There seems to be surprise in some quarters today that the Prime Minister is allegedly headed for “Hard Brexit”.
That phrase has come to be used to refer to a Brexit in which Britain leaves the Single Market – along with the implication that there could by contrast be a “Soft Brexit” which does not involve doing so.
These terms are all part of the political battle to win the post-referendum peace. The language used and the way choices are framed has a crucial impact on how a topic is considered.
As a result, soft and hard are increasingly becoming code for wider worldviews. To some, “Hard Brexit” is uttered in a disapproving tone as an emblem of Eurosceptic irresponsibility. To others, “Soft Brexit” is a watery cop-out, an attempt to cheat the people.
Complicating the discussion further is what appears to be a deliberate attempt to blur the distinctions between Single Market membership and Single Market access. Only yesterday I was asked by a national broadcaster why the Prime Minister would give up British “access to the Single Market” to control immigration, and had to explain that the vast majority of countries have access to sell to the Single Market without membership.
So what does May actually want? Yesterday’s speech was the clearest guide we have yet heard.
She wisely isn’t going to give away every detail of her negotiating strategy (she never quite says “Cameron did that and look what happened to his negotiation”, though it’s always lurking between the lines). But the thrust is clear:
“We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully-independent, sovereign country. We will do what independent, sovereign countries do. We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration. And we will be free to pass our own laws.”
That seems a reasonable summary of what Brexit means. Consider the opposite – it obviously wouldn’t be Brexit if we were not independent, or sovereign, or if we did not control policies including immigration or make our own laws.
Like it or not, being able to do those things involves not being a full member of the Single Market. We’d still have access, and the Prime Minister rightly wants to negotiate the most free trading relationship that she can, but self-evidently staying inside would require continuing free movement and the eternal loss of control over a large chunk of our laws.
It isn’t good enough to say “the Single Market wasn’t on the ballot”. Controlling immigration certainly was on the ballot. Controlling our own laws certainly was on the ballot. Along with controlling our own money, these were the central messages of Vote Leave. If the conditions of staying in the Single Market are to sacrifice control over our borders and our laws, then it is absurd to try to pretend the referendum result wasn’t quite clear in its answer.
This doesn’t mean May is opting for “Hard Brexit”. Rather, it means the soft/hard distinction is bogus. As she made clear yesterday, she’s aiming for Britain to become a self-governing country which democratically decides its own policies, rules and laws. That isn’t Soft Brexit or Hard Brexit, it’s the only possible definition of Brexit which makes any coherent sense.