What exactly does Brexit mean?

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 26 September 2016 in Editor's note

Three months on from the referendum, and still no one seems to know what Brexit means

“Brexit means Brexit”; a pithy phrase that will be forever associated with Theresa May’s pitch to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. And while personally for her, it did the job, what does it even mean?

Three months on from one of the most fractious periods in Britain’s constitutional history, when the UK electorate voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the European Union, we are still no clearer about the shape of the world we will come to live in.

And with Scottish voters, including a majority in every local authority area, joined by those in Northern Ireland and in London, overwhelmingly backing a Remain vote, the future for this now dis-United Kingdom, remains anything but certain.


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Undoubtedly for many, the immediate post-Brexit era is simply one tinged with regret but there will be no rerun.

“The campaign was fought, the vote was held and the public gave their verdict,” Theresa May has said. “There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to re-join it through the back door and no second referendum,” she added.

On this, at least, May is clear, but in terms of what Brexit actually means, what shape it will take, how much involvement with Europe will be left, and what a Brexited Britain will really look like, less so.

What we do know is who will be responsible for framing the deal. May appointed a trio of Leave campaigners - The Three Brexiteers: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis and International Trade Minister Liam Fox.

And if there weren’t concerns enough about what their approach might be, given some of the post-truth politics espoused by their side during the referendum campaign, given that all three are far from fans of devolution, then the prospect for a good deal for Scotland could be sheer pie in the sky.

At two Brexit briefings held by Holyrood last week, attended by politicians and key representatives from the universities, research and health sectors, there was an overwhelming feeling of gloom. People described feeling bereaved, diminished and cheated of their democratic rights. There seemed little hope for the future.

And while they all recognised that the economic Armageddon predicted by the Remain side before the referendum had not yet transpired, with Article 50 still to be triggered and the real business of hard negotiation to begin, there was also a consensus that we could simply be living in the calm before the storm.

But they did agree that there will be opportunities to be gained from the repatriation of powers from the EU to the UK and Scotland needs to be at the table recognising what they could be and how to use them.

Could immigration, for instance, become a devolved issue? And what of public health and the prospect of minimum pricing on alcohol?

We need to minimise the negatives and maximise the opportunities.

But first there needs to be order, with a structure of machinery for intergovernmental negotiation that reflects the democratic desires of the component parts of the United Kingdom.

And on this we do have some foundation. The Joint Ministerial Committee is one model for how the UK Government, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly can, in principle, come together. But it has not been without its flaws and has been under review.

Brexit offers the timely opportunity to create something new by not simply becoming a vehicle that can be hijacked by the UK Government paying lip-service to its junior partners but something that offers a robust platform for real co-operation across these islands.

We are in uncharted waters and that brings risks as well as possibilities. And with over 40 years of a relationship to unpick, every day there is a new puzzle to think about. A new model to consider. A new relationship to ponder.

It is complex and if the UK Government is moving to a ‘hard’ Brexit - which I think consensus defines as limited access to, but not membership of, the EU single market - then what sort of access is the government seeking to the single market and, crucially, what is it prepared to concede to get that access?

On this we are getting little hint from Westminster but the First Minister, at least, seems to have indicated her preference for UK membership of the European Economic Area - this being the least bad outcome for Scotland in that it retains UK membership of the EU single market. But EEA membership requires adherence to the four freedoms, which includes the free movement of labour. And that appears to be a UK Government red line.

If this is a correct reading - and frankly, with regard to the UK Government position we simply do not know - then the obvious question is whether Scotland could agree some sort of closer alignment to the EU that is closer than the UK arrangement while staying within the Union?

Immediately one is drawn into the complexities of such a proposal, but like all options, it deserves the closest scrutiny and it deserves scrutiny not just through the lens of the independence debate - a lens that the Tory Party insists is the sole optic through which the SNP Government is viewing Brexit - but within the framework of what is best for Scotland.

The big question is, will the UK Government support such an exploration of alternatives for Scotland and if the answer is ‘no’, then it will be Theresa May et al and not the SNP propelling the political debate in Scotland towards the independence option.

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