The main purpose of this Special Issue is to provide an empirical analysis of the implications and constraints that confront policy-makers across a range of policy sectors in the aftermath of the UK’s momentous decision to leave the European Union. For the last seven years, the British Government has sought to ‘get Brexit done’ while assessing the scope for transformation of UK public policy. As the guest editors Patrick Diamond and Jeremy Richardson argue, the referendum decision to leave the EU unquestionably represented a critical juncture in British politics (Diamond and Richardson 2023). Indeed, Brexit was the first time in British political history that plebiscitary democracy triumphed over representative democracy (Dudley and Gamble 2023). Yet the intervening period of withdrawal negotiations have been characterised by stasis, fiasco and muddling through, despite the UK Government’s intension to maximise regulatory divergence from Europe while reclaiming national sovereignty. An already weakened machinery of government came under severe strain in attempting to cope with the stark realities of Brexit (Diamond 2023). ‘Taking back control’ might have been a good marketing slogan, but delivering on it has been fraught with difficulties. For example, the UK’s attempt to depart from the EU’s state aid regime has left the UK in a state of ‘orbiting Europeanisation’(McGowan 2023). Similarly, in the case of criminal justice policy, the sheer weight of practical day to day realities has limited the degree of divergence (Mitsilegas and Guild 2023)
While in some strategic sectors, notably defence and foreign affairs, higher education, and agriculture there have been observable changes in policy direction as a consequence of Brexit (Martill 2023; Corbett & Hantrais 2023; Greer & Grant 2023), Brexit appears in practice to look less like a critical juncture since the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) was signed. Significant constraints have impacted on policy-makers, while path dependencies have gradually reasserted themselves. Moreover, there are certain features of the Brexit decision itself, combined with structural characteristics of the current UK policy-making process, that present huge challenges in the post-Brexit era. They are as likely to perpetuate stagnation and stasis as they are to facilitate far-reaching policy change.
Having only just begun to understand the inordinate complexity of Brexit, in May 2023 the UK Government announced that it is was amending the Retained EU Law Bill (REUL). REUL itself goes to the heart of the UK’s post-Brexit policy dilemma, illustrating the sheer scale of the policy challenges which the Brexit process has created. The British Government must decide how to deal with a swathe of legislation and regulation that have accumulated during fifty years of UK membership of the EC/EU. Undertaking this convoluted and intricate task has been compared to trying to unscramble an omelette. The post-Brexit challenge is to decide, first, how much of this EU legislation is to be ‘unmade in Britain’, and secondly, the specific content of that ‘unmade in Britain’ public policy.
Moreover, scrapping rules and regulations that seem minor or insignificant may actually be hugely consequential for the Conservative Government’s traditional allies, notably the private sector and, in particular, small business. Indeed, British business interests often played an active and influential role in the formulation of those very rules through their effective lobbying activities in Brussels. There will be long-term consequences for a whole raft of other interest groups, notably the trade unions (Copeland, 2023), women’s organisations (Sanders & Flavel, 2023), environmentalists (Gravey & Jordan, 2023), healthcare providers (Dayan et al, 2023), groups directly affected by foreign policy and trade policy (Martill, 2023; Garcia, 2023), as well as corporate interests in the financial sector (James & Quaglia, 2023). Decisions will no doubt depend on the effectiveness of interest groups in lobbying Parliament, although the current Government has not been especially inclined to work with external stakeholders since the Brexit process began seven years ago.
As this Special Issue illustrates, there are sectoral variations in the degree to which British public policy might diverge from existing EU policy over time, with the ideology of parties and factions within them likely to play an important role. If there is significant change, it will in turn have distributional consequences. For example, the presumption that de-regulation and ‘cutting red tape’ is inherently desirable is not a policy precept with which all businesses agree. Separate UK regulatory frameworks fit the ‘regain our sovereignty’ frame, but do they sit comfortably alongside the need for businesses to avoid having to comply with several different regulatory frameworks? Diverging from EU public policies will provoke a backlash from those (many) interest groups who have benefitted from EU membership, and will eventually present a strong challenge to those inclined towards a top-down, dirigiste, policy style. As Kelly and Tannan point out, ‘muscular’ approaches risk taking a wrecking ball to carefully crafted policies designed to solve intractable problems (Kelly & Tannam, 2023).
Moreover, the EU itself has a view on regulatory divergence by Britain. Just because it is no longer in the EU, Britain has not become an independent actor that faces no external constraints on its policy decisions. The reality of constrained policy choices is one that the short-lived Truss Administration discovered to its cost in autumn 2022 when forced to abandon a major package of tax cuts intended to enhance post-Brexit competitiveness in the face of a collapse of market confidence due to ballooning levels of UK government debt. The lack of engagement so far, both with interest groups and, at least prior to the election of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister, with the EU itself, merely increases the potential for policy errors and blunders. The importance of effective consultation with interest groups who are a huge repository of knowledge about the practical workings of EU public policies has yet to be acknowledged. As such, the UK seems destined to experience long-term policy drift with stagnation and stasis more likely to characterise key policy sectors than change and recalibration.
The authors of this blog are Patrick Diamond and Jeremy Richardson.