Robert Tombs Robert Tombs

What Sir Ivan Rogers gets wrong about Brexit

No deal is still the best option for the UK

When so much of the Brexit debate has consisted of slogans and unexamined assertions (‘cliff edges’, ‘crashing out’ and the rest), it is welcome that a more substantial argument has been made by Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the EU. He has been making a series of well-received speeches, some of which have been so popular that they have been published as a book (and recently, on The Spectator’s website). He has long been pessimistic about the chances of reaching a Brexit settlement any time soon, and resigned in January 2017 when his concerns became public.

He deplores the referendum decision but regards it as necessary for it to be carried out. But he is deeply pessimistic about the outcome. His only suggestion for palliating what he sees as economic and political disaster is Brexit in Name Only (not a phrase he uses), of which the only available version is Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, including the Irish backstop. All other suggestions are ‘delusion mongering’ or ‘absurd fantasies’. He believes we can only ever trade with the EU on terms advantageous to them, and that a no deal would be an ‘abyss’.

Sir Ivan’s view is a vehement expression of the ‘official mind’ that has done so much to get us into the situation from which we are now trying to escape. There are several surprising elements to his argument. One is its fatalism: Britain has little or no freedom of choice. Another is its essentially static view. He seems to see a mighty EU, ‘our behemoth neighbour’, going from strength to strength, compared with an enfeebled and failing UK, doomed to be a supplicant. This was certainly the ‘official mind’ in the 1960s and 1970s, when, as Foreign Office archives show, the ‘Europeanists’ got the upper hand over the ‘Atlanticists’, but it is strange to find it still being held today.

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Written by
Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is an emeritus professor in history at the University of Cambridge and the author of This Sovereign Isle: Britain in and out of Europe (Allen Lane, 2021). He also edits the History Reclaimed website

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