A common intervention in the Brexit debate—made by politicians, celebrities and in hoi polloi vox pops up and down the country—is that the British people want the politicians to ‘just get on with Brexit.’
Recent proponents of the phrase include David Attenborough and Lord Rose, who previously chaired the Remain campaign.
‘Just Get On With It’ has a beguiling charm. It’s a simple, memorable phrase, and it sounds pragmatic, down-to-earth and a little bit bolshy. That’s why so many people repeat it.
But simplicity is not a virtue when we’re talking about leaving the EU. ‘Just Get On With It’ is a solution for those people who either haven’t thought about the problem enough, or who do not care about the consequences of a rushed, half-cocked Brexit.
Either way, its an intellectually lazy argument, for many reasons. Let me count the ways…
First, there are a lot of people, perhaps half the country, who prefer the current limbo to actually leaving the European Union. This is includes anyone actually from Europe who is taking advantage of their rights under the Single Market, plus all their British friends and British employers. The six and half million people who signed a petition to revoke Article 50 certainly don’t want us to ‘get on with it’ – So beware of anyone claiming it is the consensus view of the British people.
Second, it can have escaped no-one’s notice that Prime Minister Theresa May tried to ‘get on with it.’ And that caused a huge problem. She rushed to define Brexit in her own hard, narrow terms. In her haste, she sought to marginalise parliament. In attempting to deliver Brexit quickly, she failed to secure any kind of losers consent.
Theresa May treated Brexit like a board game, seeking shortcuts to her goal. She neglected crucial democratic processes along the way. In other eras, a large parliamentary majority (reflecting broad goodwill in the country at large) might have provided a ladder to the final square. But in the hung parliament of her own construction, every short-cut proved to be a snake that took her further away from the end-zone.
Politics is not a game and there are no short cuts. Alliances must be forged and maintained. Compromises are inevitable. This takes time and leadership. Mrs May set the Article 50 clock ticking herself, and never seemed to possess the leadership qualities required to win the support of any political faction.
Finally, the process of leaving the European Union is not easy. There are countless continent-wide economic and administrative systems, each enabled by laws and administered by agencies, all woven into the fabric of British governance and trade. The central complaint of Leave campaigners is precisely that the EU is too enmeshed in our lives. These bonds take time to unpick. ‘Getting on with it’ is not just difficult, but undesirable.
It’s noteworthy that whenever a public figure suggests we ‘get on with it’ they provide no road map for how. The Stuart Rose interview in the Daily Telegraph, linked above is a perfect example: there is no suggestion about what government and parliament might do differently in order to “get the job done.”
A Citzens’ Assembly? A People’s Vote? A Border in the Irish Sea? A change to Britain’s Red Lines?1 What? Rose is silent on the policy detail, as are the politicians and the Question Time audience members who make the same point.
‘Just Get On With It’ is a lazy, half statement. It is as meaningless as saying that Arsenal should just ‘get on with’ winning the Premiership. Desire is not enough: we must also explain how our aims will be realised.
A false choice
An addendum to the above: as well as being lazy, ‘Just Get On With It’ is also a manipulative framing device.
It implies a sense of urgency where none exists. The Article 50 process induces periodic bouts of panic and urgency, but we have seen that the deadline is actually infinitely mutable.
‘Just Get On With It’ also assumes that the Withdrawl Agreement deal (or something like it) is the only possible way we could leave the EU. With faux urgency, it presents us with a false choice, between No Deal and the Withdrawl Agreement. That dichotomy is one that that we need not accept. It shuts down possibilities and squeezes the space for us to imagine something different.
We should not ‘Just Get On With It’—we should take the time to get Brexit right. It will be worth the wait.
1. The last of those suggestions (change the British ‘red lines’) would be my recommendation. The EU won’t give us an alternative deal unless we do, and if we were open to an arrangement based on the Single Market, EFTA or just a Customs Union, it would solve the Irish Border problem. Not everyone would go for it of course – certainly not the ERG. But I think one could build enough of a coalition among other parties, particularly Labour, that it would be viable.