What can we learn from the Brexit divorce?
What can we learn from the Brexit divorce?
It’s messy, hugely expensive, packed with blame-dripping, finger-pointing acrimony … and after nearly three years of dissatisfaction and disappointment, there’s still no apparent end to the misery.
Yep. Brexit is just like a lot of matrimonial divorces. But with steroids.
I can’t deny that watching this week’s political car crash playing out before our eyes has had something of a busman’s holiday about it.
After all, watching a slightly hysterical spouse with a thousand-yard stare shrieking their way to a hastily cobbled together deal while their disaffected soon-to-be ex looks on with a sense of open-mouthed pity isn’t exactly uncommon territory in family law.
One even gets the sense that Europe could be forgiven for wondering why it ever got married to those crazy Brits in the first place.
Brexit may involve 60 million people in the UK, 28 countries and many billions of pounds, but on a nuclear level, it’s just the hugely overweight granddaddy of ordinary marital divorces that happen up and down the UK every single day.
So, what have we learned from our three years of divisive politics, shapeshifting statistics and arguments with people who used to be our friends, but now aren’t because they’ve taken sides in this doomed marriage and have really, really strong, often ill-informed and highly vocal views about the terms of the impending divorce?
Lesson #1 – Most real-life divorces aren’t like this one
Which is a relief.
Let’s face it, much of the Parliamentary wrangling over the last 33 months, and especially in the recent negotiations over the withdrawal agreement, has been ill-tempered, unseemly and pretty much devoid of dignity – it’s been a bit like listening through the bedroom wall to your drunken neighbours hurling furniture at one another.
The good news is that most matrimonial divorces are sorted out in a much more reasonable way, and in the end reason, and the willingness to compromise where you can, will always save you time, money and distress in a divorce.
Lesson #2 – Don’t get distracted by the ‘small’ stuff
Whilst not wishing to liken divorce to a military operation – we work very hard to make sure your divorce is as far removed from that as possible – it is nevertheless a battle, however amicable, to get the best possible result for yourself. In the end, as lawyers, that’s our job and it’s why you’ve hired us.
But in all conflicts, there are battles that simply aren’t worth pursuing because the cost of winning them – in terms of money, time or unpleasantness – would almost certainly outweigh the benefit you get back.
There are some involved in the Brexit divorce who would do well to remember this.
The arch-Brexiteers, for example, seemed for long periods to have lost sight of the fact their most cherished outcome was the political equivalent of a decree absolute, and instead fussed endlessly and obstructively about the softness or otherwise of it.
Arch-Remainers expended much time and effort in trying to put a fast-moving supertanker into reverse rather than working on how to make the best of what they perceived to be a bad job.
The result has had the distinct whiff of a couple obsessing over who’s going to get the Louis Vuitton luggage set when there are arguably more pressing matters to consider.
Like, what happens to the children.
Lesson #3 – Time is money, so use it wisely
A consistent theme of the last few weeks in the crazy world of Brexit has been the wide-eyed public amazement that four human beings could spend so much time talking to one another and still get absolutely nothing done.
Or, as the honourable Conservative member for Rayleigh and Wickford put it, following the first round of indicative votes, Sweet Felicity Arkwright (as an aside, since we’re talking of Arkwright, how long, one wonders, before some edgy TV exec commissions the Brexit sitcom Not Open All Hours?)
If Donald Tusk and Theresa May are the emblematic spouses in this divorce, then Michel Barnier and the UK’s various Secretaries of State for Brexit – their lemming-like inclination to suddenly jump off a political cliff means there have been so many it’s frankly impossible to keep track of them all – are their chief negotiators.
I understand that with Brexit comes a whole raft of complexities that make the divorce a little different to that of Jean and John from Wealdstone, but honestly … the Brexit negotiators are intelligent people backed by whole armies of civil servants whose only job has been to price up and parcel out the family silver. Yet it’s still sitting, looking slightly tarnished, on the burnished mahogany arm of John Bercow’s chair.
If their divorce lawyers took the same amount of time – proportional to the complexities involved – to find a position on which they might agree, I think John and Jean from Wealdstone might also be entitled to arch an eyebrow.
The Brexit divorce bill so far is between £40 billion and £78 billion, depending on which source you choose to believe. And that doesn’t include what we’ll have to pay to Europe in a golden handshake that will allow the UK to leave its marital home of the last 44 years.
Time also eats up money in a matrimonial divorce, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that your lawyer will do whatever needs to be done to get you through the process as quickly as possible, whilst also protecting your interests.
Lesson #4 – Things can get messy if you’re not careful
If nothing else, the recent events in Parliament show that without focus on and attention to the key business at hand, a divorce can get very messy very quickly.
Part of the reason why Brexit has turned into such an unholy mess has undoubtedly been the fact that Theresa May managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when she went to the country in 2017 and that in order to get business done since, she has had to rely on support from a party which – who’da-thought-it – is quite interested in the Irish border issue, thank you very much.
Yet it’s hard to look at the current divisions within the Conservative party and not suspect that even with a slender Commons majority she would have struggled to find a consensus within the polarised opinions personified on the one side by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and on the other by Philip Hammond.
In fact, there have been times when you can’t help but feel the Conservative Government’s biggest achievement in the last two years has been to effortlessly make Labour look completely unified. That has been no mean feat in itself.
When a marriage breaks up, achieving a smooth outcome requires both parties involved – and their lawyers – to be objective, realistic and business-like in resolving conflict where it exists, conceding ground where it’s prudent to do so and compromising for the greater good.
In short, it means talking in a language everyone can understand. And I don’t mean English, French or Esperanto.