Peter Harvey has lived in Barcelona for many years. He is recognised by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an English language teacher for the examination to enter the Spanish diplomatic service. He is the author of several books published by Lavengro Books.
An introductory thought
The underlying causes of the First World War were various and can be traced back through many years of commercial, industrial and imperial rivalry among the powers; Britain and France came perilously close to war in 1898 over the ridiculous Fashoda incident. When Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, war loomed nearer than ever; what made it truly inevitable and inexorable was, according to the historian AJP Taylor, railway timetables. In his book War by Timetable he argues that all the mobilisation plans had been timetabled in detail long before and they could not be changed because mobilising anew against a different country would have the trains running into each other. For example, the Germans had a plan to mobilise against France and were then unable to turn round and mobilise against Russia. You cannot commit yourself to such a complex system and then change it overnight. In Taylor’s words, “The First World War had begun – imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables. It was an unexpected climax to the railway age.”
Something similar is happening with Brexit; all sides, including the various factions in Britain are running on autopilot, as we may say in the aviation age, towards what seems to be an inevitable No Deal Brexit on 31 October. The debate, if such it may be called, in Britain is fixated on “stopping No Deal”. At the heart of this there is a contradiction: what is meant is finding a means to prevent this happening on 31 October, involving some later event that would require a further extension of the Article 50 (A50) period. That would obviously merely postpone the default date for departure. There are only two ways of stopping, i.e. forestalling, a default departure: Parliament could instruct the prime minister to revoke A50 or it could pass the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), which it has already rejected three times. Both of those actions would require cross-party agreement that would split both Tory and Labour parties, possibly permanently. Neither is under active consideration. The train is not running in that direction.
A general election
Instead, all the last-minute political activity and discussion that masquerades as “stopping no deal” is focused on finding some parliamentary mechanism that will force an application for an extension. Here we must look at the election system. In 2011, shortly after the Conservative/LibDem coalition came to power, a law was passed to meet LibDem fears that Cameron might manage the economy in such a way that he could call a snap election in which he could gain a majority without them. This led to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA), which provides for general elections to be held in May every five years. It removed the PM’s discretionary power to call an election when he or she wanted. There are now only two ways in which an early election can be called: the House of Commons can vote by a ⅔ majority to hold one as Theresa May did in April 2017, or the Leader of the Opposition (and nobody else) can propose a motion of no confidence in a fixed form of words. If this passes, there is a period of 14 calendar days in which a new government can be formed. If none is formed, the PM must then advise the Queen to call an election. An election campaign must last for 25 working days and elections are traditionally (though not by law) held on Thursdays. Parliament reassembles on 3 September, making the timing very tight for an election on Thursday 24 October. Having reassembled in September, Parliament traditionally breaks for three weeks in the autumn while the parties hold their annual conferences. That limits the available time for action. Unless Parliament abandons its autumn holiday it will have only 25 sitting days before B-Day.
However, the situation might not even get as far as an election. The FTPA is silent about when a PM who loses a no confidence vote must advise HM to call one. Johnson’s strategy at present seems to be to hang on in Downing St until B-Day even if he has lost the confidence of Parliament – and there appears to be no legal way of preventing that! He could call an election for 31 October itself, or for any time after that. There are signs that Downing St is planning for an election some time this autumn.
The British party system is highly fragmented. Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party (not UKIP, which is now on the extreme right and counts for next to nothing) is threatening the Tories from the right, Labour is divided internally on other important issues as well as Brexit, and an electoral alliance of LibDems, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) is unstable and unreliable. Given the nature of the British constituency electoral system an autumn election, before or after Brexit, will be little more than a lottery.
A caretaker government?
Thought is also being given to the possibility of installing a new caretaker government after a successful vote of no confidence to apply for an extension and continue negotiations. This also would mean cross-party support with inevitable damage to both big parties. The first question is who would lead it. Labour insist that it would have to Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition, while the LibDems and some Conservatives refuse to consider this possibility. It has been suggested that such a government could be led by a senior MP with long experience; Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman, Conservative and Labour respectively, are the proposed names. Clarke is the only really pro-EU MP Tory now. He has been an MP since 1970 (!) and has held important cabinet posts including Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance), Home Secretary (Interior), and Justice. Harman was first elected in 1982 and has held important opposition positions. They are the longest serving male and female MPs*, known as the Father and Mother of the House. Apart from the broader question of Corbyn’s personal fitness to be PM, many people feel that a caretaker government should be a technical matter led by someone with no political ambition
*The longest serving member of the House of Lords is Lord Denham, who took his seat in 1949 [sic] having inherited it the previous year.
What could a caretaker government do?
The single purpose of having a caretaker government would be to extend the Article 50 period, but for what purpose? The EU has categorically ruled out any renegotiation of the WA but is open to modifying the non-binding political declaration that accompanies it. There is talk of holding an election or a second referendum. As far as it can be discerned, Labour’s official policy is to win an election, renegotiate the WA to get a better deal, and then hold a referendum in which it would support Remain, or would be neutral, or something. The purpose of insisting on renegotiation is that Corbyn and much of his party and many Labour voters support Brexit, so the party’s public opposition has always been to a Tory Brexit, not to the principle itself, with the implication that Labour would start again from scratch with an ambiguous goal while blaming the Tories for getting it wrong.
On 10 April 2019 Donald Tusk said “[The UK] can still ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, in which case the extension will be terminated. It can also reconsider the whole Brexit strategy … Until the end of this period, the UK will also have the possibility to revoke A50 and cancel Brexit altogether. Let me finish with a message to our British friends: … Please do not waste this time.” But the time has been wasted. The UK’s stance has not changed or been clarified. A caretaker government may wish to hold a general election or referendum, and there have been hints (though no confirmed statements) that the EU might grant a further extension even now.
I have explained why the outcome of an election would be uncertain. A referendum poses even greater problems. The organisation of a referendum under British law requires at least five months of preparation. Even if this process were to begin in November it would be May before it could be held, almost four years after the whole sorry story began. It would not be a yes/no question because it would have to include the options of Remain, accept the WA, no deal, and possibly try to negotiate a better deal (like Canada or Norway for example), so some kind of adjustment of preferences would be necessary leaving many voters disappointed. There is also the question of validity of the result. Much has been made by Remainers that a 52% majority is too slim to take an important decision. So vice versa, would 55/45 be acceptable to remain or should honesty and consistency require a larger one? The LibDems want a second referendum (which they call a People’s Vote) but Labour is extremely ambivalent, reflecting the divided nature of the party itself. I have seen nothing about the EU’s position but surely it is hard to see a long extension being granted for such an uncertain outcome.
What will happen?
That is anybody’s guess. As I write these words Boris Johnson is in Paris as the guest of Emmanuel Macron, who has agreed to Angela Merkel’s proposal to give him 30 days to find a solution, which I doubt he will be able to do.
The Council meeting that would take a final decision is on 17/18 October, so 30 days from now is a reasonable deadline. As things stand now, no sensible person can rule out the high possibility of No Deal on 31 October. It can be prevented only by a parliamentary revolution leading to revocation of A50 or approval of the WA, and it can be postponed only by unanimous agreement of the 27.
The British Constitution is being tested as it has not been for very many years. The root problem is that Parliament is deadlocked. It is the seat of national sovereignty but it accepted and acted on the result of a non-binding referendum that retuned a slim majority. What is more, it did so for the dishonourable reason that many MPs ignored their constitutional duty, explained so well by Edmund Burke in 1774, that the responsibility of an elected member is first of all to the general good and only secondly to his or her constituents’ local interests. Now it is wrestling with the thorny problem of how to reconcile the public view expressed in a referendum with the sovereignty of Parliament.
Parliament is also in conflict with the government. The American Constitution explicitly contains checks and balances to regulate the branches of government. In the UK these exist but are implicit and by convention (because nothing can bind a sovereign parliament). The particular problem now is that the government controls the timetable for parliamentary business, including the right to recall it into session before 3 September. Earlier this year, the Speaker invented a rule (as, apparently, it is his right to do) allowing Parliament to control business on one day but the controversy was huge. Ironically, this dispute is a repeat of the 17th-century conflict between the King (the executive power) and Parliament. That led to civil war.
Revocation and acceptance of the WA are unimaginable as practical possibilities and are straightforward. An extension of A50 is also improbable but would lead to a prolongation of the present uncertainty. Nobody on this side of the Channel positively wants No Deal but it is increasingly being seen as the lesser evil, especially with no sign of any movement in the UK. The sticking point will be Ireland, not the backstop (on which the EU is 100% solid) but the country’s adjustment to a geographical setting that would separate it from the UK by a border and would require a drastic rerouting of its intra-EU land communications. The 27 have respected Ireland’s unusual position but clearly cannot and will not be able to do so for ever.
No Deal in the UK
The country as a whole will be hit very badly. The government has set up Operation Yellowhammer to handle preparations for this (a yellowhammer is a songbird, Spanish escribano cerillo, not a yellow-coloured tool for driving nails into wood as El Mundo, ABC and other Spanish media have reported.)
A recent report from Yellowhammer has been leaked. Between 50% and 85% of lorries “may not be ready” for French customs and could face queues of two and a half days. Medical supplies will be “vulnerable to severe extended delays” as 75% of the UK’s medicines enter the country across the Channel (the UK produces no insulin at all). Fresh food will be in short supply and prices will rise, affecting “vulnerable groups”.
Factories that rely on just-in-time deliveries will be vulnerable. The Nissan factory in Sunderland in the north of England keeps 12 hours stock on hand. It receives 5m parts every day, 85% from Europe. (Sunderland voted strongly to Leave.)
The Governor of the Bank of England says that the banks are better prepared than in the financial crisis (when the giant Royal Bank of Scotland was only hours away from failing) but “material risks still remain.” He has said on BBC radio that a no-deal Brexit would cause an “instantaneous shock” to the UK economy, raising prices and reducing household incomes.
It is hard to know what the true situation is; some people dismiss these warnings as Project Fear, a deliberate attempt to scare people away from Brexit, but any clear mind must see that the economic effects of a sudden break will be terrible. A senior civil servant has said “This is not Project Fear, this is the most realistic assessment of what the public face with no deal. These are likely, basic, reasonable scenarios – not the worst case.”
Johnson is talking of not paying the “divorce bill” of about €42bn in the event of No Deal. It is a legally contracted debt and his Attorney General has told him so. The effect of the country defaulting, not even for reasons of financial force majeure but out of pure political pique, can hardly be imagined. The bond market would go bananas and sterling would head for Australia by the most direct route. To do so would be pointless as the EU will not negotiate any new trade deal (or anything else) until the three parts of the WA are satisfied, the others being citizens’ rights and Ireland.
No Deal in Scotland
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, would apply for an independence referendum under section 30 of the Scotland Act. This does not specifically mention referendums but allows London to temporarily give to Scotland any power usually reserved to Westminster:
(2) Her Majesty may by Order in Council make any modifications of Schedule 4 or 5 which She considers necessary or expedient.
(3) Her Majesty may by Order in Council specify functions which are to be treated, for such purposes of this Act as may be specified, as being, or as not being, functions which are exercisable in or as regards Scotland.
The mention of Her Majesty’s involvement in an Order in Council no more involves her in politics than the King of Spain is involved in its Spanish equivalent, the Royal Decree. The Council is the Privy Council, the supreme executive body of the state, of which the Cabinet is a sub-committee.
What would happen if it were granted is unpredictable (also if it were not granted). Scotland has changed since 2014 and there is now an acceptance that the country could not move directly from EU membership via the UK to independent membership. However, there are still questions. What would happen in the interim? In 2014 the Scots were deeply miffed to be told that they could not stay in a customs union with the rest of the UK, that there would be customs and passport control on the border, that they would have to commit to using the euro as currency but would not be allowed to use sterling, that they would lose their current UK opt-outs and that, while they could keep the monarchy, they would have to pay commercially to watch BBC television via satellite just like anybody else in the world. All that would still be the case, and they could not use the euro transitionally outside the EU; that might work for tiddlers like Andorra, Montenegro and Kosovo, but it is not possible for an industrial economy of 5.4m people. It seems that they would have to invent their own money to use during the transition.
Scotland could apply for EU membership and might be fast-tracked in the circumstances, but the process could not be immediate. It would also require Scotland to work towards meeting the Maastricht criteria in its independent economy. I do not have figures for the Scottish economy alone but I have been told reliably that it does not meet them now.
The SNP’s policy (changed as recently as 2012) is to join NATO; if it did not there would be a large hole in the defence of the North Atlantic. However, the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine base is in Scotland and the party’s policy is to have it removed. No alternative harbour is suitable; even if it were, the cost of moving it would be huge. Army recruitment is somewhat higher in Scotland (10% – 11%) than is proportional to population (8%). The RAF carries out half of its low-level flight training in Scotland.
The Scottish Conservative Party is totally opposed to Brexit and is threatening to break from the British party.
No Deal in Ireland
The situation with the customs union and the backstop has been covered at great length and I do not intend to repeat all that here. However, it is worth looking at Ireland’s economic position with regard to Brexit.
- Nearly 70% of the UK’s beef imports come from Ireland.
- About 250,000 Irish containers per year pass through the UK to the EU.
However, No Deal will not last for ever as the UK cannot survive without EU trade and, while Ireland’s logistics problem is undeniable, it is far from the trade dependence on the UK that used to be the case.
The reverse picture is different. Ireland is the UK’s fifth-biggest export market, above China, representing a large trade surplus for the UK This is because Irish people enjoy income per capita of €40,655 in 2018 compared to £30,594 in the UK. Ireland is growing nearly five times faster than the UK every year.
No Deal in Wales
There is little to say here. Wales is the least independence-minded of the three Celtic parts of the Union. It voted for Brexit. Like Ireland, it will face transport and logistical problems but on a lesser scale. About a third of Welsh lamb production is exported to the EU. Support for Welsh independence is in the 10% – 20% range. There are important geographical problems of internal communication that would make an independent Wales unviable (the only possible route for north/south road and rail communication runs through England).
After a few years the UK will be knocking at the door asking for readmission, some people say. Well perhaps, but it is not that simple.
- A Breturn would mean a new application for membership. As with Scotland, that would mean the euro, Schengen and no special opt-outs.
- If Scotland were not independent by then, would it be part of a UK application or would it want to make a separate, simultaneous one as an independent country?
- It is impossible to foresee what might have happened in Ireland at that time but it would certainly be a problem.
- Given the likely chaos of a No Deal Brexit, would the UK’s economy be in any kind of shape to present a realistic application?
Then there is the psychological factor. Nobody likes to admit that they have made a mistake, and going back would look like a surrender. On the other hand, a possible application for a Norway solution might come, but not as quickly, I feel, as some Remainers fondly imagine.
To return to AJP Taylor and the inflexibility of his train timetables, I have hinted here that there are forces at work in Brexit that make it unstoppable, not least the British fixation on means and process, in the form of parliamentary procedure and a second referendum, at the expense of any regard for goals and outcomes such as revocation or approving the WA. The final word, however, must lie with Angela Merkel, tweeted fortuitously by the FT’s Sebastian Payne at the very moment when I reach the end of this paper.
22 August 2019.