Book Review: How politicians are ruining Brexit by Jonathan Arnott MEP
‘How politicians are ruining Brexit’ offers a clear and damning account of the failures of the UK Government in Brexit negotiations. From the referendum itself, to the negotiation and current debates about the future relationship, Jonathan Arnott’s book is a must-read for anyone looking for a clear explanation of the British dilemma on Brexit.
Depression is the first feeling that Jonathan Arnott’s book invokes in me. This is not because of a badly written book, on the contrary. It is because of the sheer clarity with which Arnott has exposed the entire Brexit calamity and the complete and utter failure of the UK and the EU’s political elite.
Like Alice in Wonderland, it appears as if Brexit is an impossible dream, at least according to politicians, who I have no doubt are, on the whole, hoping that we forget it before breakfast.
Brexit is a minefield of complication, which is why books like Jonathan Arnott’s are of such value. Sir Roger Scruton often takes aim at academics for producing deliberately confusing and incomprehensible work, in the hope that such obfuscation renders the reader helpless to whatever snake oil has been woven into the confusion. This charge cannot be levelled at Arnott, who makes every effort to take the reader with him, every step of the way. He achieves this with ease.
Arnott’s task is a noble one. To wade through the sludge of complication and provide a reliable account of where the UK was before Brexit, what led to it, where it went wrong and why. He has achieved all of these aims commendably.
A Britain discontent
Brexit isn’t the only problem facing the EU, perhaps not even the biggest. After a brief meditation on the definition of Brexit, which Arnott recognises creates problems of its own, (p.5) he seeks to explain why it was us, The United Kingdom, that was so discontented as to actually vote for withdrawal.
It’s hardly as if the other 27 members are enjoying their time of EU membership; Italy and Greece are still being crippled by the Euro, the French public are still rioting over energy price rises stemming from the EUs wholly unrealistic climate change targets and the Eastern European countries are still refusing to accept responsibility for Merkel’s decision to pour petrol on the flames of the migration crisis. So, why us?
Arnott draws on sensible and obvious distinctions between the UK and the EU, observed by others at various points in our peculiar halfway-house membership. He draws on British experience of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), or ‘the Euro without the notes and coins’, the effects of which were “brutal”. (p.15)
Particular attention is paid to the trading arrangements of the UK and it’s historically international outlook. The UK does more trade outside of the EU than in it, a feature not shared by the vast majority of EU members. (p.11)
Arnott discusses the UK’s historic links with the United States and the Commonwealth to paint a picture of a country that is fundamentally uncomfortable with a narrow, continental interest. (pp.11-12)
Beyond the economics, however, Arnott picks up on what I’d consider two of the most fundamentally important differences between the UK and most of the continent; what Arnott coins “The Island mentality” (pp.12-13) and our legal system. (pp.18-19)
The United Kingdom is an island, which makes the question of borders far simpler than on a continent where borders have historically (and even currently in the case of Northern Cyprus) been contested. This, in turn, leads Arnott to question – quite rightly – the effects this has on national identity, which he identifies as being far stronger in the UK than on the continent. (p.13) This follows key, intellectual arguments within conservatism on the nature of the EU on the question of identity, a question we’ve never quite resolved and which will no doubt haunt us for years to come.
Arnott follows key philosopher’s like Sir Roger Scruton in identifying the uncomfortable position of the UK when confronted with the EU’s napoleonic code. (pp.18-19) Arnott, with great ease, offers an understandable explanation of this issue, pointing to the bizarre outcome of the United Kingdom being legally prevented from selling goods in Imperial measurements (the most popular measurement system used in the UK at the time). (p.19) The UK’s delicate, organic system of law is proven to be put under immense pressure by a top-down system from Brussels, within which nuance is lacking.
For anyone looking to gain a genuine understanding of the UKs discomfort in the EU, you need look no further than Arnott’s offering. He has not sought to overplay the differences, nor to bolster his Brexit credentials, but to set the record straight on the particular British circumstance, which is necessary for any reliable understanding of Brexit.
The necessity of Arnotts chapter on accepting the referendum result is obvious to anyone with even a peripheral knowledge of politics post-referendum.
No party is immune and all seem to be struggling with minority voices who see the EU as being of greater benefit than democracy itself. Arnott has a stark warning for them; they risk undermining the very fabric of our nation.
One of the best qualities of this chapter is its brevity. Perhaps too much influence from establishment voices on Brexit has left me shocked at the swiftness with which belief in overturning democracy can be made to look wholly irresponsible.
Though unsure about whether more wild claims of violence on the streets and potentially even revolution could be afoot, Arnott does not believe that “fear of mob rule should be a rationale for taking action.” (p.58)
He merely points to the endless pledges from all sides on respecting the referendum result, the Acts of Parliament, general election results and statements from the Remain campaign itself. All of which, like a thick growth of Ivy, melds together into a rationale from which escape is almost impossible. Those who won the referendum will not sit back and allow their voices to be silenced. Of that, Arnott is assured. How this plays out however, Jonathan leaves for others to decide.
The art of the Brexit deal
Held within this authoritative account of our most contemporary political history is a chapter, so filled with incompetence, arrogance and failure that the blood boils and the mind races. Arnotts account of the UK-EU Brexit negotiation reveals a Government so ill-prepared for implementing its flagship policy that it borders on abdication of responsibility.
While the UK was conducting a general election, which would see Theresa May lose the Conservative Party majority in Parliament, the EU were busy preparing for withdrawal negotitions. Those hoping for a good deal with the EU will be disappointed in Arnott’s analysis, in which he see’s a combination of Brussels preparedness and British incompetence as ensuring that the UK would not leave on good terms. (p.94)
It is Arnott’s contention that the UK Government’s failure to prepare its own Brexit strategy left it at the mercy of the EU’s, which ensured that “the UK was immediately turned into a supplicant”, (p.94) and was forced to sign-up to the two-phase process of withdrawal set by the EU. The problem with this, as Arnott see’s it, was that the UK found itself playing its full hand in round one, leaving it naked and weak in round two. This view has been bolstered in Parliament by figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg and stands as a
The strategy followed by Theresa May was one of goodwill. By reassuring the EU that it had no concerns in the areas that Arnott see’s as the UK’s negotiating hand – the UK’s substantial budget contributions, the UK’s dominance in defence and anti-terrorism and the sizeable trade deficit which the UK ran with the EU – May had hoped to soften the EU and ensure that it entered the second phase of negotiations in a warm and conscilliatory nature. Arnott skewers this strategy as “incredibly naive”. (p.98)
Arnott’s final analysis of phase one of negotiations is devastating. The UK had agreed to pay £39 Billion and had thrown away its negotiating advantages for absolutely nothing. This position, however, was further worsened by the concerted enthusiasm of some more fanatical but prominent Remain voters in the UK for encouraging the EU to play hardball.
One of the most revealing aspects of Arnott’s analysis of opposition to Brexit in the UK is the sheer number of UK elected representatives in the EU who failed, with great delight, to stand up for the UK at all. Through various Parliamentary votes in Brussels, British MEP’s of all main parties voted against amendments that sought to instruct the Commission not to obstruct UK discussions with third countries on trade agreements. Particular disgust was invoked in me upon reading of Professor A.C. Grayling, whom Arnott notes saw the EU refusing to negotiate good terms with the UK as “very helpful” to the remain movement. (p.105)
Fundamentally, Arnott questions in this chapter how any good deal was possible when so many of the UK’s own elected representatives were “banging the drum for Europe”. (p.107) On my part, reading this hurts. It hurts because it illustrates the division that has been so painfully exposed, upon which anger and suspicion has festered. The UK had bungled negotiations completely, and this book provides the most clear account of that failure I have read, while saving adequate condemnation for those in the UK who took great glee in our negotiating demise.
Historians will be asking questions about Brexit for centuries to come. Those Historians who wish to ensure a true and balanced understanding of this whole period will need to read this book. Like the feedback from a failed exam, the words strike you with a sense of pain, anger and disappointment, yet are essential if one is to move forward and learn from their mistakes.
Other chapters, sharing the concise and informative nature I’ve already spoken of, offer meditations on the role of immigration in the Brexit vote and the honesty of the campaign, as well as useful explanations of issues such as the Irish backstop and alternative Brexit deals from the Norway option to the No Deal scenario. Arnott’s final predictions may be questionable – he has expressed his regret to me in this regard – but when events are moving with such great velocity, in ever new and surprising ways, this is a minor detail in a book that will furnish the mind of all who read it.
Perhaps it is just that a brexiteer must be the one to catalogue the myriad failures which have put the Brexit dream under such relentless and unsustainable pressure. This couldn’t have been easy to write – as a brexiteer it wasn’t easy to read – but stands as a respectable attempt at offering a coherent, uncomplicated understanding of how politicians are ruining brexit, and whether or not they already have.