The ‘what’ of Brexit needs a ‘why’

Simon Usherwood / Jan 2019

Image: Shutterstock


One of the recurring patterns of Brexit has been the seeming confusion – and when I say ‘seeming’, obviously I mean ‘actual’ – about what the British government, parliament or country at large should do.

A decision gets made, then it’s quickly discovered that this decision does not fully address the issue at hand, or doesn’t marry up with other decisions. This results in new decisions being made, again with the same problems, and with none of them providing any blanket resolution.

We’ve seen this in the Article 50 negotiations themselves and in the planning for a no-deal outcome. From the temporary customs arrangement amendment to the original Irish backstop through to the lack of a dredged port for a not-yet-existing ferry, the British have been tied up in ever more knots.

A central reason for this piecemeal approach is that there has been the persistent absence of a master-idea: something to provide an overarching rationale and objective for the entire venture.

More precisely, there are lots of such rationales, but none of them has managed to become the dominant narrative and frame. With a weak Prime Minister, a weak Leader of the Opposition, a divided Parliament and country, everyone gets to have their own view, but no-one gets to drive the debate by themselves.

Why does this matter?

Well, it’s not enough to say that the UK is leaving the EU: you also need to have a purpose in so doing, because that can guide you in how you go about it. It’s a truism that you can leave in lots of different ways (Simon 1975), so without a guiding principle or goal, you risk making life all the more difficult.

With an objective in hand, you can resolve specific and localised problems by working from your first principles to generate integrated, reinforcing and consistent action. Instead, we find a big soggy pile of sticking plasters, each applied with minimal thought as to how they create knock-on consequences and blockages.

With a purpose in mind, you can generate red lines that mutally-reinforce each other in defending your core interests and incentivising others to help you achieve them. Without it, we have ended up with a hotch-potch list of “things we just don’t like”, that cut across each other and leave gaps and uncertainties.

With a goal, it becomes much easier to identify problems with the options open to you, as well as to identify ways to generate solutions that are internally consistent. Instead, the debate has often fallen back to the level of “I just don’t like it”, which does not provide a constructive way forward.

All of this helps to explain why there is so much frustration in the EU with the UK. The latter says it’s unhappy, but cannot then articulate why it’s unhappy, much less a solution to that unhappiness. Throughout Article 50, the cry from Brussels and national capitals has been for ‘clarity’ as much as anything else.

It’s also the reason why so many beyond the UK find Brexit so bemusing an event: there is no obvious purpose to it, certainly not in terms of how the political system has articulated it.

All this said, I should stress this isn’t the whole story – there are questions of trust and knowledge and of specific personalities – but it is an important part of the picture and it’s something that will become ever more evident in the coming weeks.

As Parliament moves to debate and then have its Meaningful Vote, we can observe that every option on the table, from revocation to a no-deal exit, comes with some considerable cost, be that economic, political or social.

If there was some generally-agreed objective behind Brexit, then the ability of Parliament (and the country) to judge the acceptability of those costs would be much better. People would be able to rationalise much more clearly whether those costs were worth bearing for the bigger objective.

That would in turn allow for the building of a Parliamentary consensus around some policy option that could be treated on broadly similar terms by a large number of MPs, forming the basis for subsequent decisions and advances towards the securing of the big goal.

But we don’t have that.

So instead, we are likely to have another week of debates and voting marked by very different interpretations of how Brexit should progress, with very different evaluations of costs and benefits and so very much less chance of a consensus emerging.

As MPs try to work their way out of all of this, they might well reflect on how it is much easier to do something in politics if you know why you’re doing it and if you can get others to agree on that reasoning.

Simon Usherwood

Simon Usherwood

January 2019

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