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Colm McCarthy: 'There's nothing inevitable about Brexit - it could all have been so different'

All those retrospective narratives declaring Brexit as inevitable forget that even five years ago it wasn't being talked about much at all


'It is legitimate to consider the Brexit saga as a series of events which need not have happened at all.' Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA

'It is legitimate to consider the Brexit saga as a series of events which need not have happened at all.' Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA

PA Archive/PA Images

'It is legitimate to consider the Brexit saga as a series of events which need not have happened at all.' Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA

When the UK finally departs the European Union, after 47 years in membership, on February 1 there will be instant analyses, indeed some have already appeared, seeking to place this disjunctive event in the sweep of recent British and European history. It is possible to make it appear unsurprising, even inevitable, citing patterns long evident of British exceptionalism, imperial nostalgia or perceived grievance with Europe, pointing ineluctably to the advantages of departure.

But none of these retrospective narratives was ever obvious enough to have rendered the outcome predictable, since Brexit was not widely predicted 10 years ago or even five years ago. No political decision achieves inevitability just because it happened, and it is legitimate to consider the Brexit saga as a series of events which need not have happened at all.

The UK prime minister in January 2013 was David Cameron, leading a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act the next election was due in May 2015. In a speech at Bloomberg HQ in London, Cameron committed, more than two years ahead of that date, to an 'in or out' referendum on EU membership should the Conservatives win an absolute majority. Another coalition with the pro-European Lib Dems, or a victory for the Labour opposition, and there would have been no referendum. What were the odds when Cameron made this commitment, designed to protect Conservative support from the Europhobe UK Independence Party to which it had been shedding support?

A Conservative victory was a long shot when he made his speech and it stayed that way - six months before the election the bookmakers were offering 3/1 against a clear Tory majority and the odds drifted all the way out to 7/1 against a few weeks before polling day. The opinion polls were telling the same story and Cameron must have expected that his party would again miss out on a majority, ensuring that his referendum commitment would never have to be delivered. In the event support for the Liberal Democrats collapsed, the Tories won narrowly with 331 seats out of 650, yielding 51pc of the seats on just 37pc of the votes, and Cameron's cheque had to be honoured.

Another unlikely turn of events ensued. The Labour Party replaced their Europe-friendly leader Ed Miliband with an obscure backbencher, Jeremy Corbyn, supported by a small minority of MPs but by 60pc of party members in the country, whose numbers had blossomed at £3 a time for internet subscriptions. Corbyn had a record of antipathy to the EU and made only a token contribution to the Remain campaign which lost narrowly in June 2016, with Leave securing 51.9pc of the votes. The opinion polls had been flagging the closeness of the Leave/Remain split all along and Cameron admits in his recent autobiography that he knew it was a toss-up. With a less diffident Labour leader it could have gone the other way.

One of the large bookmakers offered a simple bet at the end of 2014, after Cameron's referendum commitment but before the surprise general election which made it operative. The bet was "will the UK be out of the EU by 2020". The odds quoted were 3 to 1 against. Every analyst who now manufactures, or who has already manufactured, a story which explains why the UK was bound to leave the EU, and why assorted historical patterns made departure inevitable, or even probable, must contend with the invisibility of these patterns before the deed was done. There was nothing inevitable about Brexit and things could have played out very differently. The polling organisation YouGov has been asking voters to rank their three most important political issues for decades. Prior to Cameron's elevation of the Europe issue to prominence in 2013, fewer than 10pc of voters mentioned relations with the EU, ranking it well below the health service, jobs, taxation and the other routine preoccupations of political controversy. Agitation for leaving the EU was confined to the UKIP party, which had never won a general election seat, and to a persistent minority of Tory MPs. Once Cameron made his 2013 pledge, the issue jumped to the top of the list but it was his choice to put it there.

The United Kingdom has chosen a course unwelcome to its erstwhile European partners, none of whom would have sought, or predicted, Brexit a decade ago. Not one of the EU's 27 remaining members is happy to see Britain go, given the political and trade headaches which will occupy years of contentious negotiation. But the Perfidious Albion narrative has failed to take hold, not even in Ireland, potentially the biggest casualty of Brexit after the UK itself and whose perfidy detector has the highest mileage. There is no perception that the UK has hit on a cunning plan, pursued with selfishness and deceit, advantageous to the UK and indifferent to the cost to everyone else. There is on offer instead a strange kind of Fool's Pardon. There was no cunning plan and no perfidy is detectable in what looks like a self-inflicted strategic and economic blunder.

The talks on a long-term EU-UK relationship begin in March and some goodwill remains on the European side, despite the error-strewn conduct of UK negotiators since the referendum and the occasional flashes of Europhobia from prime minister Boris Johnson and others in the Tory hierarchy. But if the talks go badly there is a risk of a descent into recrimination, with Europe blamed in the UK media for the damage arising from Johnson's chosen path, Brexit without consequences. In which case the Fool's Pardon will get withdrawn and it is possible that 2020 will not even see a minimal trade deal between the UK and the EU. Michel Barnier, who will oversee the next phase of negotiations for the EU, had this to say before Christmas: "The EU - including its trade commissioner, Phil Hogan - will engage in these negotiations in a positive spirit, with the willingness to make the most of the short time available. But, like the UK, we will keep our strategic interests in mind. We know that competing on social and environmental standards - rather than on skills, innovation, and quality - leads only to a race to the bottom that puts workers, consumers, and the planet on the losing side. Thus, any free-trade agreement must provide for a level playing field on standards, state aid, and tax matters."

Johnson has decided to forego any extension to the no-change transition period beyond the end of 2020 and Barnier's conditions could yet trigger a no-deal outcome. David Cameron made a political choice, facing a Eurosceptic threat to his party, in promising a referendum in the first place, and he had other choices. The promise, against the odds, became deliverable when he unexpectedly won the 2015 election. Labour then chose, in another surprise, a leader whose ambivalence about Europe contributed to the Leave campaign's narrow victory when the referendum was finally held. Asked what determined the fate of governments, the UK's prime minister in the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan, allegedly replied "events, dear boy, events".

Brexit is not done, and there could be more of Macmillan's 'events.'

Sunday Independent