Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?, Ian Dunt, Canbury Press, 2016, £7.99
Two months ago Theresa May called a snap general election to secure a personal mandate for Brexit. May then proceeded, during the campaign, to refuse any meaningful discussion of what this would mean. Happily, this absurd spectacle produced a hung parliament and stripped the prime minister of her authority. Now, more than a year after the referendum campaign, politicians have been forced to acknowledge the enormous complexity of what a British exit from the EU would entail. As they scramble to move beyond crude sloganeering, MPs from all parties could do worse than look to Ian Dunt’s Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?
Originally published in November 2016, Dunt’s work sought – in contrast to the slew of ‘insider accounts’ it appeared alongside – to examine how the British government might proceed following the referendum vote. Inevitably, a few passages have not travelled well in the months since publication. Dunt’s alarm at far-right politicians on the march across Europe no longer rings true, after encouraging election results in Austria, the Netherlands and France, and as the Eurozone’s economy has picked up speed. Likewise, Keir Starmer’s reputation has plummeted since Brexit was published. Last year Dunt held out the hope that Starmer would lead a parliamentary initiative that might at least keep Britain in the single market. Now the shadow Brexit secretary is seen by many on the left for failing to provide sufficient clarity to Labour’s position on the biggest political issue of the day.
By and large, however, Dunt’s book remains vital reading. Perhaps most useful, now that Conservative delusions that Britain might “have its cake and eat it” have evaporated, is the section setting out the key aspects of EU relations with, successively, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Canada. Each country has been trumpeted as a potential example for Britain to follow should it leave the EU. Yet Dunt exposes each of these options in turn as fundamentally flawed, by shining a light on a series of inconvenient facts.
Take Norway (which at the time of writing is again being touted as the preferred model for Britain to emulate). Most Brexiters appreciate that Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) necessitates an acceptance of the principle of free movement. But how many have grasped that EEA membership does not incorporate European Supervisory Agencies on financial services, and what this would imply for Britain’s financial sector? Time and again, Dunt’s sound grasp of his material allows him to reveal the relationships non-EU countries enjoy with the 28 members as messy and imperfect compromises, arrived at after years of tortuous negotiation.
Dunt’s clear-eyed candour is perhaps the most attractive aspect of his approach to the subject. There can be no doubt as to how he voted in the referendum; but not even Paul Dacre could accuse Dunt of talking the country down. He acknowledges the strength of UK consumers, for example, noting that the EU exports more goods to the UK than to the United States. Likewise, Britain’s military might is presented in stark terms: “without Britain, the EU is almost defenceless.” Such fair-handedness is also applied to considerations of the EU’s faults: not only is the EU “terrible” at communicating its successes across the continent in recent decades, but many of its institutions are “democratically flawed … remote and arcane.”
Nowhere is Dunt’s frankness more welcome than in the space given over to discussion of European politicians. From highlighting the close friendship shared by EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and (now former) European parliament president Martin Schulz, to appreciating the determination of French and German political leaders to bolster the EU’s institutions, Dunt shows that the corridors of Westminster are far from the only arena on which the Brexit drama will play out. By contrast, UK politicians have acted in the main as spoiled children, mistaking unworkable wish lists for negotiating strategies, and displaying a staggering ignorance of the aspirations and motivations of their EU counterparts.
Much has been written about why 17.4 million people voted Leave last June, a lot of it nuanced and persuasive. No doubt other MPs will recognise some of the causes cited this month by Ed Miliband as contributing to a Leave vote in his Doncaster constituency: “deep inequality, squeezed wages, dim prospects for the next generation.” Yet the ultimate success of Dunt’s work is to force the reader to consider in some detail the type of relationship Britain should have with the EU, and what any likely trade-offs will be. Analysing the recent past is one thing; seeking to shape the future quite another.
Tory right-wingers who weep for the days when Britannia ruled the waves needn’t bother with this book. Nor will it be of interest to fantasists awaiting the rapture of spontaneous socialist cooperation if only Britain would shut itself off from Europe. Everyone else could learn a great deal. In particular, Dunt’s book should be required summertime reading for each of Labour’s 262 MPs, as the party seeks to consolidate its support among young voters who gave it such a boost at last month’s general election (and who voted in even more overwhelming numbers for Remain last year).
Accepting Brexit means acquiescing in a project which panders to nationalism and threatens to inflict material misery on the very people Labour claims to stand for. If any Labour MPs have grasped the conclusion to which this realisation leads, none has yet had the courage to say so. Instead, it was TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes this week who argued fervently – and with no equivocation – that Labour should restate the case for Britain remaining a member of the EU. A reading of Dunt’s work might just persuade MPs to follow Cortes’ lead. Any notion of a left-wing Brexit would perish on contact with the complicated realities Dunt details so well. Labour politicians must wake up to this right away, or risk being forever remembered as complicit in bringing about the greatest act of national self-harm in living memory.