• What Brexit Is Really About


    The current turmoil in British politics, with leading Cabinet members resigning over the progress, or lack of it, in the talks over Brexit, will have left many readers in this part of the world confused as to what it is all about. Any attempt to clarify the issues will, of course, be greatly influenced by the views and prejudices of the person making the attempt, but what follows is my explanation – based on my close involvement in the unfolding saga over many decades.


    The modern story must begin, of course, with the unexpected result of the referendum conducted in Britain in 2016, when the British people – asked if they wanted to remain in the European Union – replied with a narrow but clear majority for leaving. That verdict on over 40 years of membership no doubt owes much to the fact that, as I and many others had argued at the time, the original deal offered to Britain was a very bad one.

    The Common Market, as it was then known, had been formed on the basis of a Franco-German deal, which offered the French the huge advantage of the Common Agricultural Policy in return for free trade in manufactured goods which was of great benefit to German manufacturing. The deal was so advantageous to those two original members that General de Gaulle was determined to make it stick and therefore vetoed Britain’s belated application to join until it had been concreted into place.

    The result was always going to be a disaster for Britain (as I could see by virtue of a birds-eye view from my role, first, in the Foreign Office and then from my desk in the British Embassy in Brussels); instead of a rational trading pattern in which they imported efficiently produced food and raw materials from countries that offered them in return preferential treatment for British manufactures, the British taxpayer was required to subsidise inefficient French agriculture and then to pay again as a consumer by way of higher food prices – thereby negating Britain’s one major cost advantage as a manufacturing economy – while British manufacturers lost their preferential markets and had to compete in the same market as powerful and efficient German producers.

    The outcomes were inevitable (although ignored by those enthusiasts for whom “Europe” had become the promised land). The British “trade gap” widened alarmingly, British manufacturing was decimated, the British taxpayer continued to pay large sums into the EU coffers, and Britain’s links with its traditional trading partners were weakened. These burdens bore most heavily on working people who found, in addition, that their employment prospects, available housing, and public services were greatly reduced and weakened by the influx of migrants from eastern Europe who were keen to exercise their right as EU citizens to settle in the UK.

    The outcome of the referendum should not really, therefore, have come as a surprise – but it did. The bien-pensants – those who “know best” – were greatly attached to the notion of a Europe that carried with it a kind of cultural cachet, and they were remarkably insouciant about the price that was being paid. They were reluctant to accept the result of the referendum which they attributed to the “ignorance” and “racism” of those who “didn’t really understand” what a wonderful ideal “Europe” (which they conflated with the particular arrangement known as the European Union) really was.

    They therefore set about doing all they could to reverse the result, through a sustained campaign (particularly in the pages of The Guardian, which gave up all pretence of impartiality on the issue) to hold a second referendum in which the “mistake” could be rectified. In doing so, they gave of course great comfort to the EU bureaucracy which was encouraged to believe that Brexit wouldn’t really happen.

    That bureaucracy of course had its own agenda. They were terrified that other countries – like Greece and Spain, even now Italy – that had suffered terribly as a result of the undemocratic and banker-driven intransigence of EU rules and institutions might also want to leave. They determined therefore to show other backsliders that exit was not an easy option.

    The result? The “Europe” held up as the key to a wonderful future proved to be remarkably impervious to the ideal of unity and more concerned with protecting its own structures and institutions than with building a cooperative arrangement with a departing Britain. The combination of a misguided rearguard action at home and a determination in Brussels to punish the British for their temerity in leaving has made the negotiation of a sensible arrangement almost impossible.

    If these problems are to be overcome, the answers are to be found at least as much in Brussels as in Westminster and Whitehall. Those with hearts and minds that are big enough could take the Brexit talks as an opportunity to build a new “Europe” that could fix its many current failings by becoming more democratic and less wedded to the neo-liberal prescriptions of its central banks and bureaucracies. But, on the evidence so far, sadly, that seems unlikely and a goal that had seemed so inspiring looks certain to become mired in its own short-sightedness.

    Bryan Gould
    11 July 2018



  1. Brian says: July 10, 2018 at 10:45 pmReply

    Didn’t Boris Johnson described Treason May”s latest brexit policy like polishing a turd.I suppose he should know being the chief political turd polisher of British politics.
    With european military integration , adopting European laws, and generally dragging their sorry arses ,the torys are not serious about exiting the union. It’s hard to believe that Britain ever ran a empire!

  2. Elizabeth Howell says: July 11, 2018 at 6:29 amReply

    Bryan Gould, another sane comment on the current situation. Thank you.
    I have lived most of my life ‘overseas’ but my only chance to use my vote was in the decision to join the Common Market. I voted against it. Britain, in fact, voted against it by not joining the common currency. I think today’s scenario is an example of the current hype and fake news promulgated by the media, and the general hysteria in the population with not enough education or life experience to weather these storms.

  3. Chris Manners says: July 15, 2018 at 7:44 pmReply

    Dreadful stuff. Not the slightest hint of a plan. We don’t even have an agreed Cabinet line yet, so how can you blame the EU for “punishing” us?

    No mention of the Irish border either. Ireland simply doesn’t exist to Brexit ultras. Pure Liam Fox wishful thinking whereby “big hearts and minds” get us out of this mess. Well, you’ve got a heart and a mind. Tell us how it’s done.

    • Bryan Gould says: July 16, 2018 at 3:58 amReply

      Typical of the attitudes that, from as far back as 1973 (and not just 2016), helped to get us into this mess in the first place.

  4. Heather Marion Smith says: October 2, 2018 at 1:54 amReply

    What is more, the Maastricht Treaty forbids central banks (e.g. the BOE) funding their governments in their own currency. – HMS

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