Writing about how Brexit will unfold is like trying to provide a running commentary on submarine warfare – speculative, largely pointless, and predictably over-focused on the strategic picture. An expression Brexit secretary David Davis will have to keep deploying in the coming weeks will be his new favourite, “froth”, as writers attempt to fill column inches with the cube root of guesswork.
For a taster of the future, consider how massive distractions, such as a campaign on the colour of the UK passport, are already taking up front pages: more froth there than a tidal wave in a Radox factory. While such concerns are hugely symbolic, they are precisely the sort of cheap bones the European institutions used to bunt in the past.
Two concepts may, however, help us as we seek to distinguish fleeting silhouettes through the fog of early Brexit talks.
First, let us accept that our current focus on Single Market “membership” is obsessive. Ministers and journalists alike are tying themselves in knots trying to explain how the UK will relate to this construct, a consequence both of loose talk and inept metaphors. In some cases, MPs are clearly as hopelessly ill-informed about the difference between a customs union and a free trade zone as they are about the difference between, say, the nation’s deficit and its debt. As readers know, export access does not require EU membership. Trade deals come in many forms, and cover a range of barriers beyond tariffs. The “Single Market” in many areas is as accurate a nomenclature as the “Holy Roman Empire” was to Metternich.
Even if we did want to oversimplify, we should be partitioning the debate into four elements rather than two. As a nation seemingly obsessed by food programmes, we might more aptly picture it with our tastebuds. So why not “citrus” Brexit for a tart minimalist WTO baseline default; “vanilla” for a plain trade deal; “strawberry” for a treaty covering non-trade issues too; and “fudge” (naturally) for sticking in the customs union? The reason not to go this route is that all metaphors have their limits.
Brexit is no more a binary issue than international trade is, outwith embargoes which are not in question. So talk of “hard” and “soft” Brexit is a fallacy.
You may recall from schooldays learning about the Mohs Scale in geology, where rocks are graded depending on how hard they are – soft talc at one, to tough diamond at 10. Most rocks are in between. The Brexit deal will be too, for the simple fact that there are 35 different chapters (or headings) under discussion when any country talks about joining the EU. Meanwhile, I count 42 types of EU trade deals struck over the years with third parties. The UK version won’t fall into the model at either end of the scale, since the UK is neither a Eurozone EU state nor South Sudan, but it will instead be one of the 40 others (or more likely, a new forty-third).
As well as Mohs, let’s risk classroom flashbacks by bringing up Mandelbrot. The Mandelbrot Set is mostly remembered for the hypnotic fractal graphics; the more one zooms into the knobbly bobbly structure, the more the pixels expand into new alveoli in their own right, exploding outwards in unending self-simularity.
It may help commentators if they reflect on this imagery as they discuss top level Brexit. Therein lies a deep world of complexity into which commentators have singularly declined to dive. But as Mandelbrot encourages us to zoom in, so too it reminds us that no one individual can hope to embody a complete understanding of all that Brexit entails. That’s as true for government planners as it is for businesses. True understanding on complicated trade small print and legislative sub clauses will require an extraordinary range of expertise to be tapped by Whitehall.
Digging into the rules behind the standardisation of windscreens, for example, it quickly became clear to me how very few even of the fistful of legislators providing specialist oversight of the legal processes genuinely knew what was in front of them and how it got there. Bismarck’s supposed dictum on sausages and laws – about it being better to be ignorant of how both are made – seems to have found its apotheosis in the way the EU translates global trade rules. Doubly so, of course, when it comes to laws about sausages.
Fixing that disconnect between lawmakers and the rules they vet should be one of the core democratic gains from Brexit. Otherwise it is a victory half spent. In the meantime, a little patience is in order – and less gabble about tensile strength.