Martin McKee: Waiting for Brexit

As we wait to find out what will happen next, the damage is being done

With the approach of the third anniversary of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, a brief reflection is in order. “Brexit day”, the 29th of March 2019, when the UK was due to leave the EU, has come and gone. Almost all of the “40 trade deals” that were promised to replace the UK’s existing ones with the rest of the world are as far off as ever. It seems very likely that the UK will soon vote in the elections for a new European Parliament. Despite negotiating what is arguably the only deal with the EU that comes close to complying with her “red lines”, the Prime Minister has failed repeatedly to gain support for it in the House of Commons.

Those seeking to understand the Brexit process seem, even if subconsciously, to be drawing on Oscar Wilde’s observation that “life imitates art”. John Cleese has been a particularly valuable source of analogies. One perceptive analysis argues that Basil Fawlty personifies the Brexit mentality, with his combination of arrogance, insecurity, and fear of foreigners. Cleese appears again in the Brexit discourse when Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte compares Theresa May to his Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who only suggests calling it a draw after having all his limbs hacked off. Fintan O’Toole’s incisive analysis of the politics of Brexit, seen from an Irish perspective, invokes a wide selection of literary contributions, even extending to the use of Fifty Shades of Grey to describe the more masochistic elements of the English character (and O’Toole is very clear that Brexit is an English rather than a British phenomenon). But perhaps the most widely invoked example is from another Irish author, Samuel Beckett, who was educated close to the Irish border and spent most of his life in France. At frequent intervals since the referendum, the Financial Times commentator David Allen Green has tweeted the same three lines (with subtle variants as each of Theresa May’s deadlines passes) from his play Waiting for Godot:

Estragon: Well, shall we Leave?

Vladimir: Yes, let’s Leave.

(They do not Leave)

By the end of the play the audience knows no more about Godot than they do at the beginning. Godot, like Brexit, never comes. It is easy to see why a frustrated Xavier Bettel, the Luxembourg Prime Minister, also invoked Beckett’s play as he waited in vain for a clear indication from the UK about what it actually wanted. Yet Waiting for Godot seems to anticipate many other aspects of the Brexit process, especially its confused and often mindless ramblings, repetition, and nostalgia.

So where is the Brexit process now? After much discussion, the European Council (minus the UK) agreed an extension until the 31st of October 2019, but with a get out clause allowing an earlier exit should agreement be reached. The decision by the EU27 was accompanied by a clear message to Theresa May. As she has so far failed to achieve a Parliamentary majority, she must reach out to the opposition parties. In practice, this meant Labour as the Prime Minister has pointedly refused to engage with the Scottish National Party on any substantive issues related to Brexit. The talks with Labour have now begun but there is no evidence they are going anywhere. Accounts from those involved indicate that the government steadfastly refuses to make any meaningful and legally binding concessions beyond vague statements of intent. Labour, in turn, demands assurances that anything agreed will not be rejected by Theresa May’s successor, with polls among Conservative Party members suggesting that Boris Johnson is by far the most favoured candidate. He is on record as supporting a catastrophic “no deal”, rejected by the House of Commons, but supported by a secretive and well-funded Facebook campaign led by Sir Lynton Crosby, widely seen as being linked to Johnson’s ambitions. The situation is complicated further as Labour is also divided on Brexit and has only managed to avoid a more serious split by maintaining ambiguity about its intentions. It has little incentive to take ownership of a policy that will alienate the estimated 90% of its members who reject Brexit altogether.

Given the inability to find a form of Brexit that can actually be implemented, some are now asking whether it will ever happen. For months, opinion polls have shown a clear, and increasing margin in favour of Remain. The idea that Brexit is “the will of the people” was always problematic, given the clear lack of any agreement on what it actually meant, but it is now simply implausible. To return to the literary allusions, Theresa May’s oft-repeated statement that “Brexit means Brexit” recalls Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty when he said that “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.” And even if the UK could reach agreement on the Withdrawal Agreement, this would only be the start of a very long process. If Brexit is to take place it must be concluded by the 31st December 2020, when the new European Commission implements its next Multiannual Financial Framework, covering 2021-2027. Given the glacial pace of negotiations so far, this seems incredibly optimistic.

Meanwhile, the damage is being done. Although estimates differ, there is little argument that the British economy is now considerably smaller than it would otherwise have been and even those who support Brexit suggest that any economic benefits may not be seen for 50 years. Leaving aside these broader economic issues, huge sums of money that could benefit the NHS are being spent on Brexit contingency planning, including the now notorious ferry debacle. The NHS is already facing severe staff shortages but a leaked memo reveals concerns by NHS executives that the government’s proposed post-Brexit immigration policy is the “most destructive policy proposal for NHS recruitment” and there are fears that it could force some hospitals to close “25 per cent of services”. There are increasing accounts of shortages of medicines, and while the government has gone to great lengths to argue that they are unrelated to Brexit, many are unpersuaded, not least because of concerns about the secrecy of the planning process. The number of clinical trials registered in the UK has collapsed relative to France. But perhaps the greatest threat is to the machinery of government. Vast resources, in both money and personnel, have been redeployed for “no deal” planning, leaving very little capacity for other things. Health professionals are most concerned about the government’s failure to meet its own deadline for reform of social care.

Just before the end of Waiting for Godot, the two main characters decide to hang themselves. They try to use Estragon’s belt, causing his trousers to fall down. One wonders if the US commentator Thomas Friedman had this episode in mind when he wrote, in a widely cited New York Times article, that the UK was “determined to commit economic suicide but can’t even agree on how to kill itself”.

Martin McKee is professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Competing interests: None declared.