One of the most fascinating things in the coming months and years will be to see the extent to which Brexit proves to be a game-changer in politics, economics, the psyche of the country and the future course of British history. Will it be an existential change? Will it change our very being as a nation? I hope I live long enough to get a sense of this.
Right now we find ourselves beyond the end of the beginning and on a long journey to a better place, the acid test of which will be the extent to which we take control of our laws, borders and money. These were the tests applied by Leavers repeatedly during the referendum campaign and will be the measure of success of the Boris Johnson Government. But success goes beyond constitutional matters and matters of government.
There are some within Conservative ranks, and the Government for that matter, who would rather see the agenda move on as quickly as possible to “all the other things that are important to the people” of our great nation. One must have a deep suspicion that this may be far more to do with licence to ignore Brexit, or at least sweep under the carpet any deficiencies in the outcome. We will have conveniently moved on. The problem for these recalcitrant Remainers and soft, vested-interest Brexiteers is that “all the other things” to which they refer are intrinsically wrapped up with the progress of Brexit, its outcome and success.
A difficulty with the grasping of this, even and perhaps especially amongst those who led the referendum campaign, is that they assiduously steered clear of the economic and business implications, leaving this small matter solely to the Vote Leave Business Council and Economists for Brexit. A root cause of much of the wrangling of the past three-and-a-half years has been the failure to address these matters in the mainstream campaign in 2016, which furthermore allowed the left-wing, illiberal, anti-populist media establishment to embed the concepts of “cliff edge” and “crashing out” in the public discourse and consciousness.
In order for Brexit to be perceived as a force for good, that it be sustainable and that it be a practical success, it must lead to a change in the make-up of the economy of the UK, the geographical distribution of wealth and enterprise, and provide an overall economic boost. I think it must also lead to a manifest demonstration of Britain’s independence, its separateness from others.
Whether or not sections of our leadership desire this or instead desire the status quo, and whether or not the left-wing illiberals grasp the desire for change amongst their own constituency, it will determine the direction of our future and the outcome of the next election. This latter will be likely determined by what happens, what is set in train (if not in stone), in the next year or two. If the Government wish to be a three-term phenomenon, they need to grasp this: they cannot rely on Brexhaustion, a sigh of relief or the natural predisposition of people to prefer no change. The genie is out of the bottle and revolutions lead to unexpected consequences.
In respect of Britain’s interaction with the world at large, that change will also be of importance. It is no break for freedom if we sacrifice our new-found liberty from one over-weening, putative empire only to make ourselves subject to another. Quite rightly Britain will pivot towards the Commonwealth and to those nations who share our head of state in particular, but we must, if Brexit is to mean anything in our sovereign international place in the world, plough our own furrow and test every decision with the litmus paper of whether it is truly in our national interest.
All of this requires a taste for change; a capacity and desire in government to make things different, even if it leads to an amount of creative disruption. In this context a reform of the machinery of government is important. The inertia of Whitehall is the enemy of change and a reflection of Whitehall’s agenda of perpetual self-interest. To bust this open, perhaps government should adopt an American-style system, abolish the Permanent Secretaries and their deputies and replace them with a system of political appointees. But this is longer term stuff, for the future.
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Brexit will also demand an embracing of change by vested interests across the spectrum.
Whatever business groups do, business will respond and adapt quickly if the changes are obvious and immediate enough. Anybody in business who has ever been involved in major change programmes will recognise a number of fundamentals.
Change usually takes place when it is overdue, when the head of steam can no longer be contained. It requires a “burning platform”, real or artificial, to drive progress. To be successful, it must be perceived as radical, with dramatic symbolism, urgent and most tumultuous at the very beginning of the process. In this case the political cycle of four or five year election intervals sets the timeframe, with the need to drive through what is necessary in the first year or two in order to catapult us into certainty of direction, give time to embrace change and get through the inevitable emotional cycle it produces. Soon the changes will become the new norm and its benefits will accrue long before its acceptance must be tested with the electorate. With change will come a certain amount of pain in some quarters, but without pain there is no gain. Equally certain is that without change a great opportunity will be lost and the nation will drift into decay like so much of Europe.
Brexit and change should be synonymous. We will soon see if this is the case. There is one chance to seize this tiger by the tail and get this right.
Boris, be brave.
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