Brexit, the barman and the boiled egg
A man goes into a bar and orders a pint of beer, a large red wine, a brandy, a gin and tonic, a vodka and orange, and a whisky, which he then proceeds to drink. “Crikey,” says the barman, “that’s quite an order.” Another man comes up to the bar, and orders ten times what the first man is drinking. “Now that,” says the barman, “is an order of magnitude.” Okay, so it’s an old joke, but the maths jokes are always the best ones. And it does illustrate a point: that even terms which seem a bit woolly sounding do actually, in scientific terms, have very precise meanings.
Not so with Brexit, which really needs to have good, precise meaning, but which actually means different things to different people. Ask ten people what they think Brexit will mean for them and what they want from it, and you’ll get ten different answers. And when the people charged with negotiating the best possible Brexit freely admit that they don’t really know what they’re doing, then the outcome is always likely to alienate more people than it pleases.
Just to add further confusion, we can also talk about hard Brexits and soft Brexits, with the implication being that it’s giving a greater level of definition to the sort of Brexit the negotiators might deliver. But to me, Brexit is a bit like a boiled egg. You pop it into the water hoping for either hard or soft, but until you pull it out of the water and crack open the shell, you have no way of knowing what you’ve actually got. And at that point, if it’s not what you wanted, it’s too late to do anything about it.
You could mitigate Brexit by staying in the customs union, but really that’s not Brexit at all. You might call it Brexit, but it isn’t, in the same way that a homing pigeon that doesn’t find its way home isn’t a homing pigeon at all; it’s just a pigeon.
Whatever we end up with, it seems likely that only a tiny fraction of the population is going to be happy with it. In the referendum, 48% of people didn’t want Brexit at all, so they are hardly likely to be pleased by the eventual outcome. Of the 52% who voted in favour, they all have different ideas of what Brexit ought to mean, and there’s no possible outcome that’s going to please all of them.
A colleague the other day was trying to convince me about the joys of fishing for grayling, a species of freshwater fish in the same family as trout. While at certain times of the year, a day’s angling for trout can cost you a small fortune, you can spend a happy day fishing for grayling for a tenth of the price. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for Brexit. Whatever Brexit we get, chances are we’re going to baulk at the cost. But if we can find a way to derive value from it so that, even if it doesn’t please everybody, then perhaps it can demonstrate at least some tangible benefits to a meaningful majority.
Mark Simms Editor