Finding the UK’s common ground

shaking hands

Shared facts will reunite the country

If you are on this site, you will have seen the announcement of our “UK: Reunited” talks. The next meeting is coming up this Sunday. You can sign up to our newsletter for an invitation.

We have launched this initiative because severe divisions have severe consequences. We don’t mean the everyday divisions that you find in a democracy. The most severe divisions take away a common starting point. Alternative conclusions from the same facts are the essence of democracy; alternative facts, as we have seen in America, cause great democracies to unravel.

As Barack Obama said about the US: The country “needs a common set of facts before arguing about what to do about them”. Recent bad news on exports and, most worringly, Northern Ireland, show the consequences for the UK of years of alternative narratives about basic facts.

A group that brings together pragmatic people who voted Leave for valid reasons but are honest about the consequences of too hard a Brexit and ex-Remainers who understand where we now are, EFTA4UK is uniquely placed to lead the country out of division.

Shared facts

The UK’s current problems stem from the lack of a shared understanding of the trade-offs involved in different relationships with the EU. False promises that it could leave the Single Market to make its own rules yet “maintain the current free trade arrangements” have caused lasting damage to goods and services exports. Furthermore, problems continue to crop up in Northern Ireland because, as Simon Coveney explains, politicians’ lack of honesty causes the logical consequences of leaving the Single Market to come as a shock to unionists.

But at EFTA4UK, we understand that Brexit did not have to mean any of this. With the right policies, the government could have assuaged all sides’ concerns and kept exports and the union intact.

True BeLeavers

Indeed, many informed people had valid reasons for voting Leave.

Working on the EFTA4UK project has shown me an interesting irony. EFTA-supporting Leavers tend to understand the benefits of the Single Market more clearly than the apparently passionate Remainers in the #FBPE (Follow Back pro-European) crowd on Twitter do.

Until I joined EFTA4UK, I had never met any true BeLeavers. I knew many who voted Leave. But they did not support any deliverable combination of benefits and costs. They believed in unicorns: benefits without the corresponding costs.

EFTArians, though, are under no illusions. They acknowledge tricky trade-offs and make the same choices as most of the population: Single Market for the trading benefits, friendly cooperation, and no involvement in a supranational political union. The EFTA model.

So what are we doing about it and how do we aim to bring people together?

Autonomy

The “UK: Reunited” idea stemmed from an attempt by Politics.co.uk editor Ian Dunt to engage Cambridge historian Robert Tombs, an absolute sovereigntist. Tombs correctly points out that Brexit is about sovereignty. He then displays ignorance of the economic consequences of unnecessarily extending that quest for sovereignty from leaving the EU to leaving the Single Market: an extension of sovereignty into areas – very dry technical standards for goods – where the parties concerned, such as business, don’t want it as they prefer the trading benefits of common rules.

The economic evidence was always clear that this would come at a cost: the EU can no longer take compliance with the UK’s own rules as sufficient evidence that UK goods meet the standards of the Single Market, heaping new costs on UK exporters. Thin Dealers, though, still deny this.

Finance vs feelings

The discussion – at least about leaving the Single Market – should have been a comparison of the economic benefits of staying with the intangible benefit of sovereignty. But Thin Dealers do not argue that the sovereignty recouped is worth the economic cost. They deny economic costs.

Thin Dealer vs Brexiteer

Tombs does not support any deliverable combination of benefits and costs. He believes in retaining the benefits of collaborative decision-making while making our own rules. He believes in unicorns. This is not “recognising shared facts and arguing what to do about them”.

Tombs, though, is not representative of most who voted Leave. I refer to him as a “Thin Dealer” rather than a “Brexiteer” for the same reason I say “leaving the Single Market” rather than “leaving the EU”. Some use them interchangeably, but they are not the same.

And this tells us where the common ground truly lies.

EFTArians support a set of Brexit outcomes that genuinely exists. They don’t deny the costs of leaving the Single Market. They want to get back in it. Sovereignty means avoiding the remaining majority of EU law: only 8% of EU-originated legislation ends up on the books of EFTA-EEA nations. Most of it consists of those dry technical standards on which most people do not pay attention to the details as long as their food does not give them cancer. The majority would support this trade-off.

Ditch the extremists

The Thin Dealers and the #FPBE Rejoiners have the loudest voices. The former appear to control the governing party. But they are not the mainstream.

We need to marginalise the Thin Dealers – who have caused the current problems – until they admit that their favoured course – the one that the government is charting – is towards the emotional benefits of absolute sovereignty at an economic price. Furthermore, they need to admit that this is their personal preference. They cannot keep alluding to “will of the people” as their higher purpose in sacrificing people’s material well-being for absolute sovereignty – while denying that people’s material well-being is being sacrificed – when the people did not want to make that trade.

...On both sides

But the mere fact of Brexit itself did not have to cause the problems that we are now seeing.

If the Thin Dealers need to be marginalised, then the same is true of those who blindly advocate re-joining (even while arguing that EFTA is politically impossible!). The EU without the UK is taking on more features of a sovereign state. It has issued collective debt for the first time. Where do Rejoiners think that the UK would fit in?

Not just a Brexiteer problem

The Remainers now basking in Schadenfreude also do not have a perfect record on economic science. Remember Treasury’s initial forecasts – that George Osborne defended – predicting recession straight after the vote? It is only now that the UK has left the Single Market four and a half years later, that the problems have really started.

UK: Reunited

EFTArians understand all this. That is why we are best placed to show the way towards unity: we are a group who appreciate the same set of facts, who came to different conclusions in 2016, but who, like the public, are no longer Leavers or Remainers. We have the same vision. That’s why our regular Zoom meetings now bring people who voted Leave and people who voted Remain together, to talk about why the EFTA model of Single Market without political union would suit them fine.

Leaving the Single Market is damaging to the economy and to Great Britain’s union with Northern Ireland. Vote Leave promised no damage. Being in the EU costs us sovereignty. Reform efforts failed. The UK has a different conception of European cooperation to the one that many of its friends and neighbours espouse.

These are the shared facts. The centre of gravity of public opinion in the UK understands them.

Let’s bring people together. Then the politicians will follow.

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Martin is a management consultant, former think tank researcher and lobbyist (appearing on national TV) for small business organisations and successful campaigns featured in Public Affairs Magazine. He has provided research and articles on trade issues for the Conservative Group for Europe.

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