The White Paper and Two Tribes

The White Paper

The long awaited Brexit White Paper was released yesterday. I had a few hours and started reading. I am used to reading complex documents, for example PhD theses. Some years ago I had the pleasure of being external examiner for two PhD theses at Durham and University College Dublin within a few weeks. The Durham thesis was 475 pages long and even by page 150, I still had no clue what the thesis was about. The Dublin one was under 100 pages and by page 4 it was obvious that it was worthy of a PhD. As for the viva the Durham one was turgid,  lasted about 5 1/2 hours, and we had to eventually fail the student, but allowed him to resubmit after 6 months (when he eventually passed). The Dublin one, as expected, was a joy, 2 hours and unquestionably worthy of the award of a PhD.

And so to the Brexit White paper. Sadly this sits squarely in the former category, and I must confess I gave up reading after about half an hour. I felt life was too short. Fortunately Ian Dunt is made of sterner stuff and waded through the whole thing: If this is all the government has for its Brexit white paper, we’re in trouble

So that’s it. After two years the government has finally published a Brexit white paper. It runs to 104 pages but is full of so much muddled thinking, desperation and fantasy that they could have done it in five and saved us all a lot of time.

To jumble up the Brexit jargon, it is cakeism-minus. They have a cake, they have eaten it, some of it is still magically on the plate, and the rest is being vomited up on the floor.

On the Max-Fac section Ian writes

Quite quickly this descends into badly-written cyberpunk. “This could include exploring how machine learning and artificial intelligence could allow traders to automate the collection and submission of data required for customs declarations,” it says at one point, as if the civil servant writing it got bored and just thought they’d chuck in as much crazy nonsense as possible.

One area of particular interest to me was the Irish Backstop; this was mentioned in the 3 page summary after the Chequers meeting. The wording in the white paper however is identical apart from the “Belfast Agreement” being changed to the “Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement” – so nothing new. Agreement on the Backstop is needed before the withdrawal agreement is finalised.

This point was reinforced yesterday when the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group (BSG), chaired by Guy Verhofstadt, met and had an extensive exchange of views on the Chequers Statement of 6 July 2018, as well as on the White Paper that had just been released by the UK Government.

The BSG reiterated that negotiating a new relationship with the UK post-Brexit is conditional on an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU on the basis of a Withdrawal Agreement (WA). It reconfirmed the Parliament’s position expressed in its resolutions that it will not consent to a WA, including a transition period, without a credible “back stop” provision for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border to prevent a hard border and safeguard the integrity of the single market, faithfully reflecting the commitments entered into in the Joint Report of 8 December 2017. It urged the UK Government to clarify its positions on the “back stop” so that the WA can be finalised as quickly as possible.


At the time of writing (the morning of Friday 13th) the EU has not officially reacted. Sadly, even my own low expectations of the White Paper were not met. The paper is a true dogs dinner and will please nobody. I am keeping an eye on the ever excellent Prof Chris Grey’s BrexitBlog and of course on an official reaction from Barnier and his team. There is no question, in my opinion, that the document will be totally unacceptable to the EU, and may not even be accepted as a starting point for negotiation at this late stage.

An initial reaction from the trade expert David Henig is a good summary (ed: you will need to click on the tweet to open up the thread):

As the White Paper offers very little new it is unlikely Chris Grey’s opinion will change from his assessment after the Chequers meeting. Grey states in
May’s pain with no gain crisis leaves Brexit snookered:

The Brexit that no one wants

The other main consequence of what has happened is that, rather extraordinarily, pretty much every one, regardless of where they are on the Brexit spectrum, is now unhappy. The hard Brexiters see it slipping away, the soft (EEA/EFTA) Brexiters are not getting their version of it, the remainers are still stuck with it, and those that might be called ‘pragmatists’, who just want some kind of workable solution, haven’t been offered it. Brexit in its nature is divisive, but it’s quite an achievement to have alienated every shade of opinion.

Worse than that, wherever people are on the spectrum, there’s no obvious route to achieving what they want. For various reasons – time, political numbers, party political structures – there are almost insuperable barriers to getting to hard Brexit, to soft Brexit or to remain. All of these outcomes are still possible, but each of them is currently snookered.

Added to this already inflammatory mixture are Trump’s comments re Brexit, a trade deals with the US, and lavish praise for Boris Johnson in an interview with the Sun. I’m sure Johnson will be pleased with Trump’s assessment that he is prime minister material. Ian Dunt takes a different view. This was lavishly praised by Jacob Rees-Mogg on the today program and is further fuel for the ERG.

We are no further forward. A few days ago I put forward 4 possible outcomes. The probability of no deal seems however to have increased. Advice now includes stockpiling of tinned food and barges in the Irish Sea full of diesel generators to power Northern Ireland because unless a deal is done, on the single island of Ireland electricity market, NI could run out of electricity.

Two Tribes

Some time ago I wrote about the The Sicilianisation of Britain where the worst aspects of Northern Irish politics seem to have come to the UK: Whataboutery, Siloing and Confirmation Bias and Zero Sum Game Mentality. Rather than British politics coming to NI the opposite seems to have happened.

Matthew O’Toole, who was Chief Press officer for Europe and Economic affairs at no 10 during the time of the Referendum, and who is from NI, has very similar concerns. He discussed these in an interview with Naomi O’Leary in the Irish Passport The Invisible War (about 50 mins in) and this is well worth listening to.


Sadly, but perhaps understandably, it seems the pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit tribes are not coming together – in England at least. If anything polarisation is becoming more extreme. At least the politics of Northern Ireland mean that you know what you are getting. By contrast the poison of Brexit means that far from uniting the country it has become more divided than at any time since the English civil war. One has to hope the outcome will be more peaceful.


  1. Peter May -

    A great summary – but if there is to be no hard border in Ireland the British government will just not be able to leave – or are they going to be, like Trump and tear up their agreement with the EU? That really would be disastrous.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      The following is obviously total speculation. I think the outcome has little to do with the UK government. Simon Wren Lewis is fond of his chess analogies and likens the UK as a novice against a Grand Master (the EU) .

      If I were the EU I would give the White Paper a cautious welcome. State that there are many good ideas and that it can be used as a starting point for a negotiation.

      I would then say of course we we are not going to discuss future trade relationships until the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) is signed off. The WA is 80% agreed. The major roadblock is the Irish Backstop which needs to be agreed.

      Barnier will continue with his de-dramatisation strategy and will come up with much less threatening wording which doesn’t “frighten the horses.” Varadkar has already stated that the wording is not a major issue so will agree.

      The UK government will sign up to the Irish Backstop (the white paper already commits to this) but will state that it of course will never come into play as the border issue will be solved by the overall trade agreement.

      We will enter a transition period on the 29th of March and the trade negotiations will drag on for about a decade. We will get Brexit in name only (BINO) for some years

      1. Ivan Horrocks -

        Sean, I think your analysis is a good one but ignores one key thing. If the ‘trade negotiations will drag on for about a decade’ and thus we will have Brexit in name only then that means permanent civil war in the Tory party – and I suspect Labour too given Corbyn is unable to make his mind up about what a Labour Brexit looks like. And lets not forget therefore, that the majority of the UK media that is Brexit supporting – hard Brexit that is – will never let the matter rest either. Not only will this totally destablise the polity of the UK, but it will also be an ongoing thorn in the side of the EU. Do you think they will really accept that – particularly given that there may well be no way to get rid of Trump until his term is up, which means another two and half years of destabalisation (even if the democrats take the House this November). I think not. My view is that there will be a transition period – as already agreed – but the EU will wash its hands of us after that.

  2. Sean Danaher -

    yes it is very much a possibility. The UK signs up to a de-dramatised Irish backstop, a prerequisite to being given a transition period. This would make a Canada style deal possible with maybe a very slight plus.

    I get the feeling that many EU countries are fed up with the UK so agree ceartainly this is a possible outcome.

  3. Samuel Johnson -

    I expect unforseen “events” may have an impact on sentiment in the UK, but the odds of a hard Brexit are going up as the EU is preparing for it and is already better prepared. There will be some humanitarian mitigation and that’s it. I expect dramatic constitutional changes, including Irish unity (or shared sovereignty in NI), Scottish independence, PR, House of Lords reform, and the loss of the UN Security Council seat when the rUk abandons nuclear weapons and lots to invest in climate change adaptation. The BBC and much else will be on the chopping block. The end of UK administered tax havens, offshore trusts and concealed company ownership and more.

    The backlash when brexit fails to deliver cake will be as powerful as reform in the UK is overdue. My main concern is whether it will be peaceful. Many fantasies need to die first and as yet there is no sign of that happening. If anything the unicornists are doubling down, hoping for more mornings without mouths stuffed with gold but utterly complacent about what they may unleash. Nick Hanauer has been warning fellow billionaires in the US but they have tin ears, having so far managed to buy the lawmakers. It’s impossible to look at idiocy and nativist exceptionalism on open display in, in particular, the Conservative party (now including UKIP), and think it will manage to both address the causes of Brexit and retain the control it has had of an economy rigged for the benefit of its wealthy supporters. The collapse of its ability to co-opt the BBC and use the likes of Cambridge Analytica on the domestic population in peacetime will be critical if the country is ever to move in the direction of transparency, fairness, incremental, consenual and peaceful change, and away from the politics of manipulation, demonisation and grotesque inequality.

    There’s plenty to be gloomy about. Something I overheard in a queue in a coffee shop in London on the morning after the EU referendum resonates still: “Feels like 9/11 1939” (and we are still in the phony war stage of a war with neoliberalism, not the EU).

    There are also things that give me life. Ian Dunt’s writing and his laugh, as well as his justified profanity on occasion. I also looked at the white paper and lost the will to live fairly quickly. Dunt revives the parts it anaesthetises. He is like the veterinary drug Revivon, an antidote to one known as Immobilon, commonly given to horses. (A vet I knew of died when a horse moved suddenly and caused him to be jabbed with the latter. Tragically, the Revivon was to hand but his wife didn’t know enough to act in time.)

    However, he is and must, I hope, remain an observer not a participant. I have time for Paul Mason but his overt partisanship, theorising on chess moves, and some unwaranted conspiracy thinking (his nonsense on the FBPE stuff especially) trigger my “ideologue” radar. He is as critical of Corbyn as Trump is of Putin, and just doesn’t calculate.

    The person who has emerged in the Brexit resistance who I would most like to see become more prominent and influential as a leader in shaping the future is @Femi_sorry. If you’re not following him on Twitter you are, I’d like to think, missing one of the forces that will make a difference someday. He has charisma, brains, humour, a mastery of facts and a tremendous public spirit. Unlike the disaster capitalist hypocrites he is not in it for the money. I am not optimistic that young, educated people will prevail, but I can hope.

    1. Sean Danaher -


      it does look cloudy at present; but whatever way it goes it does seem like there will be profound changes in the UK. I’m not sure if you have read the Lure of Greatness by Anthony Bartnett which echoes many of your themes and also his article .

      Regarding NI and Scotland I agree. I think it is far more likely than not that both will split from England within the next decade. I keep a keen interest in NI and the mood is definitely changing there. Good discussion here and in both NI and Scotland things are approaching 50-50 regarding independence. Though NI might go for a more HK style solution.

      Nick Hanauer does indeed get it. There is a worry however that one of the drivers for Brexit was the EU’s move to clamp down on tax havens.

      The BBC is more and more like the UKs version of TASS and with the rabidly right wing press and CA etc the worry is that England al least might resemble the dystopian Airstrip one of 1984.

      I listen to Remainiacs and follow Ian Dunt, also Steve Bullock and Chris Kendall (who occasionally contributes to PP) of Cakewatch. Tony Connolly has also started a podcast “Brexit Republic” which is interesting.

      I agree regarding Paul Mason. I use FBPE on my twitter account when I was persuaded to by Mike Galsworty and am certainly not anti Labour bit now a member of the Greens. I am not a great Corbyn fan but I disagree with Lexit people, gut agree that Greece has been treated very badly and the Euro has serious flaws.

      I agree regards Femi and am also a fan of David Lammy. My wife is also a big fan of Chuka Umuana, though I find him a bit too smooth – I was suspicious of Blair.

  4. Samuel Johnson -

    Haven’t read Anthony Barnett’s book — will pick up if I come across it — but did read the OpenDemocracy piece and have shared it with a few brexiters on Twitter (I doubt many read it; indeed one said in response “you’re wasting your time, I know the EU is corrupt and evil”. As the old saying goes, you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themself into.)

    I don’t frequent Slugger’s den much. A bit too reminiscent of one of those old bar room fights in a cowboy film where everyone fighting is half-dead but still swinging on autopilot. Soul deadening after a while. I rely on links being shared if there’s anything worthwhile above the line (like Claire Mitchell’s latest contribution in which she writes rather acutely about her children’s prospective “orange” cultural heritage, with their Irish passports safe in a drawer). Real evidence of change or changes of perspective are enjoyable (thanks for the link above, will read) as I read them as writing on the wall for the zero-sum stalemate. I will admit some schadenfreude over the trajectory which I see as a coming defeat for intolerance, hatred and sectarian bigotry at the hands, firstly of the haters, secondly of what Katy Hayward calls “generation neither” (someone else I admire greatly btw — I neither know nor care what passports she holds). @NigelAWatson is worth a follow: NI Protestant (much as I hate label him as such) who appears somewhat attracted to a modern liberal European Union state on the doorstep and correspondingly repelled by the DUP’s version of unionism.

    Yes, Labour would do well with Lammy as a leader instead of the walking embodiment of Che Guevara poster from Students’ Union storeroom that hasn’t been opened in 30 years. He’s also “authentic” and I suspect Umuna is not. Blair is a tragedy. Remember how we laughed at William Hague’s mockery of the possibility of his arriving in a grand limousine at Downing Street as Chair of the European Commission and compare with today’s unfunny prospects. Blair is nicely flambéd in Chris Mullins books, which I suspect you’ve enjoyed (recommended if not), but Mr 19 Pints was inebriated with the idea that it’s all a game. His wife, then or later, I’d have to check, was taking home absurd sums of money from Anglo-Irish Bank. Good times (and MBAs — Hague has one, as do I) rarely lead to serious examination of unfavorable scenarios, in the UK or anywhere else. If Blair had not supported Bush and had indeed become Chair of the Commission the Tory right’s infatuation with America’s dog-eat-dog society might have ended earlier and less painfully. Of course, Blair was the author of his own misfortune, as well as much of Iraq’s.

    We must find something to disagree about 🙂

    1. Sean Danaher -


      Some Brexiteers are impossible to argue with. My father used to use the term “invincible ignorance” a phrase he picked up I think when he was in Nazi Germany from ’37-’39.

      Slugger has actually improved, though it can easily descend into a brawl – particularly regarding the troubles. The IRA was much worse than the other side – your lot was just as bad etc. Five years ago it was a complete waste of time but there are some commentators such as Seaan UiNeill and Damien Mullan who add real value. Seaan also comments some times on PP.

      I like Claire Mitchell and she is an occasional visitor to PP. Her articles are normally excellent. We are in email contact and she had a very difficult time recently with trolls – to the extent of “we know where you and your children live” with menace. Many NI people use aliases for that reason.

      I agree re Katy Hayward, and also have no idea what community she is from or passport she holds (very likely both); to me it is also irrelevant. She is a voice of pragmatic reason. Her slides on the effect of possible Brexit scenarios on the trade checks needed at the border have “become viral.”

      Thanks re @NigelAWatson – I don’t think I have come across him so thanks for the tip.

      I come across Chris Mullin quite often as he has retired to Northumberland. Most recently at the Hexham book festival in May. He is still in great shape and his mind as sharp as ever. I have read most of his books – I have a signed copy of “Hinterland” that I’m keeping for my Summer holiday.

      I agree totally regarding Lammy – passionate, articulate, ultra-smart and absolutely authentic. Pro EU from get go even when it was deeply unfashionable immediately after the referendum. He nailed it on Windrush.

      At the time of the Iraq War Prof. Ghanim Putrus was (and still is) a friend and colleague. Ghanim is an Iraqi Christian from Mosul and was adamant that all hell would break loose if Bush invaded. He thought the war would be very easily won but they had better have a detailed plan as how to fill the power vacuum, otherwise the whole Middle East could be destabilised. Bad as Saddam was there was much worse out there.

      It is very probable however Blair’s decision to allow Poles to move freely to the UK without the 7 year delay as detailed may have been a, if not the, major cause of Brexit.

      I think we may disagree re economics. I’ve never done an MBA but the Harvard syllabus is extraordinarily narrow and neoliberal. Prof Charles Adams who is founding member of the PP team was horrified when he went through it.

  5. Samuel Johnson -

    To be very clear, as Mrs May constantly aspires to be, I am a critic of the MBA approach to management (given that it’s a highly standardised degree with 3 accrediting bodies globally). The best critique is “Managers not MBAs” by McGill U.’s Henry Mintzberg’s. I did mine at 50 just for the hell of it. Pretty interesting in some ways, applying “science” to the sale of “soap” in ways that foreshadowed what we have seen since with the marketing of politicians (the first chapter of Al Gore’s The Age of Reason anticipated where we have ended up in terms of shading things for different audiences).

    Not that much difference between the Harvard MBA and the Oxford PPE in this respect: take some young people (20s) with little life experience, tell them they are masters of the universe, imbue them with overconfidence and let them loose to do their worst with impunity. David Cameron and the Bullingdon boys essentially similar but with a greater likelihood of having been public school educated.

    I did my dissertation on alumni networking which wasn’t on my radar when I started but, by the end, was far more of what its about for many than the content (minor challenge to anyone literate with a science background). I didn’t get anywhere close to studying Cambridge Analytica level of manipulation of consumers but close enough to see and understand some things around me differently, and to think “I would not want to be doing this for a living”.

    I have a good friend from Iraq (did his PhD in engineering in the UK) with whom I worked for many years. His views of course coincided with yr friend’s, and were entirely vindicated. He was lecturing in Kuwait when his compatriots invaded. He lost everything and is now in Canada. Let’s hope we don’t see some “post-liberation” scenes in the UK if there’s a hard Brexit. I don’t find it inconceivable.

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