The IEA and Brexit: recollections from the heart of the Tufton Street cabal (Part 2)
After the Referendum
As outlined in the Part 1, throughout the EU Referendum campaign, different people at the IEA took very different views on Brexit, and debated them very publicly, in the form of articles, speeches, videos, and one full-length book. This changed on 23 June 2016, in that, as soon as the Referendum result was in, Leave-vs-Remain stopped being an issue, as far as we were concerned. From now on, the question was no longer “Should Brexit happen at all?”, but “Given that Brexit is going to happen one way or another – how can we make the most of it?”
This is perhaps best illustrated by Shanker Singham, who, two years later, would join the IEA with his team from the Legatum Institute, to form the International Trade and Competition Unit (ITCU). Three days before the Referendum, Singham published an article explaining why, despite his many criticisms of the EU as an entity that “regulates in a statist, dirigiste way”, he had reluctantly decided to vote Remain:
“[I]t is immigration and not an economic vision that is animating pro-BREXIT voters. […] It is particularly galling that […] if Britons vote to leave it will be to curtail immigration – and those that will deliver this victory no more believe in classical liberalism than does Donald Trump. I cannot in good conscience make my bed with those who oppose immigration for the same reasons that they are protectionist and populist.”
Singham did not “switch sides” after the Referendum. Rather, he recognised that the question which had originally given rise to the two sides had been answered. Brexit was going to happen. And now, the relevant question was: how?
Thus, six days after the Referendum, Singham wrote:
“At a time of increasing nationalism, populism and protectionism, a positive vision of classical liberalism is desperately needed. To be sure, some who voted for Brexit voted for Britain to withdraw from an increasingly globalized world. Some appeared to hanker after a fictional time, when […] no immigrants could be seen or heard. Whatever the motivations, the reality is that the British people have spoken, and their voice cannot be ignored.”
In other words, Singham was perfectly aware that the Leave vote was not a vote for a liberal, free-trading, free-enterprise Britain. But he also thought that the job of liberals was to make the case for a liberal version of Brexit now – even if that was not the case which had originally won the Referendum.
In the immediate aftermath of the Referendum, this was not an unusual way of thinking. It was only once Brexit Derangement Syndrome set in that millions of people convinced themselves that the Referendum result was not just wrong, but positively illegitimate, and had to be overturned altogether. That was a view which was indeed not represented at the IEA. Even my colleague Adam Bartha, who was probably the IEA’s staunchest Remainer throughout, never expressed any sympathy for that style of thinking. He thought of Brexit as bad economics, not as a Dan Brown novel.
But while we all accepted the Referendum result, different people at the IEA still had very different views about what form Brexit should take. Our output from the period reflects this. We covered the full range of positions, from a very Soft Brexit, where we would remain in the European Economic Area (EEA), to a very Hard Brexit, where we would leave without a deal, and trade under WTO rules coupled with unilateral free trade. Most of us fell somewhere in between, favouring a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU, but with full autonomy over regulatory standards and trade policy.
Either way: until the August of 2017, very few people associated the IEA specifically with Brexit. As mentioned in Part 1, if you search “IEA” and “Brexit” jointly on Twitter, and you’ll be surprised how little comes up before then. Then in August 2017, the Guardian published an article on an IEA paper by Prof Kevin Dowd, which made the case for unilateral free trade instead of a formal trade deal. The article was critical, but by the standards of that paper, still remarkably non-hysterical.
In response, several moderately well-known left-wingers began to attack the IEA specifically over Brexit. James Butler from Novara Media, Peter Geoghegan from Open Democracy, and a few months later, Adam Bienkov from Byline Times, claimed that “the IEA” supported a No-Deal Brexit, and that we did this specifically in order to impose a capitalist shock therapy on Britain. These people had clearly read Naomi Klein’s trendy anti-capitalist polemic The Shock Doctrine, and they were now imagining themselves to live through a version of General Pinochet’s Chile, in which the European Research Group was the military junta, and Tufton Street were the Chicago Boys.
But then it ebbed again. The idea that Brexit was some ultra-capitalist plot pushed by the IEA was there, but it did not take off just yet. It only really exploded in the summer and autumn of 2018. James O’Brien, for example, who has since developed an almost Monbiot-like obsession with us, never mentioned us at all (at least not on Twitter) until July 2018.
The Brexit panic around the IEA had two immediate triggers. One was that Greenpeace, Unearthed and the Guardian had tried to manufacture a “scandal” around the IEA (a sorry episode I can’t be bothered to go into again). The other one was the publication of “Plan A+”, an IEA report which proposed a post-Brexit trade and regulatory policy agenda that would require leaving both the European Customs Union and the European Single Market/European Economic Area.
But neither of these are sufficient to explain anything like the full scale of the IEA Brexit panic.
As for the former: there is some campaign against us pretty much all the time, and while the usual suspects, e.g. Monbiot’s Twitter mob, always lap it up, it does not usually become national news. So why now?
As for the latter: it is true that Plan A+ implied a relatively Hard Brexit. But by the time Plan A+ was published, Britain was already on a Hard Brexit course anyway. It had been since January 2017, when Prime Minister Theresa May delivered her Lancaster House Speech, in which she categorically ruled out continued membership of the Single Market.
And while a Plan A+ Brexit would have been a Hard Brexit, it would have been considerably softer than the No Deal Brexit proposed in the aforementioned paper by Prof Kevin Dowd, which, as mentioned, had also been criticised by the Guardian, but which had not triggered anything like the hysteria that Plan A+ triggered. So, again – why now?
To fully understand the Brexit panic around the IEA that exploded in summer/autumn 2018, we have to remember what a tinderbox Britain was at the time. The Brexit clock was ticking. Article 50 had been triggered in March 2017, and time was running out – but parliament was gridlocked, and nothing seemed to be going anywhere. This created an acute sense of chaos and dysfunction.
We were bombarded with Brexit news all the time, even though there was no “news”, because Brexit was stuck. Two years had passed since the Referendum, and the division it had caused should have started to heal by now, but under those circumstances, no healing was possible. The opposite happened. Far from dissolving, the two camps solidified, and moved further apart. In 2019, 36% of the population identified strongly as “Leavers”, and another 36% identified strongly as “Remainers”.
It was in this febrile climate that conspiracy theories flourished, because they appeared to offer a way to make sense of it all. This was by no means limited to the Remain side. A lot of Brexiteers were similarly paranoid about an alleged attempt by “the Remain blob” to sabotage the Brexit process, overturn the result of a democratic vote, and keep Britain in the EU against the will of its people. This was exemplified in the Daily Mail’s infamous “Enemies of the people” headline. But there is such a thing as high-status conspiracy theory as well. High-status conspiracy theories are not inherently less ridiculous than low-status conspiracy theories. The only thing that makes them different is that they are endorsed by high-status people. Britain’s ultimate high-status conspiracy theory is the idea that Britain is run by “Tufton Street”. It existed before Brexit, but Brexit took it to a different level.
For that to work, any ambiguity had to go. The IEA could not just be a place where different people had different views on Brexit; it had to become “a pro-Brexit think tank”. Crucially, that imagined corporate view had to be projected back in time, from the time the panic broke out to the time of the Referendum itself. “The IEA supported Brexit after the Referendum” was no longer good enough; only “It was the IEA that made Brexit happen in the first place!” would do.
The specifics of this ultra-nervous, febrile period have now begun to fade from memory. But the more general Tufton Street panic that has built up over those years remains. It is here to stay.
 This was later recognised by the Charity Commission as well. They had received complaints about how the IEA report Plan A+ advanced a particular version of Brexit, and therefore lacked “balance”. And if you look at Plan A+, or any other individual publication in isolation, this is, of course, true: each publication makes a specific argument, and its author is not going to argue against him- or herself. However, a different author will make a different argument in a different publication. That, too, constitutes a form of “balance”.
The concept of “balance” is, of course, in itself problematic. There are plenty of left-wing organisations in the UK that do not describe themselves as “left-wing”, in the way the IEA describes itself as “free-market” and “classical liberal”, but that are “left-wing” in the sense that they publish countless attacks on capitalism, and never a positive word about it. Nobody expects “balance” from them – and indeed, why should they be “balanced”? Why should they say something in defence of capitalism if that’s not what they believe?