World View: Brexiteers split three ways on what happens next

Differing perspectives on the economy and role of markets are broadly irreconcilable

Israel's Haaretz, bewildered by the last election result, put up a podcast that it entitled simply: "We the people have spoken (What the hell did we say?)."

I could have said the same after the Brexit vote, although I’m aware that I will again be accused of elitism for disparaging what many misguidedly see as the “ultimate in democratic expressions”, the referendum.

Yes, UK voters voted to leave the EU, but what exactly did they vote for? That's the trouble with referendums: you get a yes/no decision on a question that is far more complex. Ask 10 people what they voted forand you will probably get as many answers: fewer immigrants, more immigrants, more sovereignty, a new EU, jobs . . .

The challenge is compounded when campaigners muddy the waters with contradictory answers to the question, deliberate obfuscations and downright lies. And as they come to talk about the mandate for their divorce negotiators and at last define their positions, that matters a great deal.


At a debate in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on Thursday, Exploring the Aftermath of the UK Referendum, Prof Michael Keating of the University of Aberdeen argued that there were three contending answers to the question, three broad visions for future EU-UK relations:

"The Europeans": they want to preserve membership of the single market, free trade and if necessary free movement of labour. They are to be found among former Remainers, Cameron supporters, some Leavers and the majority of Labour MPs. They would back what has been called the EU-lite option, similar to Norway's deal.

Little change

In practice there would be little change except that the UK would lose its place at the

European Council

table, be forced to continue accepting regulations for the single market made by the rest of us, and, like the Norwegians, pay a considerable sum for access to the market.

It is the option that would probably be best for Ireland as it would obviate the need for a special, complicated bilateral deal on the Border. And it would probably have the support of the majority of MPs if they were given the opportunity to vote on it.

“The Little Englanders”: these Trump-like populists are vehemently anti-globalisation and insist on a reduction in immigration. They are suspicious of free trade and want as little to do with the EU as possible, except through bilateral deals. They have no clear economic programme and are represented most strongly by Ukip.

"The globalists": they complain that the EU is not sufficiently global in outlook: "Let market forces free!" They include some of the more ideological right-wing Tories, see the future in WTO-based bilateral agreements on trade and are willing to support some immigration (with an emphasis on UK controls – Michael Gove seems to favour this approach) with some backing the idea of unilateral abolition on UK tariffs.

Difficult challenge

The three positions reflect qualitatively different perspectives on the economy and the role of markets and are broadly irreconcilable, though the protagonists of each will see in the Leave mandate a justification for their position.

Clearly, whoever is elected Tory leader will have the decisive role in picking the negotiating option to be pursued – what Laura Cram of the University of Edinburgh described as the shift from campaign slogans to the difficult, pragmatic challenge of elaborating a mandate based on "the boundaries of the possible".

There will be plenty of opportunity for allies pursuing different agendas to scream treachery. We should not imagine the defining of the mandate or the negotiations will be anything but politically charged. The lead UK negotiators, no matter how authentic or heroic their Leave campaign credentials, will find, as Michael Collins did, that their best endeavours will never be enough for the zealots back home.

The RIA meeting also heard discussion of the idea floated in London of a second referendum in two years' time, an idea firmly rejected by, among others, leading Tory leadership contender Theresa May.

The only tenable democratic argument for such a vote would be to allow consideration of the terms of divorce on offer. In theory, if those terms were too harsh, the UK could then reconsider its position.

The other problem is that the timeframe emerging for talks with Brussels would make such a vote impossible. The next two years will be taken up with talks on the mechanics of the split. The separate strand of discussions about the shape of the new relationship is unlikely even to start until then; and if it does, it will take some extra years.

No clear picture of the shape of a new relationship – what’s on offer – will be available to vote on until after the UK has left the EU. A second – and most improbable – plebiscite would end up as a vote on readmission.