Negotiating brexit

No one would employ this government to negotiate on their behalf

With the impending triggering of article 50 by the UK, which would start the process of leaving the European Union, suddenly every political talking head has become an expert on negotiation strategy.

The next two years, we are told by government spokespeople, are a negotiation, and in a negotiation you never reveal your hand.

The rhetoric is part of a long held conservative strategy to liken big political issues to everyday subjects that the public can understand. This was a strategy frequently employed in the argument for austerity, when the government line was that every household knew they couldn't endlessly spend more than they earn.

Think through the government’s negotiation analogy and it quickly falls apart.

The problem with the UK government position on brexit is not that they might reveal their hand to the other side, but they are not revealing their hand to the british people, the very people they are supposed to be negotiating on behalf of. Indeed, the phrase, “revealing your hand” is revealing in itself. The actions of the government are not a negotiation, but a gamble.

Imagine that you want to buy a home. You instruct an estate agent to find you a new home and negotiate a deal with the seller on your behalf. The estate agent tells you that they will get you a home but you will have no say over the price, location, or size of house. The negotiations will take two years and at the end of that process you will have to leave your current home. You will be given a choice over whether or not to take the new home that the estate agent has negotiated for you, but if you don’t take it you will be left homeless. The estate agent tells you not to worry, because you have decided that you want a new home and that is all she needs to know. You should trust her, she is a professional and has your best interests at heart.

No one in their right mind would enter into such an agreement, and yet that is precisely what the UK government is asking the public to do.

The will of the people

The British people decided that they wanted to leave the European Union. They were not told what the cost of that would be, in fact they were openly lied to by campaigners about the cost.

They were told various things about what life could be like outside the European Union, but given no choice over which direction they might go in. Some options which were specifically ruled out by leave campaigners, such as leaving the European Single Market, are now being presented to them as the obvious consequence of what they chose.

The public were told that a large part of the debate was about returning sovereignty to the British Parliament, and yet the government sought to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to protect what they saw as their absolute power to decide the fate of the country, and to exclude parliament from having any say over the biggest political issue of this century.

I could go on, but the point is clear, whilst people may have voted that they would like to leave the European Union, there is absolutely no popular mandate for any post brexit outcome.

Big questions

The vote on brexit brought to the surface a number of deep divisions over the direction and government of our country. Before we can have any coherent and meaningful position on brexit those divisions need to be resolved.

What is the UK’s place in the world? What protections do we want for our workers? how should we regulate business and industry? What is the role of the state in providing public welfare, health, housing and education?

All of these question are deeply impacted by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and yet the government is refusing any attempt to give parliament or the public a meaningful say. It is behaving little better than a dictatorship.

Take back control

So what would a responsible, democratic governemnt do?

The government has said that the decision of the Supreme Court to give parliament the final say on whether or not to trigger article 50 does nothing to derail their timetable to start negotiations with the EU in March. They expect to table a bill in days.

They should think again.

In any negotiation, it must be right that the person seeking a deal can walk away and keep what they have at any point during the negotiation. It should not be an all in gamble.

We don’t know whether or not this is possible yet. A case being brought by a UK citizen in the Irish courts, Jo Maugham QC is seeking to establish that.

Clearly, it would be madness for the UK to trigger article 50 before that key question is answered.

Secondly, before the UK can start negotiating with the UK, our negotiators, the UK government, need a clear idea of what we want. That means a widespread and public debate on the future of our country, and possibly a general election to elect a new parliament with the mandate to carry that forward.

Failure to discover the will of the people, before negotiating on their behalf, would be a potentially catastrophic mistake that would take the country in a direction that no one voted for.