Soft Brexit was the answer to the 2016 referendum that dared not breathe its name. Theresa May could have negotiated it. The EU’s members were expecting it. The public, if asked, would have backed it. Tory backbenchers would have overwhelmingly supported it, as would Labour. Then eventually Northern Ireland was granted it by Boris Johnson after the province had voted by a ten-point margin to remain in the EU.
Soft Brexit meant leaving the political EU but accepting that it would remain in some form within the European economic area, the so-called single market. What this might have meant – what exceptions might have been agreed – is blurred. But it would have avoided dismantling a quarter century of commercial ties to EU countries, governing 40 per cent of Britain’s overseas trade.
It was not to be. Boris Johnson’s prime ambition was to distance himself from May’s pragmatists and “put clear water” between Britain and anything to do with the EU save for a simple no-tariff deal. He rode to the Tory leadership on a vision of something called “global Britain” and lucrative “trade deals with the rest of the world”. Regulatory barriers with the continent were dismissed as a trivial problem. The EU was said to “need us more than we need it”.
How different it all now seems. A golden dawn has become a “necessary period of readjustment”. Lush new trade deals have become a desperate rush to replicate those already reached by the EU. As for immigration, Whitehall has become a parody of a command economy as it tries to work out which industries need how many visas, month by month. Maximising Brexit gains has become minimising losses.
Most of this Brexit angst, however, has come not from leaving the EU but from the “hardness” of Johnson’s personal decision to insist on withdrawing from the single market. It has come from reneging on Margaret Thatcher’s Single European Act of 1986. Joining in that act was seen at the time as the most market-oriented “Thatcherite” reform to Britain’s trading economy since the repeal of the Corn Laws in the nineteenth century. It opened the British economy to both the disciplines and opportunities of foreign competition.
That openness Johnson has closed. Brexit has degenerated into arguments over border controls, fish stocks, supply chains, work visas and scientific and student exchanges. Britain claims to have reasserted “control” but trade is about negotiating leverage, not control. That leverage has declined close to zero vis-a-vis both Europe and America. London’s control over migration has merely starved its industries of access to a formerly crucial labour resource in east Europe, while leaving Britain vulnerable to thousands of desperate migrants outside the Dublin agreement on country of first refuge.
If Scotland and Ireland were both back inside the single market, I cannot believe a future, less doctrinaire British government would not find it opportune to follow suit. I do not believe Britain will rejoin the present EU in the foreseeable future, but no great point of principle was involved in the single market
Yet there is one glimmer of hope. It comes ironically from the most intractable legacy of Brexit, Northern Ireland, and its retention of single-market relations with Ireland itself. The Northern Irish, or most of them, wanted to remain in what has for half a century been an all-Ireland economy. They want political separation but economic fusion with the rest of Ireland, even at the cost of a barrier down the Irish Sea. In other words, they wanted soft Brexit. Some arrangement must be reached to regulate the movement of goods across the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland such that they do not “leak” south into the EU. But that is a task for technology not ideology.
Switch to Scotland. Though support for “independence” hovers round 50:50 in the polls, an overwhelming majority of Scots wanted to stay in the EU in 2016. It is probable that a similar majority would also support Scotland reverting to soft Brexit, to revert to membership of the European single market as a form of “independence-lite”. The price might be an “Irish Sea”-type border with England north of Hadrian’s Wall. But again, this is not inconceivable – witness the EU’s land borders with Switzerland and Norway.
For Scotland to join with Northern and the rest of Ireland within the European single market would not require the trauma of another Scottish referendum on independence. It would be a treaty protocol much like that now covering Northern Ireland. It could mean a huge boost to trade through Belfast and Glasgow leading on to EU ports across the North Sea. Movement in services and labour would be complex, but they are that now.
If Scotland and Ireland were both back inside the single market, I cannot believe a future, less doctrinaire British government would not find it opportune to follow suit. I do not believe Britain will re-join the present EU in the foreseeable future, but no great point of principle was involved in the single market. The only one was immigration and that is now complicated by labour shortages and asylum seekers, with the London government forced into ad hoc deals to meet unforeseen crises. Mix in ceaseless rows over trade regulations, supply chains, visas and passport controls and soft Brexit will seem like a state of bliss.
The spectacle of England following Northern Ireland and Scotland and – who knows? – even Wales back into the single market would be something of a triumph for the Celtic fringe. But that in turn would have its upside. It might rescue the British state from impending disintegration.
Simon Jenkins writes weekly for the Guardian and has edited the Evening Standard and The Times. He has authored books on architecture, history and British politics. He is preparing a critical history of the Celts