There are at least five reasons why Brexit is too complex to deliver. The most likely outcome is a transition period that continues until the political demographics have changed.

The news that Labour has resolved its policy on Brexit is welcome for short-term, medium-term, and long-term reasons. It is also smart politics, because it is becoming increasingly clear that Brexit is too complex to deliver. Richard Murphy made this suggestion on his blog recently. And when I say, “too complex to deliver”, I don’t mean “too complex to deliver in a two year window plus a transition period”. I mean too complex because Britain has become institutionally and economically interlocked with the rest of the European Union. It can check out but it can’t leave.

The first reason is that the relationship between Britain and the EU is fantastically intricate. Just after Article 50 was triggered Buzzfeed published a memorable list of the 30-odd things that Britain had to do resolve Brexit, and it was immediately clear, reading the list, that all of them were complicated and that the government didn’t have a clue what to do about well over half of them. Since then, these issues have kept on getting more complex. Euratom, for example: it’s both essential to Britain’s nuclear power industry, and it requires accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Henry VIII

The second is the “Henry VIII” clauses in the repeal Bill. They give far too much discretionary power to the Executive, and are repellent in terms of the balance of powers which is implicit in Britain’s unwritten constitution, the idea of Parliamentary sovereignty, or the rights of British citizens. Yet they are still probably insufficient to get the necessary legislation through Parliament.

The third is that the infrastructure required to manage anything but staying in the customs union and the single market won’t be in place any time soon, or at least that’s what I see when I read news reports about HMRC’s IT rebuild. The IT system that is being written and rewritten as we speak was scoped before the Brexit vote, and is now having to be modified. To say the least.

[HMRC] says more than 20 agencies are involved at the border, with new IT systems needed in everything from VAT, to alcohol and tobacco warehousing, to databases on trader registers… Passport and visa, or work permit, checks will be needed for EU drivers who travel into the UK. At present, there are no visa requirements because of the free movement of people under EU law.

Knowing the UK’s track record on big complex public IT systems, what could possibly go wrong? And that’s before we get onto the hard infrastructure that would be needed.


The fourth is that it turns out that all those regulatory agencies which the EU has in place, and which we have been contributing to through our payments, are difficult to set up from scratch. Then they need to design a set of European-compatible rules (because that’s where most of our trade goes), and they also, of course, need to recruit whole swathes of technically knowledgeable regulatory staff. I guess there might be suitable recruits in Europe if we don’t have enough good people here.

The fifth is that any agreement still needs to be ratified by the EU27, in accordance with the negotiating principles set out by the Commission. One such is the requirement for an open border between the North and the rest of Ireland, which is set in British and Irish law as a result of the Good Friday agreement. The position paper published by the government was met with derision by Ireland, and with good reason. The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole caught the tone.

Your neighbour, who you like but do not quite trust (there’s a bit of history there) comes to you with a proposition. She’s establishing an extremely risky start-up venture with a high probability of catastrophic failure. Will you join her? Well, you ask, what are the possible rewards? Ah, she says, if – against the odds – everything goes splendidly, you’ll get the same pay and conditions you have now.

Informed choices

And this last one is the reason why surveys that tell us what Remainers and Leavers now “want”, even academically reputable surveys, are broadly meaningless. Most of these outcomes will not be settled by UK voters. And the LSE survey which got quite a lot of airplay recently didn’t put its respondents in a position where they could make informed decisions about trade-offs. The trade-offs involved in managing Brexit are too complex. If you want to get to a meaningful assessment of public opnion, you would need to do it through some kind of deliberative process.

So what’s the most likely outcome? We live in a world of complex supply chains, where part finished goods shuttle between countries, where Britain is substantially dependent on the EU as a trade partner (“Gravity theory” does work, whatever Patrick Minford thinks), and where a significant portion of British exports are in high value services which require all sorts of inter-governmental agreement to work. There’s also Britain’s worsening trade gap.

Extended transition

So the most likely outcome is the thing that Labour has just signed up for, which involves staying in the single market and the customs untion after the Brexit date, probably with some cast-iron guarantees for EU citizens who are here, and an extended transition period while people try to work out what happens next. This is one of the reasons why Labour’s decision is a sensible one: there’s no point in advocating a position that is likely to unravel in front of you.

That takes us through to 2023 or so. By that time, given the current demographics of Britain’s political values, there won’t be a majority for Brexit any more. And kudos to the comedian (Sara Pascoe?) who said on one of Frankie Boyle’s recent shows that it was so much sadder when old people died these days because it meant they wouldn’y get to see the Brexit they’d voted for so enthusiastically.

The democracy thing

Ah, yes, but what about respecting the result of the referendum? Well, what is there to be respect? By the kind of criteria usually applied to democratic decision-making, it falls quite a long way short.


The usual set of criteria is based on the work of the sociologist Ray Pahl. These are for democratically-run associations, but they extend to democratic decison making generally. There are five:

  1. Effective participation
  2. Voting equality
  3. Enlightened understanding
  4. Control of the agenda
  5. Inclusion of adults

The only one of these five where the Brexit referendum can keep its head above water is [2], just about: “every member must have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal”. “Just about,” because of the effects of different voter registration measures introduced since 2010.

Effective and fair

But even ignoring that, it fell a long way short on [5]: “All, or at rate most, adult permanent residents should have the full rights of citizens that are implied by the first four criteria.” EU citizens resident in the UK, who had a clear interest in the outcome, were excluded from voting. As were 16-17 year olds who would also be affected by the outcome. And also excluded were were British citizens who had lived outside of Britain and in the EU for more than 15 years, who clearly also had an interest in the result.

It also fell short on [1]: the whole reason we have rules about campaign financing in this country is to ensure that participation is effective and fair. The source of the “dark money” channelled through the DUP, and which financed Leave advertising, has still not been made clear despite Open Democracy‘s sterling investigative work.

And clearly on [3] as well: “Each member must have equal and effective opportunities for learning about the relevant alternative policies and their likely consequences.” Clearly when the advocates of one set of policies makes up stuff about the likely consequences, and then disowns it the day after the vote, this hasn’t happened.

And on [4], those people who thought we were having a referendum because David Cameron had lost control of the right wing of his party, and was therefore putting party management before the national interest, didn’t really have a say. But then, as Anthony Barnett says memorably in his Brexit book, Cameron is, or perhaps was,

one of those politicians who enjoy unlimited personal ambition untroubled by the burden of larger purpose.

A second referendum?

Does that mean we’ll have a second referendum? It seems possible; it is certainly possibly to say that people who voted Leave weren’t actually clear what “Leave” meant. At the Royal Economic Society blog, Thomas Colignatus argues that the question was unsatisfactory for demonstrable theoretical reasons. Vernon Bogdanor thinks it will happen for reasons of political legitimacy.

I’m not so sure. I suspect that the transition period will be long-ish, and may well then be extended. Politicians hate complex problems they can’t resolve, which make them seem ineffective to voters. And after a while, one of our political parties will announce, when the young pro-Europeans represent a clear political majority, that it will seek to make the Transitional arrangements permanent and get voting rights in Europe to go with our payments. I can’t work oout whether it will take a Millennial political leader (who by then will be in their mid-40s or younger) who can make a case for Europe and for universalism, or whether (as with Zimbabwe’s independence) it needs an older leader who can sell this to disappointed older voters as unfortunate but necessary. But I’m fairly sure it will be a whimper, and not a bang.

The image at the top of the post is by ilovetheeu and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.