A handbag

Brexit has been sold to the people as the UK retaking its place as a world leader, but its shambolic execution has instead shown that the UK’s place as a world leader is largely an illusion based more on expectation and bravado than on any underlying capability. The incompetence of its leaders has been laid bare as grand promise after grand promise has turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Over everything hangs the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. She achieved notoriety in the UK for her hard-headed negotiating style, one which entered the popular consciousness via the misleading (and sexist) trope of “handbagging”. In truth, Thatcher succeeded because she had leverage that later PMs did not – the UK represented a significant share of the economy of the 12-member EEC, and an even more significant share of the EEC’s international trade.

Yet British Euroscepticism has ever since been motivated by the religious conviction that if only you negotiate hard enough, you can get anything that you want. Margaret Thatcher could do it, so if you can’t then it’s your fault for not trying, or not believing. The postwar conviction that the UK could continue to punch above its weight, even after the loss of its Empire, was extended far beyond its natural end by people that needed it to be true. But like Wile E Coyote running off a cliff, eventually the laws of the universe notice that you have nothing to stand on.

While the UK did indeed punch above its weight during the heyday of the EEC, every boxer has a career trajectory. No individual can be exceptional forever. One side effect of widening the membership of the EU in order to dilute the influence of France and Germany was that it also diluted the influence of the UK. After creating just the kind of Europe that it wanted – a Europe of equals – the UK refused to accept its place as one of those equals. After pushing for the creation of the European Single Market and its governing institutions to rein in the protectionist instincts of other European countries, the UK chafed at being itself subject to the same system.

Handbagging results in diminishing returns – Thatcher achieved a rollback in the form of the rebate, while Major and his successors achieved merely a standstill in the form of opt-outs. David Cameron’s attempt to negotiate an even more favourable deal from the EU, one that had eluded both Thatcher and Major, was an exercise in milking the dry cow. Who now remembers the meagre drops that he extracted?

The failure of Cameron to improve the UK’s position by more than a few millimetres proved beyond doubt that the UK had achieved a local optimum. But the Euroskeptics refused to believe, and drank the Brexit Kool-Aid offered by the lunatic fringe. The UK’s negotiating hand would be much stronger from outside the EU than if it stayed in. They need us more than we need them.

Handbagging would triumph once again.

(This blog was originally published on Slugger)

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