When I set out to dissect Andrew Marr’s “An optimist’s guide to Brexit” (his piece here, my fisking here) I had no idea quite what a reaction it would provoke. Whenever I write something about Brexit it ends up leading to some Twitter debate, but nothing like what has happened the past 4 days. The tweet linking to the fisking has 585 Retweets and 580 Likes at present. The fisking itself has been read more than 12000 times.

The most interesting reaction came from Marr himself:

He then bemoaned that my tone was disdainful, had a go at a Croatian academic’s spelling rather than dealing with the point the academic raised, and blamed his own lack of technical skills for not replying to any of the substance.

He then tried two follow up tweets:

High priests of Brexit like Iain Martin and Andrew Lilico then joined in:

I am very sorry Andrew, Andrew and Iain: all of you claim to want to have a serious and sensible debate about Brexit, and indeed that demand was the best part of Marr’s piece. But you then want to have it purely on your terms – yet you do not have a monopoly on what constitutes a sensible discussion. I understand you might all be busy, so by all means ignore me if you wish, but if you do find the time to reply then at least play the issue not the person.

Plus your complaint about harsh reactions from the Remain side towards you holds no water if your behaviour towards a reasoned critique of the Marr piece is to try to belittle the person who wrote it, rather than engage with the substance.

As for the issue about my own tone: yes, it did show disdain, and indeed I acknowledge I was too off hand in places. Being able to write a follow up post allows me to admit that. However the original piece was borne of anger, of frustration, of the hope that someone like Marr should do better. I am not one of these people who repeatedly complains about a biased BBC but at the very least I expect rigorous thinking and solid research from a journalist of Marr’s standing, even for opinion pieces, and his piece spectacularly failed to live up to that. The New Statesman is also guilty of inadequate editing.

Marr’s own critique of my piece, and indeed tweets received from dozens of others, made the accusation that I was challenging the referendum result, when it actually does nothing of the sort. By all means have your Brexit, but do not expect me to lower my standards of critical thinking as a result.

The same goes for the accusation that my piece was too negative. Be optimistic, fine, but optimism that is not rooted in reality becomes delusion – hence the title of my original response to Marr. In a democracy I will continue to oppose the things that I see as wrong – I am a commentator and analyst, not a civil servant or minister whose job it is to make something of Brexit. I shall not, and nor should I, be silenced.

I am tempted to conclude that the reaction of Marr, Martin and Lilico to my piece shows a paucity of detailed and rigorous thinking on what might be called the mainstream pro-Brexit side, and having to resort to personal attacks on me is because they have been found out and have nothing else to give. Let’s see if this post provokes something more substantial – I hope so.

Anyway, to the comments and critique raised by others.

Some comments were added below my critique, and I have replied to those in turn. One commenter pointed out how Marr ignores the issue of Scotland – a rather major issue. A few comments focused on the problems of sectoral deals for access to the Single Market – it turns out there are even more problems with those than I had known. Charles Grant raised an issue about the relative damage to industry and services from a Hard Brexit – he may well be right, and I am wrong there, but we agree there will be damage to both.

None of the points I raised in my original entry about environmental policy, energy policy, rural habitat and birds, railways, fat taxes, GM crops, and forestry have received any critique whatsoever. Most of those issues fall into the category of what the UK could do anyway, without actually having to leave the EU, but that they remain standing is interesting.

Andrew Lilico had one solid point before resorting to the sniping above – he sees leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union as givens, and hence sees Marr’s piece in that light. I see neither of those things as given (as I argue in the fisk), and hence see Marr’s piece in a different light. We’ll have to agree to disagree there.

That also leads me to the most common critique of my piece, namely that I used this Open Britain video to justify that leaving the Single Market was not a foregone conclusion in the referendum campaign – people tweeted me this Andrew Neil interview in response. Joe Armitage was one who laid out this critique – see the detail in this tweet. I am sorry but I still do not buy this – Vote Leave was not categoric about this in its literature (see this), and even though Cameron and Osborne and other Remain people were clearer about the issue, their side lost. Plus other claims by the Leave side – on reclaiming EU money and using it for the NHS, on Turkey joining, and on acquired rights for UK citizens in the rest of the EU – have been shown to be bunkum, so why does leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union have to be the exception and hence be a cast iron guarantee? Plus had there been a White Paper or some other sort of Brexit plan before the referendum how to deal with that issue could have been in it, but there was no agreed plan before the referendum, so we cannot be categoric now. Also note – as I argue here – that I am also not claiming the opposite (that a Soft Brexit is a foregone conclusion), but that the referendum did not answer this question. It answered that the UK will leave the EU, nothing more. [UPDATE 29.12.16, 1240] I’ve been pointed towards this video of Nigel Farage talking up how good the Norway model is, and how that could work for the UK.

Joe Armitage also has the best go at a substantive critique that can be found in the graphic here – he turns my point on German industrial policy into one of State Aid and East Germany (that wasn’t Marr’s point as far as I can tell), tries to argue that Single Market ‘membership’ (a word I do not use) is something of degree (instead I see it as either you are in it, as Norway is but Canada isn’t), that a vote for the House of Commons at the end of the process is a bad thing (it might be, practically, but if the EP is to have a vote at the end of the process, why should the House of Commons not have the same?), and argues that the UK will pursue an independent trade policy during its exit transition phase (it might, but as Hosuk Lee-Makiyama argues, starting with the USA is misguided) – although at the moment we really don’t know how this could even work, let alone know if a UK-US deal could make up for the shortfall with the EU.

Twitter user @MaraudingWinger wrote a critique here, some aspects of which have already been addressed above. S/he quibbled with my point on the Supreme Court process – that point may prove to be correct, but it does not address Marr’s point on the matter. On Ivan Rogers and how much time Brexit will take – we do not know what will be achieved in what order. But I would trust Rogers knows more about how it would work and how long it will take than Marr, or @MaraudingWinger, or indeed I do. On involvement of Parliament – yes, here I was too short termist in my thinking. Once a final Brexit deal is sorted, the House of Commons may indeed gain. The steel critique is neither as black or white as I or @MaraudingWinger state – yes, bailing out failing industries is generally not possible in the EU, but on dumping and tariffs the UK has been preventing EU action. As for the stats for relative UK-EU and UK-USA trade – if the 44% exports UK to the EU is wrong, what is actually right?

As for those of you who who (re)tweeted links to my piece, followed me as a result of it, or sent me kind messages about it – especially comments from some minds much sharper than mine, and even some from unexpected sources – thanks to all of you. As ever do comment below if any of the above justifies further critique, as it should.

[Update 27.12.2016, 2030]
Within moments of publishing this piece the ridiculous Tweets started to come in. I’ll list a selection of those here:

Also Andrew Lilico has attempted a reply to the original fisk bottom of the page here. You can’t actually comment on it there though, sadly. Considering the piece is 1100 words long and essentially contains only two points, one of which where he agrees with me and the other where he’s inaccurate on how EU law of railways works, I am not going to take it apart in a separate blog post. I do welcome the fact Andrew took the time to reply though.


  1. One thing has mystified me about this whole thing – why on earth did Andrew Marr write his article in the first place ? You’d think that a high-profile journalist had more to lose than to gain by publicising his views on such a toxic topic. Especially one so ill-informed about the EU as Jon demonstrated that Andrew is.
    Yesterday, we got the explanation. The Prime Minister of the day is usually interviewed by Andrew Marr on his first TV show of the New Year.
    This time, he will have been told by the little barking dogs jumping to protect Teresa May that he might not get the interview. Unless he demonstrated that he understood ‘the positive side’ of Brexit, the ‘tremendous opportunities’ it brings, the need to leave behind the divisive referendum debate and ‘pull together in the national interest’
    So he duly obliged – presumably with the permission of the higher flunkies in the BBC who are desperate to protect their position in the policy review still underway.
    Unfortunately for poor Andrew, they humiliated him by not doing the interview anyway….
    But to give him his due, he got a little revenge by leading the show with the only person in the UK likely to be in a position to frustrate Teresa May, namely the First Minister of Scotland.

  2. Freeborn John

    Hi Pinocchio,

    How are you? Trust you had a great 2016. Long time no laugh at you, but based on this article it seems like there have been some chuckle opportunities I have missed out on!


  3. Mark Hayden

    A response to Andrew Marr’s “An optimist’s guide to Brexit”

    In my view, Andrew Marr is surely right when he writes that “Brexit is coming, and relatively soon”. By Spring 2019, it is very likely that the United Kingdom will be outside the European Union, at least in strictly legal terms. This means that (setting aside for the moment the details of whatever transitional agreement may be reached between the UK and the 27 remaining members of the EU) the UK will be outside the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, and will no longer be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

    I happen to think that Brexit has the potential to benefit both the EU and the UK. The EU, having shed its most reluctant member, whose objective seemed to be above all to throw sand in the wheels of the EU, has the opportunity to reinvigorate itself and regain public confidence; and while I do not share Andrew Marr’s apparent assessment of the extent to which the UK’s membership of the EU had reduced its “power over its own governance”, and of the extent to which the UK Parliament’s power will be “expanded and reinforced” by Brexit, I nevertheless agree with him that Brexit has the potential to reinvigorate political debate in the UK. The vote to leave has settled the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU in a way that a “Remain” vote could not have done, however large its majority. UK politicians will no longer be able to use “Brussels” as an excuse.

    Unfortunately, the examples he gives of how Brexit might enable the UK to reshape itself will be largely or entirely unaffected by Brexit:
    The lack of German-style support for manufacturing industry has nothing to do with the UK’s membership of the EU – if Germany can give “German-style” support to its industry while it is a member of the EU, there is nothing in the UK’s EU membership that stops the UK doing the same.
    EU law does not prevent re-nationalising the railways.
    EU law has nothing to say about how schools are funded.
    EU environment law already encourages the planting of hedgerows to protect birdlife, and allows Member States to introduce more ambitious environmental policies if they want to (as long as other EU laws are not affected).
    The challenges Putin and Trump pose to UK defence policy are the same whether the UK is inside or outside the EU. The most likely way that Brexit might induce a change in UK defence policy is if no longer “banging on about Europe” leaves UK politicians with time on their hands
    yes, leaving the EU will allow the UK to negotiate its own trade deals, but I have yet to read any plausible explanation as to why other countries should wish to prioritise negotiating with the UK over striking deals with the much larger EU market, nor why the UK should be able to negotiate better trade deals outside the EU – can anyone point to real examples of where existing EU trade agreements with other countries have harmed the UK’s interests?
    etc, etc

    In short, while Andrew Marr is right to highlight the potential of Brexit for reinvigorated policy debate in the UK, he offers no reasons for optimism about the quality of that debate.

    Mark Hayden

  4. For a European perspective of what Brexit could really look like, see my blog at http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2017/1/3/161022/6863

  5. Jon, I was disturbed to read from the tone of your comments that you may have taken to heart some of the criticism you have been getting on Twitter. You sound as if you might be starting to doubt yourself a bit.
    You did us all a great service with your analysis of Andrew Marr’s article. His frivolous reaction to you, focussing on everything but the substance, proves the point. If your only regret is the disdainful tone of your original comments, it’s nothing compared with the disdain your Twitter critics show towards you.
    It’s disappointing, since it would be good if people actually engaged on the substance of the issues. Almost no-one on the Brexit side has been willing to do so.
    Which is a shame, since there are things that are worth talking about – the extent to which pooling sovereignty is desirable or effective, how international decision-making can be made more democratic or accountable, how rule-setting or regulation can be made better, what the limits are to freer trade, how working with neighbours can help improve the economy or people’s security.
    Will any of these issues be given serious treatment in shaping Brexit? Not if public debate continues to be shaped by the lighter-than-light journalism which gets prominence in the press or on television.

  6. Guglielmo Meardi

    Two critiques of Marr’s piece had a couple of unnecessary polemical low points, and some slips (most importantly: UK fisheries will have to benefit from restricting competition in UK water; and German manufacturing survives relatively well – but declining fast too! – because Germany has such a power in determining EU industrial policies in its own, and certainly now Southern Europe’s, interests).

    But the Fisk was an attempt at factual, evidence-based debate and the Brexiteers’ reaction is frightening for the future of, exactly, democratic control: asking questions seems to be disallowed, especially from experts.

    Anyway, the two main points of the blogs are perfectly valid, destroy the whole logic of Marr’s piece, and can be put very simply:
    1) on supposed increased ‘democratic control’: as the EU sets only minimum standards on environment and social rights, the new freedom is only to do more rightwing things, not more leftwing things – it is clear what Liam Fox can gain, not clear what anybody on the Left would
    2) on trade, deregulation and globalisation: the EU has a lot of limits, yes, but the proposed deals with US or China are likely to be much worse, given the orientation of those countries on social and environmental issues, and their huge advantageous negotiation power facing a small country like the UK which is in a hurry to sign deals in 2 years when usual negotiations require 7 or more (the only way to sign a deal quickly is to accept the other side’s offer)

  7. Hi again.

    One of the most mind boggling aspects of this whole process is membership of the EEA. It was not up for referendum, but most folk assume the result of the June 23rd vote is consequential to it. While the referendum concerned strictly the political union, the debate these days is almost exclusively consigned to the economic union. Why wasn’t membership of the EEA put up for referendum in the first place?

    As for the exiting the EU Customs Union, yes, it will be a given once Article 50 is triggered. There is no provision whatsoever for a non EU state to be part of it. And please do not refer me to Turkey, it is not in the EU Customs Union.


  8. One point that I have not seen discussed anywhere is the general presumption that WTO rules will apply if no EU/UK trade agreement is negotiated. However the UK is currently only a member of the WTO by virtue of the EU membership and so would have to re-apply for membership in its own right. My understanding is that any current WTO member could veto any such application, so the UK could, quite literally, be out in the cold with no established legal framework for trading with anyone if another WTO member with a grudge chose to veto. I would be interested in any one else’s understanding of the legal position.

  9. For a non-British perspective on Jon Worth’s contributions to EU debate, please see my blog here

  10. For a non-British perspective on Jon Worth’s contributions to EU debate, please see my blog here

  11. secret squirrel

    @Dr m Buckton:

    “you don’t see leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union as givens.
    If we don’t leave these then a democratic vote has been ignored.”

    Let’s look at the democratic vote, shall we? The question in the referendum was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

    You’ll notice that neither the single market nor the customs union are mentioned in that question. There was no vote, democratic or otherwise, concerning the single market or customs union.

    Furthermore, take a look at the Conservative Party manifesto for the general election in 2015 (page 72). This is very positive about the single market, with statements such as “We say: yes to the Single Market”. That was the platform on which the Conservatives were elected.

    Do you think that the government should ignore the promises it made before the election? If so, on what basis? If they decide to leave the single market, would that be ignoring a democratic vote?

  12. Well Frank, now I’m depressed. Have to admit your scenario makes depressing sense to me. One of the ironies of the current ‘debate’ is that Brexiters keep accusing everyone else of being ‘negative’, ‘moaning’ and having a ‘bad attitude’, yet it’s the Brexiters themselves that take every opportunity to humiliate and belittle our European partners, and dismiss their legitimate concerns. It’s almost as if they want a catastrophic Brexit, giving the Brexiters the best opportunity to to turn the UK back into their Edwardian idyll with a small ruling class and an impoverished, uneducated 95% providing cheap domestic labour. It’s total lunacy.

  13. Dr m Buckton

    you don’t see leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union as givens.

    If we don’t leave these then a democratic vote has been ignored.

    So you’ve admitted that you are not a democrat.

    I think that says it all…

  14. Andrew

    Unfortunately the EU is a highly technical subject little understood by 99% of the population thus permitting ample room for those with duplicitous and nefarious intent to lie and bamboozle their way to the result they want for their own personal benefit. Journalists have a duty to find out but (with a very few honourable exceptions) seem incapable of doing so. The BBC who should be in the vanguard of explaining the EU and the issues surrounding it are all but supine, simply regurgitating press releases from the various parties without question in the mistaken belief this represents ‘balance’.

    BBC you have a 24 Hr News channel – use it!

  15. Paul O'Connor

    We might yet leave the EU, but there will be a big price tag and much fall out. The leavers are in a state of denial because they can’t deliver on their notions of what Brexit will mean. They need a scapegoat and the #Remoaners, supporters of the Single Market or any other refusenik will do. Leaving the EU might actually be possible to do well but I doubt we have the technical skill, unity of purpose let alone a workable plan to deliver it.

  16. Why on earth was Andrew Lilico counting on Remainers as pro-Brexit allies? Oh, was it to produce The Plan that Brexiters have spectacularly failed to produce to date?


    Never knew Andrew Marr had such nice friends!

  18. Happy new year Jon. I think you will find debating with Brexiteers is pointless. Brexit is an article of faith with them, and facts are irrelevant – hence the frequent and early resort to abuse. But I also think you are caught in an impossible position in the middle – trying to mitigate the worst problems a hard Brexit will create. You will have few friends on either side, EU supporters elsewhere in Europe have fast come to the conclusion that Brexit is good for the EU, and the harder and quicker, the better. Hence my conclusion that we will have neither a hard or a soft Brexit, but a train crash Brexit where there will be no substantial Brexit deal of any kind. The UK will likely just crash out of the EU with a hugely damaging trade war the result. Given that c, 40% of UK exports go to the EU whilst just 4% of EU export go to the UK, this trade war will hit the UK about 10 times harder than the EU.

    As an Irishman that makes me hugely worried because even if Ireland attracts a substantial volume of City financial services business, this will not make up for the huge volume of our trade (c. 14%) of our trade with the UK. Sterling depreciation has already caused some damage, and a hard customs border will make this many times worse. It’s not even the tariffs that will be the most damaging, but the customs delays and paperwork disrupting just in time supply chains and transnational manufacturing operations.

    Worse still will be the smuggling across the border with N. Ireland and the likely re-ignition of the Troubles. The Good Friday agreement was predicated on a much closer relationship between the UK and Ireland, the elimination of all border controls, and a much closer integration of the economies and societies of North and South under the auspices of the EU. Arguably Brexit in breach of that international Treaty, but in any case any attempt to re-build that border will result in violence that will not be limited to the Border region.

    So British Irish relations risk going back to the dark ages. The British Irish common travel area and trading and commercial links will slowly wither and die, and it is little consolation that Scotland may ultimately join us in the EU. A de-stabilised N. Ireland will see to that. And I am under no illusions that N. Ireland or the Irish economy will be a primary concern for EU leaders on their side of the negotiation – we will be swallowed up in the maelstrom of anti EU and anti-Uk sentiment on both sides of the divide leading to a trade and economic war if not actually direct military engagement.

    Cooperation in almost all spheres will perish as the UK comes to be viewed as a Trojan horse for US imperialism in Europe. NATO will not survive both Brexit and Trump and will (unfortunately) be replaced by a greater militarisation of the EU.The EU has been instrumental in providing 70 years of peace in Europe since WWII: No one in Europe will risk going back to the bad old days for the sake of preserving good relations with the UK and unfortunately Ireland North and South will suffer significant collateral damage. And those like you who try to stake out a middle ground will end up being shot at by both sides.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *