Brexit: It can’t be like a divorce because it was never like a marriage

Well, if you can’t beat them join them. Since Brexit and its political consequences seems to be about the only story in town at the moment, I thought I’d add my voice to the tumult.

Whatever one thinks of the result, there have been a number of attempts to describe Brexit in terms of a divorce. I’ve heard it in BBC interviews and I’ve read about it from divorce lawyers. When a relationship breaks down, everybody wants to smooth things over so that life can go on afterwards with minimal disruption. How does government handle Brexit so that we get an amicable divorce? That is the question.

Except that there’s a problem with this analogy. Our relationship with the EU was never like a marriage in the first place. And if we try to think of Brexit as a divorce, it may profoundly affect the course of the next few years. The process of divorce is all about how to limit the downside and manage the fallout from the end of one relationship. But, given that Brexit is going to happen anyway, we need a wholly different analogy, one that also offers a decent shot at some upside.

So why wasn’t it like a marriage? Well, lets have a look at some characteristics of marriage.

  • A marriage is a relationship of two equals who have explicitly expressed their mutual plan for a permanent future together in front of others. The UK and EU have never been equals, so this is only partly true at best.
  • Marriage is an exchange of identity where we say goodbye to our old individual selves and say hello to a new combined identity. When people look at us, they no longer see a ‘you’ and ‘me’. They see an ‘us’. That’s definitely not the case with the UK and EU. Both of us have always retained our old identities. The UK is the UK and the EU is the EU, even if enlarged. There has never been a joint identity.
  • Marriage means saying goodbye to other options. No more intimate personal relationships with others. We can be best friends with other people, but we can’t be lovers. Marriage is just for the two of us. Comparing this with the UK and EU relationship is a bit more complex. As members, the UK undoubtedly has a better trading deal with the EU. But membership means that the EU negotiates any other deals we might want on our behalf.
  • Marriage can be ended by divorce, whether unilaterally or bilaterally, and we can then revert to our old identities of ‘you’ and ‘me’. There’ll always be a residual element of ‘us’, if only because our children will see us in that way to some extent and our friends may find it hard to dissociate us from their image of ‘us’ as a couple. But the idea of a divorce is to end the marriage and offer the freedom to do it all again with somebody else …which is definitely not the point of Brexit! Brexit from the EU is not likely to lead to ‘Brentrance’ to some other permanent and exclusive trading relationship with a different economic bloc. That, and there are no children …

Membership of the EU does arguably share two characteristics of marriage – permanence and exclusivity – but definitely lacks any sense of exchange of identity and definitely does not qualify as a marriage of equals.

Where Brexit is similar to divorce is in the need to clear up the mess after the relationship ends. But in this respect, Brexit is no different from the disentangling and unravelling of lives that takes place when unmarried couples split up, or indeed when any longstanding formal or informal arrangement comes to an end.

So for me, Brexit has little in common with a divorce. It has much more in common with resignation from long standing membership of a club whose committee imposed more and more rules for its members.

This club membership analogy offers a more positive upside. Although relations with the club may be strained and will have to be renegotiated, Britain now has the opportunity to strike up deeper friendships with the many other non-members. How and whether that happens depends on our new leadership.

But whatever happens, if we keep thinking of Brexit as a divorce, we won’t be giving ourselves a chance to see any benefits. We haven’t got divorced. We’ve resigned from a club.

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