Tuesday 21 March 2023

Book reviews

Russell, Meg and James, Lisa (2023). The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-284971-7 (Hardback). 416 pages. £25

De Rynck, Stefaan (2023). Inside the Deal. How the EU Got Brexit Done. Newcastle: Agenda Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78821-568-8 (Hardback). 288 pages. £25

As time passes since the Brexit referendum and the process of leaving the EU that followed, there is a growing literature describing and explaining what happened. The two excellent books reviewed here are amongst the most recent and, whilst very different in focus and approach, each fills in a crucial piece of the jigsaw of what will become the history of Brexit. Moreover, they are pieces that fit together so that they can profitably be read as a pair which, together, reveal two very significant chunks of the Brexit picture. In fact, it would be illuminating to chart the precise points they fit together by mapping specific moments in the UK-EU negotiations with specific events in the UK parliament, although I won’t attempt that here.

Russell & James: The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit

Meg Russell and Lisa James’ book is an academic text, whose authors work at University College London’s Constitution Unit and thus bring a very high degree of academic credibility and expertise, and it is based on a major research study of ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’. As such, it draws on the Hansard record of parliamentary proceedings and a whole swathe of other official documents, secondary sources including other studies of Brexit and media reports, and a wide variety of interviews with participants in the events conducted by the authors (and others). These are all assiduously cited and there is an extensive bibliography, a compendious index, as well as a useful glossary of parliamentary terms. In short, it is a scholarly account but, for all that, a readable one and certainly accessible for general readers.

One problem with writing about Brexit is where to begin the story and where to end it. For the start, some authors (e.g. O’Rourke, 2018) go back as far as the Nineteenth century, but here, apart from a short preamble, the narrative begins with the steps that led to the2016 referendum. The bulk of the book is a chronological account of parliamentary events, including their constitutional and legal aspects, from the referendum onwards. That chronology ends when the UK left the EU in 2020, apart from some fairly brief comments in the concluding chapter, which also serves to bring together some of the main themes in a non-chronological way.

This framing does mean that neither the negotiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement nor the Transition Period are covered, and nor are the subsequent arguments and negotiations about the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, that is perfectly reasonable since these did not give rise to a great deal, or certainly not to the same degree, as regards the specifically parliamentary focus of this book.

So far as that parliamentary focus is concerned, I doubt whether anyone will ever improve on Russell & James’s account. It is highly detailed, lucid, and painstakingly accurate. I suppose there may be future PhDs or other treatises which delve even more deeply into this or that aspect, but, if so, they will probably not be of huge interest to more general readers and, by definition, won’t be accounts of the parliamentary story as a whole. The authors effortlessly unpick the often extremely abstruse history of, amongst others things, Meaningful Votes, Indicative Votes, complex amendments and unusual procedures. This is all sure-footed and faultless.

For people who followed that story closely at the time, there probably won’t be any huge surprises in this book, although, even for them, there will certainly be many details which have since been forgotten. Moreover, as the authors rightly observe, “[e]ven those closely involved sometimes struggled to follow the intense and fast-moving developments” (p.6), so it is invaluable to have this meticulous record of events both as a reminder and also as a way of understanding, retrospectively, things which at the time were ignored or misunderstood or which have since been misrepresented.

Russell & James are assiduous in not offering a ‘point of view’ on Brexit itself, and I think that readers, regardless of their own views, will find this a fair and objective account. Where they do have a point of view is on the desirability and necessity of “respect[ing] parliament as the central democratic institution … upon which UK democracy depends” (p.6). Analytically, this is the main guiding theme of the book, and it leads to some acute observations, in particular about the problematic lack of clarity of the place of referendums in the UK constitution, and the risk of them creating a conflict between parliamentarians and the ‘will of the people’ (p.61).

This certainly happened in the case of the Brexit referendum, and was compounded by the fact that the campaign to leave the EU did not specify any kind of plan or model for how it was to be done. The authors show clearly throughout (but especially pp. 321-324) how different actors mobilised, sometimes inconsistently, contradictory views about popular, parliamentary and executive sovereignty, and they argue that there are significant lessons to be learned for the conduct of any future referendums, whatever the topic may be.

Closely allied with this, Russell & James make some acute points about the conduct of Theresa May. One is about her failure to involve a wide variety of stakeholders (in fact, to involve anyone, much) in the immediate post-referendum process of shaping Brexit. Others have made this point, but the authors’ distinctive insight is that this failure served to exacerbate the incipient gap between popular and parliamentary sovereignty: the ‘people had spoken’ but they only got to speak once, and it fell to parliament to give concrete form to what they had said. Secondly, they argue that May constantly talked as if ‘parliament’ were thwarting her Brexit plans, whereas, in fact, her staunchest opponents were the ‘Brexiteers’ within her own party (one minor criticism of the book is the consistent use of the term ‘Brexiteers’, their own self-preferred label, with its connotations of buccaneering freedom, rather than the more neutral ‘Brexiters’).

These points relate to what Brexiters wrongly claim, and many members of the public have come to believe, about this period, namely that it was one in which the 'remainer parliament’ tried to ‘thwart’ Brexit. So it is worth quoting Russell & James at some length:

“[The] central disagreement about what Brexit should mean was facilitated by the original lack of clarity in the referendum. But it took place between May’s government and Johnson’s supporters – not between the institution of government and the institution of parliament. The Conservative MPs who blocked May’s deal, including Johnson himself, believed that they were defending Brexit, rather than undermining it. This made it wholly misleading to blame parliament for ‘thwarting’ Brexit, when those involved had in fact used parliament to pursue an argument with May’s government.” (p. 313, emphases in original)

I agree with this analysis, but would add that it reveals something which is not so much about Brexit as about what is increasingly being called ‘Brexitism’. For whilst, as I suggested earlier, most readers would agree that Russell & James’ descriptions of the parliamentary events are fair and accurate, it is surely the case that at least some Brexiters will never accept their analysis of those events, including especially that just quoted. And that is because for a certain – perhaps small, but very influential – group of Brexiters none of the constitutional niceties or conventions really matter or, worse, they see them as the devices of ‘the elite’ and regard those who insist that they do matter as apologists for, if not indeed members of, that elite.

In that sense, for all that the book is neutral on Brexit itself, it cannot help but be partisan in relation to ‘Brexitism’. Indeed, the last sentences of the book imply as much:

[The] “restoration of constitutional norms is not an easy task, or a challenge in which they UK is alone. It is part of an international struggle, to defend democracy and institutions.” (p. 335)

This is not a criticism of the book, so much as to point to the way that Brexit, in its wider sense, does not admit of neutrality. For that reason, Russell & James do quite as great a public service in their concern to emphasise the importance of parliamentary democracy and constitutional propriety as they do in their forensic account of the events, sometimes arcane and often dramatic, that took place in the British parliament between 2016 and 2020.

De Rynck: Inside the Deal. How the EU Got Brexit Done

For most British readers, at least, Russell & James’ parliamentary focus will be relatively familiar, as will the sense it brings of the negotiations with the EU being part of the background context of the political battles that were taking place in the UK. For such readers, including most of those who followed Brexit closely, the complete shift in the centreing of the story provided by Stefaan De Rynck’s book is therefore fascinating and informative. Here, what he at one point calls “the shenanigans of British politics” (p. 246) are very much the background context to the EU’s negotiating process with the UK which is his focus.

De Rynck, an experienced EU civil servant who was a senior aide to Michel Barnier throughout the negotiations, provides an insider account of that process. In that sense, unlike Russell & James, he was an actor in, rather than an analyst of, the events described and, although he also has high academic credentials, this is not written as an academic book. It is nevertheless highly detailed and, in places, replete with technical detail, whilst retaining readability – to a greater extent, in my view, that Barnier’s (2022) own, diary-based, book about the negotiations.

Like Russell & James, the approach is chronological, in this case running essentially from the referendum in 2016 to the finalization of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement at the end of 2020. It is based on official papers and media reports, as well as discussions held by the author with other participants and, of course, his own personal experience. It does not provide citations or a bibliography, which is a shame, but there is a good index and also a useful chronology of events listed at the beginning.

Although the focus and the centering of this version of the Brexit story is different to that provided by most, if not all, British analysts, including Russell & James, it is, indeed, recognizably the same story, and, in any case, De Rynck is deeply knowledgeable about UK politics. In particular, the consequences of there having been no defined UK plan for how to leave also runs through it. However, whereas the EU was as shocked as the UK by the referendum result, it much more quickly came to a settled view on what Brexit could and could not mean, something which didn’t exist in the UK polity and, arguably, still doesn’t.

That the EU was able to come to such a position, and stick to it pretty much unchanged throughout, was partly, on De Rynck’s account (and that of others), because of the very considerable efforts of Barnier and others to construct and maintain a consensus view amongst member states and other key actors. That was the exact opposite of May’s failure to even attempt to create such a consensus within the UK, and also the exact opposite of what Brexiters, at least, expected the EU to achieve. It enabled what De Rynck plausibly, and I would think accurately, depicts as a largely technocratic, highly transparent, and certainly patient approach to the negotiations.

I wonder, though, whether it doesn’t also reflect the fact that – notwithstanding the initial shock and, no doubt, in many quarters upset and even anger – Brexit simply didn’t have the emotional and political-psychological charge in the EU that it had in Britain. For sure, it was a matter of deep concern, perhaps most especially in Ireland, and De Rynck explains at several points how important it was to the EU to maintain solidarity with Dublin, contrary to UK beliefs that it would be “thrown under a bus” (p. 118). But Brexit never had the political toxicity in any EU country, or within the EU collectively, that it had in the UK.

The idea that the EU would be divided, including the idea that it would sacrifice Ireland’s interests, is one of numerous examples that permeate the book of how the UK never really understood or cared sufficiently about EU perspectives on Brexit. That doesn’t just apply to Brexiters, but remainers, too. De Rynck points out a number of fallacies, including that of those “remainers who thought Barnier was on their side” (p.2). However, the more consequential fallacies were those taken over from Brexiters by the UK government, because these significantly inflected the negotiations.

These fallacies, which re-appear over-and-over again in various forms in the book, include all the different versions of ‘cherry-picking’. It is instructive to have it confirmed that, as many have speculated, Theresa May did indeed initially approach Brexit as she had done her negotiations within the EU as Home Secretary, which was to “first opt-out of all membership obligations and [then] back in to those elements in the UK’s interest” (p.12). But that was just an instance of the wider inability of the UK government to understand the difference between negotiating as, effectively, a third country (or a third country in waiting) rather than as a member. That also explains what De Rynck calls the fallacy of the belief that ‘the EU always budges at the last minute’, as if Brexit were like a summit of member states.

Indeed, although his tone is scrupulously polite throughout, it is impossible to read De Rynck’s book without detecting a degree of bemusement at how UK diplomacy became so crass following Brexit, especially in the automatic, and in his assessment counter-productive, adoption of an adversarial approach to the negotiations, and the persistent belief that threats of ‘no deal’ (whether over the Withdrawal Agreement or the Trade and Cooperation Agreement) would produce meaningful concessions from the EU. As he pithily puts it, “the UK government played a game of chicken, by itself” (p. 247). Many of us in the UK made similar observations, but it is interesting to learn that this was, indeed, how it appeared to the EU negotiators.

Interesting, though, is perhaps too weak a word. It is also, at least for a British reader, embarrassing or worse to see just how unrealistic, if not downright ignorant, the UK government’s conduct was. Again, De Rynck is diplomatic about this, but reading between the lines, David Frost comes out particularly badly. For example, following Frost’s new threat “to walk away” from the talks in September 2020, he coolly writes that “Barnier debriefed his officials that the UK’s negotiator barely seemed to believe his own threat” (p231).

There is also an implication, for example in his discussion of the photo taken at the start of the Article 50 negotiations of David Davis, with no papers, grinning across the table at the Barnier team with their bulging files, that De Rynck felt a degree of perhaps professional sympathy with the UK civil servants. As he notes, “in the UK, the political bickering deprived the civil service of a direction to use its knowledge productively. Preparatory work by a civil service cannot make up for political indecisiveness” (p.40).

However, ultimately, even greater political decisiveness from the UK could not have compensated for the lack of realism of its demands in the face of the power asymmetry of the negotiating partners, which is effectively the story of the book. Although pro-Brexit readers probably won’t like it much, it will be hard for them to disagree with its central contention that the outcome for the EU was “close to the best-case scenario imagined in October 2016” (p. 245), if only because they, themselves, so frequently bemoan that they have not had ‘the Brexit we were promised’.

Final thoughts

That outcome is hardly surprising. There is a quote, mentioned almost in passing by Russell & James, from a Conservative MP saying that “right up until the indicative votes themselves [in 2019], a very large number of my colleagues had actually no idea at all what the Single Market or the Customs Union was [sic]” (p. 241). That is all too believable and yet also astounding, all the more so given that some of those same MPs were insisting that leave voters had ‘known exactly what they were voting for’ in 2016.

It is also hardly surprising that my reading of both these books reflects the interpretation in my own book about Brexit (Grey, 2021), although I should make it clear that Russell & James’ book is far more detailed, and far more authoritative, on the parliamentary events than mine, and that I barely touch on the EU negotiating stance at all, and certainly not with any of the knowledge of De Rynck. Overall, from my perspective, Russell & James demonstrate that the referendum anointed as ‘the will of the people’ a series of promises that could never be delivered by parliament nor, as De Rynck shows, by the negotiations with the EU.

That was because the promises were contradictory, made on the basis of ignorance, if not downright lies, and could never be turned into reality. These two excellent books illuminate much of how and why this was so. No doubt we will see many more books about Brexit in the years to come that do the same. But perhaps the one we should wait and hope for will be written by one of the leading Brexiters, finally acknowledging these truths.


Barnier, Michel (2022). My Secret Brexit Diary. A Glorious Illusion. Cambridge: Polity (English translation).

Grey, Chris (2021). Brexit Unfolded. How No One Got What They Wanted (and Why They Were Never Going to). London: Biteback Publishing.

O’Rourke, Kevin (2018). A Short History of Brexit. From Brentry to Backstop. London: Pelican.

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