The Lesson Of Brexit

Brexit is an object lesson on the folly of blind enthusiasm.

We had the gung-ho Brexiteers (Farage, et al) who could see no further than the demonisation of Johnny Foreigner and his dastardly European project. No word of what breaking free from the EU might actually entail.

Then we had the shiny-faced boys at the head the Conservative Party (Cameron, Osborne, & Co.) who were very enthusiastic about silencing the rowdy anti-EU mob on their own back benches, but completely blind to what might happen if the vote went the wrong way.

And then we got the extraordinary accident of the May government. A motley collection of myopic bystanders who stumbled into the unexpectedly vacant top jobs, apparently unaware of the excrement that was flying off the blades of the fan as their hapless predecessors made a hasty exit.

All of these people with all of that enthusiasm for their own little agendas and not a glimmer of foresight between them.  Not a clue about about the practical consequences, for the rest of us, of leaving the EU.

None of them had done any quantitative analysis of the civic, legal, and economic functions that would be affected by Brexit. None of them had made any attempt to think about what might be required in order to keep the country working during and after the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Nobody asked the questions that needed to be asked.

What do we need to do to disentangle ourselves from the bureaucracy of Brussels?

What IT systems will have to be modified or built from scratch? How many software developers and project managers will we need and where will they come from? How much might they cost and how long it might take for them to get the systems up and running?

What laws will have to be amended or repealed or created? Who will do the legal legwork – the drafting and cross-referencing and checking and proof-reading? How long it will take to get the necessary legislation onto the statue book?

What about the things that we import, the stuff on which we all rely, like food and medicines and car parts? And the exports? All of the things that we send abroad, to EU countries and those with EU trade deals? How’s all that going to work, post-Brexit?

And what about our citizenship? Will our European friends and families be able to stay in our communities? Will we still be able to go to study, to work in Europe? Will our grannies be deported from their retirement villas in Spain?

Did anyone check in advance about all of these things? Did anyone make a list? Do any research or planning? Anything at all?

Nope. Nobody knew the answers to any of these questions when they agitated for the referendum, when they called the referendum, when they took the top jobs after the referendum. Nobody knew. And they still don’t know.

With only a few months to go before the deadline for the UK’s exit from the EU we still don’t have a document that lists the actions that must be taken to ensure that machinery of state, finance and commerce continues to function. The people who have taken it upon themselves to do Brexit do not have the foggiest idea of what’s involved or how it’s going to work. The sheer magnitude of their incompetence is staggering. Unforgivable.

Rewind to 2014 and the referendum on Scottish independence.

The parallels between Indyref and Brexit are striking. Tireless demonisation of a detested “foreign” administration. Determination to take back control of “our” affairs. Boundless enthusiasm for “our” nation state. And and astonishing lack of understanding of the scale and complexity of getting the thing that they so desperately want to have.

We had the Scottish National Party’s 2013 white paper on independence – Scotland’s Future – which skimmed the surface of the challenge in a 32 page chapter entitled “Building a Modern Democracy”. And that was it.

There was no comprehensive audit of the functions of state. No analysis of which of these functions would have to be amended or created from scratch in an independent Scotland. No list of requirements for delivery of these functions. Nothing done to determine how these requirements might be met. No list of the physical and virtual infrastructure that would have to be built. No evaluation of the resources that would have to be deployed in order to do the necessary building work. No word of who was going to do it, how long it was going to take, or how much it was going to cost.

Actually, that last bit’s not quite true. Scotland’s Future told us that the establishment of an independent Scotland would be completed 18 months after the referendum, and Alex Salmond, the then First Minister and enthusiast-in-chief, told us that an estimate of £150 – £200 million for setting up the newly independent Scottish state was “credible”. Those of us with some experience of how stuff works, how to build things, how to get stuff done: we shook our heads in disbelief.

To give you an idea of the actual cost and timescale of a public sector IT project, the Scottish Government initiated the development of a new Rural Payments system in 2012 at a budgeted cost of £102 million. In March 2017 the system was still not working properly and the cost had risen to £178 million. That’s five years and most of they way to the upper end of Alex Salmond’s “credible” cost of the entire independence project being eaten up by a single IT project. A single IT project. A single IT project of very modest scale compared to those that would be required when setting up an independent Scottish state.

In February 2018 a study by Common Weal, a staunchly pro-independence think tank, estimated the set-up costs for an independent Scotland to be in the region of £25 billion. I haven’t gone through their report in detail but the bits that I’ve read are a lot more credible than Mr Salmond’s £150 to £200 million.

For those who struggle with big numbers this is like a dodgy plumber giving you an estimate of £1,000 to fit a new boiler and then presenting you with a bill for £125,000. Alex Salmond was that plumber. Thankfully, in September 2014, we said “no thanks,” and slammed the door in his face.

And now the same people are agitating for another crack at independence, but this time with the added complication of getting an independent Scotland into the EU while the remainder of the UK is in the throes of its shambolic exit. “Added complication” is a euphemism for “full-on bureaucratic nightmare”, by the way.

Given the structural and systemic dysfunction of the EU and Westminster there may be very good arguments for both Brexit and Scottish independence but they are voided entirely by the ignorance, incompetence and downright mendacity of those who have appointed themselves to lead us towards these promised lands. They have no clue, no plan, nothing apart from incontinent enthusiasm for an abstract “freedom” that, in the process of gaining, will almost certainly make it harder for us to feed our children, keep the hospitals open, fix the potholes, and do the thousands of other things that actually matter for our collective security and comfort.

We are already up to our oxters in the Brexit fiasco thanks to these charlatans. We have no time to do a proper audit of the consequences of departing from the EU, no time to make proper plans to mitigate or avoid these consequences. In the absence of an opportunity to escape the madness via a referendum on the final deal, we’re going to have to muddle through and make the best of a thoroughly bad job.

But Scotland, please Scotland, we still have a chance to do it right.

For those of you whose enthusiasm for a sovereign parliament in Edinburgh remains undimmed please recognise the incompetence of the 2014 offering and demand better from your leaders. Please do not accept another referendum unless it comes with a comprehensive list of what needs to be done to disentangle Scotland’s machinery of government, finance and commerce from that of the UK. Demand that each item on the list comes with an outline of how it will be achieved, who will do the work, how long it will take, what it will cost, and how we’re going to pay for it. And if Scotland becoming a member of the EU is to be part of the project we’ll need all of the relevant information on how that’s to be achieved as well.

Publish all of this in a clearly-written, properly-referenced Indyreport with an executive summary that enumerates the tasks, timescale and costs of leaving the UK and setting up an independent Scottish state.

Then, and only then, will you have a valid question for your referendum:

“The Indyreport tells us the practical consequences of voting for independence. Having considered this information, do you think we should do it? Yes or No?”

Anything less and the ire and ridicule and anger that you’re currently discharging onto the progenitors of Brexit will come back to bite you with a vengeance.

It’s not like you’ll be able to plead ignorance. We’ve seen what happens when enthusiasm gets the better of pragmatism, and it’s not pretty.

4 thoughts on “The Lesson Of Brexit

  1. Hi Malcolm, A justified condemnation of the Brexit venture, but I think independence was better researched. And more to the point, what do you yourself advocate? The status quo is not available. It’s either Brexit or independence with its own set of problems. I know which I’d rather have, what about you? I think independence would probably lead us to an EEA situation which would accord with the way Scotland voted in the Brexit referendum.

  2. Topher, My quarrel with Brexit and Indy is that they are both complex and difficult journeys that lead us, after much time and effort, right back to where we started: stuck in a neolithic form of democracy, shackled to a dangerously dysfunctional financial system that prevents us from doing what we need to do.

    Brexit and indy, being in or out of the EU, being in or out of the UK: these are all colossal distractions from the real challenges that we and the coming generations face. I would rather stay in the EU than leave, but only because remaining will waste less energy than leaving. Same with the UK.

    Our problem is not the locations of our government bureaucracies or the flags that fly over their parliaments. It is the frameworks in which they operate that are at fault and there is nothing about brexit or indy that recognises this, never mind proposing to change them for the better.

    Over the last year I have come to the conclusion that if a proposal or policy does not directly* contribute to universal sustainable prosperity then it is of no use to us. If a movement is responsible for diverting the energy of masses of people away from things that directly contribute to universal sustainable prosperity then it is much worse than useless. In this respect I see no distinction between Yes and Leave, or No and Remain for that matter. All are equally culpable of agitating for a version of the status quo that will perpetuate all of the problems that we have.

    *Directly means directly. If what is being proposed will not lead directly to a pothole being filled, a nurse being trained, a gas-fired power station being decommissioned, a hungry mouth being fed, a mind being freed, a helping hand being willingly given and happily received, then we should dismiss it and move on to something that will actually do some good.

  3. Malcolm, your reply expresses (more eloquently) exactly what I have been shouting at my radio for the last two years. In the UK referendum I could only bring myself to spoil my ballot paper in the end. It was a toss-up between that or vote Remain, but I just couldn’t let them interpret that as a vote for the status quo.

    • (By “UK referendum” above I meant “EU/Brexit referendum” of course. And I’m in England so was spared the need to choose on Scottish independence.)

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