Why the protest disparity?
Why are remain protests so much bigger than leave protests? Reputable polling now appears to show ~54% remain, so there’s a slightly larger recruiting pool, but not by enough for an observable effect. The demographics of the two pools probably contributes a considerable difference: The remain vote is younger, richer, and more concentrated in well-connected cities. The fact that the remain camp lost the referendum probably drives turnout because it’s seen as more necessary to show strength, whereas the leave camp can just point to the referendum result.
The situation has been compounded by the fact that the first leave protests were small enough that they were dominated by an extreme hardcore, which has a spiralling effect that drives away everyone else and leaves the movement stuck in a bad equilibrium. It’s not that there isn’t a nasty remain hardcore, it’s just that they’re starting off as a small enough percentage of demonstrators that they can’t shift the nature of the event, and so are incentivised to keep it civil.
But this runaway spiral effect isn’t a suitable explanation on its own, as it needs there to be quite a small population of motivated leave campaigners in order to get working in the first place, and the effects discussed above don’t seem strong enough to produce this.
My hypothesis is that the leave movement has no deadlines, whereas the remain movement does, at least for now. Deadlines are motivating on an individual level, but they’re also tremendously motivating on a group level, because they align everyone’s individual functions of outrage.
My prediction is that the remain movement is in danger of losing its deadlines going forward and might get stuck in the same position as the leave movement, where it cannot co-ordinate outrage around any specific point in time. I am very worried about the effects this could have.
How the first deadline motivated remain and demotivated leave
Remainers had a deadline. The UK was leaving the EU on March 29th and unless something was done to change that, and then the remain cause would be defeated. The extension of the deadline at the 11th hour to April 12th didn’t really change that situation. It’s a limited victory for remain each time the deadline is extended, but true victory comes with a revocation of Article 50. True victory may be a while off, but complete and total defeat has, on several occasions, been mere days away. That means everyone is incentivised to act, and accept the costs of that action, at the same time.
The leave camp is not in the same condition. They have a total defeat condition as well: Revocation of Article 50. But that’s not currently looking likely any time soon and, critically, isn’t timed to happen at a certain point without intervention. The fact that extensions have now been granted twice is surely greatly vexing for them, but it doesn’t represent defeat. The UK is still currently planning to leave the EU…someday.
At what point do they decide that the number of extensions is now too many, or the time elapsed since the original deadline is now too much, and that this represents failure, and betrayal on the part of the government? The third extension? The fifth? March 29th, 2020? 2025?
Do we have a deadline at all now?
The extension from April 12th to October 31st has precipitated a situation somewhat like the “flextension” proposed by Tusk (in which the UK stays in the EU until a deal is achieved for a specific mode of exit), because even though there is an end date, a new norm has been established in which extension is the default. For a long time, it looked like no deal was the default situation, and many people who didn’t want no deal, myself included, were very worried that, despite the fact that no deal was a fairly unpopular solution, we would end up with no deal because parliament wouldn’t coalesce decisively around any alternative. The extension from March 29th to April 12th didn’t change this, as it was explicitly granted for the purpose of giving parliament extra time to hold the indicative votes. I did, and still do, consider the voting down of the Common Market 2.0 proposal by hardcore Remainers to be unspeakably dangerous and having significantly raised the risk of no deal.
However, the risk sort of paid off, because the EU27 turned out not to fancy no deal after all. They had the power to just say “you’re on your own” as they always said they were going to, and they didn’t. It has always been obvious, at least in my view, that a no deal Brexit is terrible for the EU27 and that they were bluffing to increase their negotiating power by pretending otherwise. However, that didn’t mean they’d definitely fold when their bluff was called, because they might have been minded to inflict some harm on themselves in order to appear strong and follow through on their threats, in order to save face and make any future threats in a similar situation more believable. The fact that only one EU27 state would have had to veto the extension made it seem reasonably likely that no further extension would be granted.
As it turned out, the EU27 did eventually admit that it didn’t want no deal, and avoided one, even though the UK provided them with absolutely no cover whatsoever in the form of a plan for what we might do with the extension. An extension has been granted purely because nobody wants no deal, and that has shifted the default result of no consensus in Parliament to extension, rather than no deal. Changes within the EU27 could reverse this, but right now, we’re in a “flextension” in all but name.
Effects of a virtual flextension
If I’m right in my analysis above of the way in which the granting of an extension by the EU27 for no particularly defined reason affects the underlying “default outcomes” of a lack of agreement on an exit deal, the leave movement is in big trouble. It’s very hard to motivate people to resist something that happens every day in a background drip-drip fashion. We could always be just about to leave the EU. Victory will forever be just around the corner. Of course, most of them would agree at any point that they’d rather have already left, and most of them would agree that, for instance, 100 years would be far too long to remain a member. But every Brexiteer will have their own understanding of how long is too long – a point after which we may as well not be leaving at all and beyond which the government has betrayed them, and they are angry.
This doesn’t just affect their ability to co-ordinate marches. Voting for a single-issue protest party has a cost, as it sacrifices the voter’s voice on other issues. Even deciding to make your decision between mainstream parties exclusively on one single issue of extreme import is costly, as it sacrifices the ability to use your vote to influence anything else. Voters can’t continue doing that time after time, election after election. A strong deadline can co-ordinate people to make the decision about when to spend their time, money, and political capital to achieve something.
What’s worse is that the “extension-default” situation, if it really is working how I laid out above, will eventually defang the remain movement as well. October 31st probably still seems like a dangerous day, but if there’s another formless extension until March 31st, 2020, then another 6 months after that, people will start to catch on that we’re in “virtual flextension” territory. The remain movement will struggle to maintain its current momentum in that climate for exactly the reason that the leave movement currently doesn’t have much.
Critically, this situation also removes almost everybody’s incentive to compromise. The impending threat of no deal should have incentivised various remain and soft Brexit groups to coalesce around something that they at least regarded as better than no deal. This should have been Common Market 2.0. However, it turned out that just enough people were diehard enough that they chose to plough on into the abyss and play chicken with an EU27 that really didn’t look like it was going to blink. The EU27 did blink, and now everyone’s standing around with no idea what to do next. Those on the remain side who didn’t compromise with the threat of no deal looming over them certainly aren’t going to do so with that threat considerably reduced, and the threat of an extension can’t motivate the leave side to compromise because it’s not really a threat of defeat.
As a result, there’s a very real possibility that absolutely no group will now have any reason to shift from their trenches and work out any kind of compromise. The threat of no deal on April 12th didn’t do it, so why would the now heavily defanged threat of the same on Oct 31st manage any better? This is a terrible situation, because plenty of the damage of Brexit is the uncertainty. It’s difficult to set up new research or business projects across borders when you don’t know what the trade or travel arrangements will be in six months. For many purposes, extended uncertainty is more damaging than a bad final deal. We have strong business and research links with many non-EU states and could have such links with EU27 states after Brexit, but it’s very difficult to set them up before a deal is in place.
Why delay is likely to become the default
Unfortunately, even though every Brexit faction knows that delay is damaging, we’re likely to end up getting a lot of delay. This is because, even if everyone believes delay to be bad, everyone is incentivised to take a delay as long as it’s offered in sufficiently small increments.
Each faction will have some preferred outcome, and any deal on which they vote will fall short of that outcome in their estimation by some specified amount. They will then choose either to embrace that imperfect outcome or opt for a delay. As long as they think they have a decent chance of getting something more like their preferred outcome given a bit more negotiating and campaigning (and most political factions tend to be very biased towards believing that the winds of change are just about to swing behind them), then they’ll be incentivised to take the delay if they view the costs of delay as suitably low.
It’s clear that the cost wouldn’t be suitably low if the choice were between an imperfect deal, and, say a 5- or 10-year delay. That’s so clearly damaging that very few would be hard-line enough to refuse to compromise a little to prevent it. But if a short delay, say 6 months, is the other option, then that could very well seem like a low enough cost to make going for a delay worth it. And then, after 6 months, the next 6 months are just as good a deal, and this is the case even if 12 months would have seemed too long at the first time of asking. By the time of second decision, those first 6 months have happened, and the damage is done either way, so only the next 6 months factor into the decision.
By this method, a delay long enough to do significant lasting damage to the UK, and thus long enough to make almost everyone consider compromising on their ideal plan if it were presented all at once, can be realised simply by breaking it up into small chunks, none of which are big enough alone to incentivise compromise. Things get worse the more the situation is viewed as a flextension. In an openly acknowledged flextension, the decision to delay is essentially taken day-by-day, and that’s never going to be significant enough to incentivise anyone to compromise. What fool would take a bad deal today, when a good deal could maybe be realised tomorrow, and thus at the cost of only one day’s worth of additional uncertainty damage?
A solution: An artificial deadline
The only solution I can see for this is a self-imposed a hard deadline, after which some sort of pre-determined solution occurs. This is what we thought we had in the form of the original deadline (and the first short extension, which was allegedly only to allow the indicative votes). It very nearly managed to incentivise enough compromise to get Common Market 2.0 over the line, but not quite. It seems like even no deal wasn’t incentive enough.
This was probably partially because it’s one faction’s preferred solution, so acts as the very reverse of an incentive to compromise if used as a default solution on a deadline. However, it didn’t even generate enough incentive to compromise in the remain camp, and no solution emerged.
Clearly, something both more balanced in terms of who it favours, and worse in terms of its overall effect, is required. It needs to be something that almost every MP would consider worse than anyone’s actual proposed plan.
My suggested candidate for the deadline solution is to take the two things that really excite opposition – a no deal Brexit and the complete revocation of Article 50 – and add something that literally everyone will hate, a dash of randomness. If no solution to Brexit has achieved majority assent in the House of Commons by some deadline (why not Oct 31st as it’s already theoretically in place), John Bercow will place two pieces of paper in a hat. The pieces of paper will say “no deal” and “revoke A50”. He will draw one of the pieces of paper out of a hat and we will do that. I’m pretty sure that each extreme faction believes that the other extreme is awful enough that they would not countenance a 50/50 chance of getting it.
I realise that this is unlikely to gain much traction, but I’d be very happy to swing behind just about anyone in Parliament who made this argument and the started gathering together a group of MPs to make it happen and look credibly like they wouldn’t back out if no deal was reached, and would therefore block any attempt to get Parliament out of having to follow through on the chance decision if no agreement were reached.
Does the threat need to be greater?
The initial no deal deadline didn’t motivate that much of the remain camp to compromise. The problem is that it isn’t clear why. It might have been that they really didn’t think no deal was that bad compared to the compromise on offer, so they were prepared to countenance a very high chance of it to avoid compromise. Looking at CM2.0 and looking at no deal, that seems very unlikely. The other explanation is that they didn’t really believe the EU27’s threats, and thought they’d balk at the prospect of no deal at the last minute. Considering that this is what happened, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that this is what the remain MPs who voted against CM2.0 were predicting. On the other hand, it might just be that those MPs are completely irrational, or they’re heavily weighting some completely different incentive structure like the political kudos of being seen as uncompromising valiant losers rather than venal compromisers who achieved something.
If it’s the case that they refused to compromise because they never believed the no deal threat, then this plan should work. If it’s something else, like that they didn’t find no deal a bad enough threat or were trying to look strong rather than achieve their preferred policy outcomes, then the default outcome for the deadline needs worsening. Perhaps including the stipulation that every single MP must resign and cannot run for election again? Parliament can’t bind itself going forwards, so a majority of MPs would need to get the ball rolling on this sort of a plan and then exude total credibility that they’d follow through and block any attempt to roll it back at the last moment. I doubt this will happen, but I’m prepared to get behind any MP who tries to make it.
I know this sounds nuts, but I think the threat of a guaranteed disaster at a deadline might actually get parliament to agree on a compromise solution so that we don’t just sit in this horrible purgatory of uncertainty indefinitely, with all political discussion dominated by Brexit but nobody incentivised to do anything other than make a lot of noise and achieve very little in terms of working towards a solution. It’s particularly important for the remain camp that this state of affairs not perpetuate because, of all the pieces in the reasoning jigsaw I’ve put together to make this case, the weakest one is that the EU27 has now put itself in a position where it has little choice but to keep granting extensions forever. The EU27 might get bored waiting and follow through on a no deal deadline, or a new government in an EU27 member state might decide to shake things up and make its mark by being the state to veto an extension. If that happens, it’s total defeat for remain. The hard leave camp can be somewhat justified in digging in their heels and refusing to compromise on the hope that this eventually happens, but nobody else can. Everyone else needs a deadline or the outcome is some horrible mixture of no deal and a long uncertain series of extensions before that.
A more realistic solution driven by voters
If MPs won’t manage it (and I think they won’t), then the voting population can also do something similar. I mentioned earlier that the curse of groups like Renew and The Brexit Party is that there’s no way to co-ordinate when it’s time to vote for them. When do voters decide enough is enough and a message needs to be sent? Those who wish to vote tactically on Brexit also need a deadline. A date needs to be set down (again, why not Oct 31st) so that if we’ve not actually left the EU, deal or no deal, by that point, then Brexit voters break ranks and vote exclusively for Brexit protest parties. No more hoping that the Tories will eventually deliver Brexit, someday. Similarly, those who wish to revoke A50 or legislate for a People’s Vote need to do the same. If A50 hasn’t been revoked or a PV explicitly legislated for by Oct 31st, then that’s the time when the big parties have run out of time and it’s the moment to exclusively vote Lib Dem, or Green, or SNP, or Plaid, or Renew, or Change UK, or whatever. No more hoping that Labour will eventually stop Brexit. This sort of emulates the Parliamentary solution in a sense, because it’ll elect a parliament full of pro- and anti-Brexit absolutists, and one group will probably get a majority, so something will happen.
This people-powered solution is a little weaker because it only incentivises the two main parties to get their acts together, but as they represent the vast majority of parliament, and the threat of electoral annihilation, if credible, is about the worst threat that can hang over a political party, it has some decent chance of working. Those of us, like myself, who long for some sort of CM2.0 soft-Brexit compromise solution, should also be able to get behind the idea of a firm deadline after which the pro- and anti-Brexit hardliners start wreaking absolute electoral havoc, as such a threat is the only feasible way to inspire the compromise that we’ve been desiring all along.
So if you’re a pro- or anti-Brexit partisan, then I implore you, for your own sake as well as for mine, please start advocating for a strong narrative around some kind of line in the sand, preferably on Oct 31st, beyond which, if you haven’t won, you’ve lost. I want to hear Oct 31st referred to like it’s the apocalypse, the final battle, the ultimate showdown between good and evil, the zero hour, etc.. I want to hear that if we’re still in the EU on Nov 1st then the people have suffered the ultimate betrayal, democracy is dead forever, and we may as well give up on the system. I want to hear that if we haven’t overturned the result of the illegitimate referendum and either revoked A50 or called for a PV by Nov 1st then the racists have won and we may as well just get on with leaving with no deal and all get Irish passports and go live in Denmark. And I want it to seem, to every member of Parliament, like that might happen. Only if disaster looms at the deadline, will enough MPs be incentivised to start compromising on a solution, rather than letting us sleepwalk into an incredibly damaging drawn-out series of uncertain extensions.
I genuinely can’t see a better way out of the current situation.