of his father, but his “Pete North Politics Blog” provides a clearer picture of the populist spirit motivating many of the “leave” campaigners and voters.

Peter North’s main argument is that the people of the UK need to “take back control” not only from a European Union that is allegedly anti-democratic and overreaching, but also from a Parliament whose members are perceived to be ignorant and out of touch, part of the “Westminster bubble”. It’s a similar argument to that of U.S. populists who responded to the call to “drain the swamp”, and indeed North seems to share many of the attitudes of Trump-era U.S. conservatives (including periodically-expressed hostility to transgender people).

Peter North, like his father Richard, has somewhat of a point here: based on Brexit doings thus far many contemporary British politicians of all stripes, both “remainers” and “leavers”, do seem to be uninformed at best and incompetent at worst. North attributes this to their being infantilized by the EU, their job reduced simply to that of rubber-stamping EU dictates into UK law.

But I think it’s also possible that (independent of the EU) past British politicians simply had more weighty affairs of state to occupy their attention, most notably waging wars, and that tended to weed out the less able. For example, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Clement Atlee, the post-WW2 Prime Minister who with his colleagues built the modern British welfare state, had first proved his mettle organizing the domestic war effort as Winston Churchill’s unsung deputy.

In any case Peter North apparently sees Brexit as a cleansing fire that will expose and destroy the dead wood of British politics, to be succeeded by the new green shoots of local government initiatives driven by a resurgent British people.

This is of course assuming that Brexit actually happens—and there’s at least some chance it may not. In the event it does not Peter North paints a very different picture of a people betrayed by the establishment, and throws out dark hints of the violent fate that might befall those instrumental in that betrayal. In this way too North echoes U.S. political themes in a UK context.

The revolutionary: Dominic Cummings

Dominic Cummings, one of the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign, is sometimes portrayed as the mastermind or evil genius of Brexit, a status cemented by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Cummings in the TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War. Like a proper evil genius Cummings pontificates at length on his blog, justifying his actions and laying out his plans for world domination.

Cummings is famous for leading a sophisticated voter targeting campaigning for Vote Leave, including the extensive use of social media. In this he is sometimes confused with the folks behind the controversial consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was actually working for the rival Leave.EU organization. (Cummings himself dismisses his would-be evil genius rivals as “charlatans” whose sales pitch he rejected.)

Unlike Richard North, Dominic Cummings downplayed the need to present a detailed plan for Brexit. This no doubt held the diverse “leave” coalition together long enough for a successful referendum, at the expense of contributing to the current British political deadlock over exactly what sort of Brexit is called for. (For this reason Cummings apparently has earned North’s undying enmity.)

Like Peter North, Cummings sees Brexit as an opportunity for the UK to make a fresh start. However unlike Peter North Cummings is less interested in populist uprisings and more interested in the possibility of Brexit freeing the UK to become a leader in new technologies like AI and genomics. He points to the Manhattan and Apollo projects, the work of ARPA in creating the Internet, and other successful large-scale government initiatives, and calls for the UK government to adopt innovative management strategies modeled on those employed in those projects.

As it happens I have an interest in these topics as well, I read books and blogs by many of the same people Cummings does, and I often find myself nodding along while reading his posts. However at the same time I’m reminded of the old complaint “if we can go to the moon why can’t we do X?”, where X is some complex social problem that is not necessarily amenable to simple technological fixes.

I also don’t see Cummings laying out any plausible political strategy for how some future UK government might be persuaded to implement his bold ideas, Brexit or no. This is especially true given that Cummings, like North père et fils, is openly contemptuous regarding the intelligence and competence of the typical British politician and civil servant. (Former Prime Minister David Cameron returned the favor, referring to Cummings as a “career psychopath”.)

So for the most part Cummings seems to be pushing the “underpants gnomes” strategy for Brexit: “Step 1. Leave the EU. Step 2. ? Step 3. Profit!” Perhaps he’ll be lucky enough to see someone become Prime Minister who’s sympathetic to his ideas and will give him free rein to implement them—for example Michael Gove, whom Cummings previously served as a special advisor while Gove was Education Secretary.

Or perhaps Cummings will find himself in a similar position as Trump-sympathetic intellectuals in the U.S.: cheering on a new political face and imagining them as an “agent of chaos” whose reign will destroy the old world and make possible a new one in which the intellectuals’ dreams can become reality. As has happened in the U.S., I suspect Cummings will find that whatever new political leader emerges will have their own personal agenda, and no interest in his.

That certainly seems to be the case with Brexit thus far: both the “leave” and “remain” causes have apparently attracted a considerable number of chancers and opportunists, looking to Brexit as a way to pull themselves up the ladder of political success. (In this context Theresa May, whatever her flaws and missteps, often seems to be the only adult in the room.) The Brexit countdown continues, and I’ll be checking in every day for the color commentary.