It’s Brexit Time – Dividend or Disappointment?

The United Kingdom has formally left the European Union. More than three years after the EU membership referendum and ten months later than originally planned, its finally Brexit Time.

Whether or not clocks chimed or Big Ben bonged to mark the moment of the UK’s departure from the EU, time will still shape the Brexit process. 11pm did not signal Getting Brexit Done; its only just getting started.

In the days and weeks ahead, Leavers and Remainers might find themselves in the odd position of sharing a similar sentiment – disappointment. Remainers will obviously regret that neither political nor legal tactics brought the Article 50 withdrawal process to an end. Leavers, however, might also wonder what if anything has actually changed. With the UK immediately entering into a transition period in which the UK continues to be bound by EU law (including new rules adopted between now and the end of the year) and to make payments to the EU, not much feels different.

But once we get beyond the immediacy of 31 January and look towards 31 December 2020 when transition ends, how should we evaluate Brexit. I suggest there are five tests that Brexit needs to meet. These are expressed in terms of a Democratic, Economic, Social, Green and Stability Dividend.

A Democratic Dividend

The first test is whether there is a democratic dividend from Brexit. If Brexit means anything it must surely be a sense that the capacity for collective self-government has increased. Measuring this is, of course, tricky. It also has to reflect the changing quality of self-government in the UK. First and foremost, a democratic dividend cannot just enhance the capacity of Whitehall and Westminster to govern but must also respect and enhance the opportunities for democratic self-expression at sub-state levels. But it should also be the catalyst for change that looks beyond the constitutional settlement as it currently stands to ask what sorts of institutions and mechanisms does a modern democracy need to ensure oversight and accountability for decision-making.

An Economic Dividend

Although sometimes presented as a price worth paying for a Democratic Dividend, its hard to imagine that people want Brexit to make them poorer. After a decade of cuts in public spending, increasing housing costs and stagnating wages, people want to feel that things are improving economically. Much of the anxiety over migration was really a concern that the country did not have enough resources to go round. So a key test for a post-EU UK is whether it leads to economic growth and work that actually pays.

A Social Dividend

It is not enough for Brexit to deliver an Economic Dividend to those who are already well off. Income inequality has been a challenge in the UK for all of the 21st century. A democracy that considers its citizens to be free and equal cannot sustain itself if economic inequality means that some citizens have a much larger set of life choices (and life expectancies) than others. Indeed, whatever the quantification of the claim that more money will be available for the NHS, it is a clear test of Brexit that it is capable of improving health outcomes particularly for those who have struggled to access, or to experience, a consistent level of social support.

A Green Dividend

Whether or not any of the other dividends can be achieved becomes irrelevant unless the climate emergency is tackled and tackled quickly. Every country has its role to play. But that also includes a capacity to work with other countries to ensure that swift and effective action is taken. EU membership was one means of states taking collective action and for the UK it must find ways of exercising global leadership while leading by example at home.

A Stability Dividend

This is perhaps a less obvious, and in some respects, a contestable dividend. For some, the point of Brexit is that it is a destabilising and disruptive force intended to break patterns of economic and social relations that either never or no longer deliver on their democratic, economic, social or environmental goals. But living with instability and change is also costly. At some point, a new equilibrium has to form even if at some future juncture it is replaced. The appeal of ‘Getting Brexit Done’ as a political slogan lies in its promise of an end to the rancour and division unleashed by the 2016 referendum.

Using these broad categories, it would be worthwhile to build a Brexit Scoreboard with a set of key indicators with which to measure the occurrence and extent of these dividends. After all, Brexit cannot just be a state of mind. If it doesn’t actually make things better then any immediate sense of disappointment may become a longer term disillusion with the capacity of politics to achieve real-world outcomes.

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