Sometimes analogy hits you on the head with the force of a falling cricket ball. On Radio 4 yesterday, Hamish Johnson, editor of physicsworld.com, had the brilliant insight to explain the British government’s physics policy; Schrödinger’s Brexit.
The poor cat is trapped in a box with radioactive material and poison; when the material shrinks, the poison is released. Since it is impossible to predict when the material will decay, it can be considered at the same time that the cat is alive and dead. The only way to know is to open the box.
Before Britain voted to leave the European Union in June, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to trigger Article 50 (the exit mechanism) immediately. Five months on, Article 50 is yet to be implemented. The new prime minister, Theresa May, has promised to do so by the end of March. But as for what Britain wants, we have heard nothing but platitudes: “Brexit means Brexit”, or “let’s have our cake and eat it”. Pressed for details, Ms May said there would be no “continuous reporting” on the talks. In fact, it is very easy to make a running statement. As other EU members will not speak until Article 50 is triggered, there have been no talks.
Among the many important questions to be answered are whether Britain will remain in the single market, or the customs union, and whether there will be a transition period after Britain leaves the EU when it would retain its existing access already (to reduce the economy bankruptcy). The rationale for this silence is that Britain does not want to “show its hand” before the negotiations begin. This does not really make sense because he must reveal his hand when Article 50 is initiated and if the negotiations last two years; everyone in the EU will have plenty of time to respond and counter the British offer.
Anyway, until such decisions are made, Britain is like the cat; simultaneously within and outside the single market and customs union. It is to this government’s advantage to allow it to pretend that the “have your cake and eat it” solution can happen; there is no need to trade off sovereignty and economics. But if the government opens the box, to express one option over another, the full costs (political or economic) will be revealed. The longer the box can be kept closed, the better. So all the rhetoric is meaningless.
The analogy can be used more broadly for Trumpian-style populists. Such politicians promote the idea that there are simple solutions to national problems that do not involve trade; if the existing leaders had been better negotiators, our country would have had a better deal. It is easy to spit this material from the side; harder to achieve when in government. (Of course, populist parties tend to lose appeal when they take office and have to make decisions.) Mr. Trump cannot cut taxes, maintain entitlement spending, and narrowing the budget and trade deficits, for example. Abandoning the Iran nuclear deal will make it more likely, not less, that Iran will get the bomb. But those cats will not be out of the bag (or the box) until the votes are counted.