Sir John Chilcot’s long-awaited Report finally appears today. His Inquiry has lasted longer than Britain’s part in the Iraq War. Trying to make sense of 2.6 million words of findings will be difficult. It will take time for what it all means to become clear. Some initial things to look for still stand out.
First, which individuals and institutions come in for criticism, and with what intensity? If Chilcot does not hammer Tony Blair we can expect widespread calls of ‘whitewash’. But if, like Lord Butler before him, Chilcot expresses severe criticism too reservedly, the effect will be the same. We can also expect difficult moments in the Report for the intelligence services, the military and Blair’s former Cabinet colleagues including Development Secretary Clare Short and Attorney General Lord Goldsmith.
Second, does Chilcot confront strategic and tactical issues simultaneously? Invading Iraq made little strategic sense. Even the worst estimates of the threat it posed did not justify regime change with all its attendant costs. There was no plan for what happened when Saddam fell, and far too little resource committed to the aftermath. Britain learned slowly, if at all, from mistakes and failures on the ground. It over-committed by stepping up the fight in Helmand before finishing the job in Iraq.
Finally, will the Report satisfy the public’s appetite for transparency? It may be too much to expect it to restore the country’s trust in elites. But given its duration it needs to demonstrate maximum openness, and to deliver some measure of accountability. Tony Blair isn’t going to wind up on trial. There is no court competent to try him and, in any event, he was too wily a politician to get caught clearly breaking any law. Chilcot has the evidence, though, and the scope to dismantle Blair’s remaining reputation. If he casts light on the dismal story of how Britain wound up fighting in Iraq, he might assuage at least some of the public’s anger, and allow the country to begin to move on.
Three related challenges await the new Prime Minister as he or she responds to last week’s referendum result.
First, the question of when to invoke Article 50. EU leaders want Britain to move quickly. Of course they do. Everyone wants certainty, because certainty breeds stability. In addition, once the clock starts running on Brexit, the rest of the EU holds most of the bargaining cards. Britain wants certainty, too, not least to calm troubled bond and stock markets. But it needs time. Time to choose a new prime minister and time to decide a bargaining stance. Britain holds the cards on timing, because there is no mechanism for the rest of the EU to trigger Brexit negotiations. Only Britain can do that. Once negotiations start, the power shifts.
Second, the question of what to bargain for. As I have written elsewhere, it remains uncertain what exactly the ‘leave’ camp voted for. To be more precise, it is certain that two groups of ‘leavers’ voted for contradictory things. One group wanted to cut immigration, the other to cut regulation and boost free trade. It is unclear what sort of deal with the remaining EU the country and the parliament would support. It will not be possible to sort this out before beginning negotiations. The new Prime Minister will have to get the best deal they can, then try to get through parliament and possibly a second referendum. If they fail, Britain will fall out of the EU completely, causing even greater economic harm.
Finally, there is the bigger picture to think about. Britain will need good relations with the EU and its remaining members after Brexit. It has already generated considerable bad blood, but states forget specific insults over time when their interests converge; look at Franco-US military co-operation thirteen years on from Iraq. Still, the longer Britain delays invoking Article 50, the more damage it does. The harder it drives a bargain in the subsequent negotiations, the more damage it does. It might be in Britain’s short-term interests to delay as long as possible, then push for access to the single market without free movement as Boris Johnson suggests. But if such a stance undermines continental relations further the effort will prove counter-productive over the longer term. David Cameron’s great mistake was adopting a transactional relationship with other EU members, looking to maximise Britain’s immediate advantage at every opportunity rather than trying to build enduring partnerships. When he really wanted something, other EU leaders bargained hard. Small victories, like the 2011 treaty veto, cost more than they were worth in the end. That may be the case here, too.
If Britain does vote to leave the EU today, what happens next looks remarkably unclear. David Cameron has said he will inform the European Council that Britain wishes to withdraw from the EU, in line with Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Britain would then have two years to negotiate its future relationship with the remaining 27 member states. After two years its membership terminates automatically.
So far, so straightforward. But actually there are a number of imponderables at work.
Firstly, what if David Cameron resigns as Prime Minister? Boris Johnson has said he would not invoke Article 50 right away, pointing back towards his suggestion at the start of the campaign that Britain might yet be able to wring a better deal (e.g. further restrictions on freedom of movement) out of other EU states if the government already had a mandate to leave. Most EU leaders have ruled out this option. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t consider it if Britain actually did vote to leave. Remember, most didn’t take the prospect entirely seriously during the previous round of negotiations. And even if they did, it makes no sense from a bargaining perspective to admit that you are willing to offer more to a bargaining partner who does something you don’t want. We could see a successful second re-negotiation followed by a second referendum in which Prime Minister Johnson successfully campaigns for Remain, having achieved his main goal of becoming Prime Minister.
Secondly, what sort of mandate would a successful leave camp have? Two key concerns are driving the leave vote – fear of mass immigration and a desire to repatriate sovereign authority currently pooled with other EU states, for example the power to alter employment regulations or to negotiate new free trade deals. To an extent these concerns can both be resolved by leaving the EU. But many of those who argue for a leave vote on sovereignty grounds nevertheless still want Britain to have the best possible trading relationship with other EU states, which makes sense since most of our exports go to them. They say they would like Britain to stay in the European single market as far as possible. Both Norway and Switzerland are in the single market but not the EU, so there is precedent here. The problem is that the rest of the EU sees free movement of people as one of the fundamental pillars of the single market. In other words, the price of retaining access to the EU market is likely to be allowing free movement of people. There is a fundamental clash between the desire to remake Britain as a free-trading nation and the desire to restrict immigration (this is true conceptually as much as in practice). So what sort of deal would a post-leave government pursue? I suspect the answer is that it would be unable to negotiate a deal because it would be unable to concede on free movement, leaving Britain outside of the single market by default at the end of its two year withdrawal period.
Thirdly, and relatedly, what sort of deal would parliament approve? Most MPs favour remaining in the EU, but they will have to sign off on any post-Brexit agreement. Will they be willing to do so in principle? Probably, given most have more respect for the electorate than is often implied. But, again, what sort of deal will they have a mandate to approve? One that retains access to the single market at the cost of allowing free movement, or one that cuts off both? The differences are stark, and the reality is that the leave vote is split between the two broad approaches.
Fourthly, what happens if there is an early general election before the two years are up? This is entirely possible, though the Fixed Terms Parliament Act sets a high bar (assuming the government does not lose a confidence vote, which it probably wouldn’t, two-thirds of MPs have to vote for an early election, which means both Labour and the Conservatives have to be confident they’ll win). It could happen if the Conservative Party splits, which looks like a realistic possibility regardless of the outcome of the referendum. It could also happen if the worst economic predictions of the Remain camp come true. If Britain votes to leave the EU, the hit to business confidence will occur immediately. It won’t wait for the two year period to be up. That could mean an immediate recession, which in turn could undermine the government’s position. The prospect of an early election is interesting for this reason: What if the Labour Party campaigns on a pro-EU mandate, and wins? Could a new government withdraw the Article 50 notification before the two year period is up? Article 50 doesn’t say, which means presumably the possibility is there.
Just as a vote for Remain will leave the government needing to do a much better job on housing, healthcare, jobs and community cohesion, all issues that clash with its underlying commitment to fiscal austerity, so too a Leave vote will trigger a period of prolonged uncertainty and likely some sort of further vote. It doesn’t end at 10pm on 23 June, in other words.
We’ve had enough of experts in this referendum campaign, or so we’re told. I think we’ve had enough of politicians, personally, and referendums themselves. But that’s by the by. As an academic specialising in international politics and the fraught question of Britain’s role in the world, I claim a measure of expertise. But I’m new to it, so let’s not take things too far.
I’m voting remain for a whole host of reasons, some of which come from the head and some from the heart. But I’ll stick with three here.
First, Britain is better off in the EU than it would be outside. Most of the major issues we face as a country affect other European states just as much as us – terrorism, mass migration, climate change, tax evasion and the steady erosion of the middle class by the technology-driven transformation of the nature of skilled labour. Common problems require collective solutions, and the EU provides an important framework for co-ordinated political action as well as providing safety in numbers against the backdrop of economic challenges. Both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn have undermined the Remain campaign, in different ways. Cameron, by virtue of the fact that his government’s policy choices are the actual cause of many of the resentments driving Leave voters. Corbyn, because his antipathy to capitalism undermines his faith in the European project, leaving him unwilling to press the point. In short, most of the problems people hope to solve by leaving are not caused by the EU and won’t be fixed by ‘taking back control’. We can’t take back control, at least not from Brussels. The reason so many people feel powerless is mainly to do with changes much bigger than Britain, combined with the failure of successive governments to address them adequately.
Take immigration, for example. It’s not true that Britain’s EU membership leaves us unable to control our borders. We’re not in the Schengen area. We still have border checks, and we are under no obligation to admit people suspected of criminal activity including terrorism. For what it’s worth, it’s also not true that Turkey is about to join the EU. Even if it was, Britain has a veto on new members. But we wouldn’t need to use it – Cyprus, Greece and France would get there first. It’s true that population increases put pressure on public services. But it’s also true, firstly, that our aging population and low birth rate means we absolutely have to import workers, and will continue to need to do so until the baby boomers die off, and secondly, that EU immigrants pay more into the UK system than they cost. The problem isn’t the numbers involved, as high as they have been in recent years. The problem is that successive governments have failed to take the necessary policy decisions to ensure sufficient good quality housing is available where it is needed, that NHS services are properly funded and that new arrivals are integrated into local communities. The money is there. But governments have chosen not to spend it. Given we need immigrants to keep the economy going, and cutting off EU free movement would mean cutting ourselves off from the rest of the single market (our most important export market by a long way), I think it would be much better to spend some of the migration dividend on mitigating the negative consequences of immigration, rather than pretending that leaving the EU wouldn’t make things worse. The sight of Michael “privatise the NHS” Gove suggesting a post-leave government would spend the imaginary £350 million he dishonestly claims we currently send the EU every week on hospitals is beyond parody.
Second, though there is uncertainty either way, the uncertainty of leaving is greater and harder to mitigate than the uncertainty of remaining. It’s true that if we stay in the EU it might develop in directions we don’t like. But if we stay in the EU, we’ll have a veto over major structural reforms. We’ve just won an opt out from the principle of ‘ever closer union’, something I suspect the smaller, more Eurosceptic states like Denmark and the Netherlands might ask for when the next EU treaty comes on the agenda. We’ve also won a binding commitment that the EU will not discriminate against non-Euro countries and currencies like ours, raising the prospect that Britain could become the leader of an ‘outer ring’ of non-Euro countries within the EU – exactly the sort of semi-detached relationship the leave camp claims to want. If we leave the EU, that’s it. It has to work, and if it doesn’t (and it probably won’t – Nigel Farage accepts it’ll leave us worse off, he just doesn’t care – while Gove and Johnson’s argument that we won’t be worse off is based on the unrealistic assumption that we can stay in the single market while cutting off EU immigration) there will be no Plan B. We’ll just be screwed. If remaining starts to go wrong, however, there still is a Plan B. We can leave. No-one is suggesting we give up the right to leave. I’d never rule it out. But we don’t need to leave right now, and in fact doing so would be damaging. Let’s keep the possibility in our back pocket and get on with things for now.
Finally, and this is more a ‘heart’ than a ‘head’ argument, I just don’t think leaving the EU is a particularly British thing to do. It’s surrendering, ultimately. And that’s not British. I don’t think we should surrender our influence over Europe. I don’t think we should give up trying to make the European project work. I don’t believe the British people are sufficiently scared of the Belgians and the Slovakians to justify fleeing before their bureaucratic might. I don’t believe in giving up.
Britain is a European power. Of course we are; just look at a map. We’re not in America. We’re not in Africa. We’re not in Asia. We’re in Europe.
There is a European Union. It’s there, whether we like it or not. It’s going through a rough patch right now and it needs a lot of work. But it has helped bring peace and prosperity to Europe for decades. Right now we have a say over how the European Union operates. We’re a big player, though David Cameron hasn’t done a very good job of maximising that influence (or even medium-ising it). Of course we are, and of course we should be. We helped design the EU. We helped build it. We damn well helped pay for it. And for all its dysfunction it largely works. As far as I’m concerned, the EU belongs to all of us. It’s ours. I simply do not accept that the time has come to give that up.
So that’s it. That’s my argument. I could say more. I could throw figures about, and do some detailed research. But I’m comfortable with what I’ve argued. Britain is better off in the EU than out, though we need to manage the impact of mass migration much, much better. The risks of leaving are greater and much harder to mitigate than the risks of leaving. And surrendering is simply not the British thing to do. Especially when the alternative is staying put and continuing to annoy the French. Let’s stay at the heart of Europe, winding up the Germans, refusing to take the whole thing entirely seriously (part of winding up the Germans) and inevitably drinking too much. Europe is ours. No surrender. Keep control, and make it work.
I’ll be giving two talks at LSE Alumni events in the US during April. Both will build upon my research on UK foreign policy from a role-theoretic perspective as well as my recent contribution to an International Studies Association roundtable on Britain’s role in the 21st century world, and a talk I gave to officers and NCOs from 10 Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistics Regiment a couple of months ago.
My title is “The death of greatness? Britain’s role in the 21st century world order”. In the talk I discuss how Britain’s involvement in international conflict since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, combined with its experience of financial crisis, economic recession and fiscal austerity since 2008, have led to a likely permanent collapse in its ability to play an active great power role in the world. In particular, I will emphasize the politicization of UK foreign policy due to the introduction of parliamentary veto powers into major military deployment decisions, echoing my International Affairs article from last year but also building on it.
I’ll be in Chicago on 7 April 2016 and Washington DC on 12 April 2016. Both events are open to all, though non-LSE alumni will be charged $10 to attend. Please book through the Alumni and Friends of LSE website!