While some leavers like to define Brexit in positive terms, such as "taking back control", the reality is negative in the sense that Brexit is what is left after we subtract certain things, such as the single market and free movement. The negotiations will be politically fraught because they will centre on those existing advantages that we lose outright, which will upset remainers, and the concessions and compromises that we will be obliged to make to retain other advantages, particularly for the City and big business, which will upset leavers. There is nothing of real substance to be "gained", though plenty of scope for gestures in the theatrical arenas of "border security" and "meddling judges", which is why a "hard Brexit", with its resignations from the Customs Union and the European Court of Justice, is politically attractive. The government will seek to downplay or even hide the concessions, given that most of its supporters are leavers, while the lost advantages will be dismissed as the selfish privileges of metropolitan elites.
Some leavers are likely to be disappointed simply because many of the burdens of modernity added over the last 40 years were coincident to, but not consequential on, membership of the EU. Though the European Union was a key enabler of neoliberalism, it was merely the regional coordinator of global tendencies. Not only can we not go back to a status quo ante, but we will find that the world outside the EU looks remarkably similar to the EU. While we have been diverging, the rest of the world has been converging. As a result, Brexit may be as hard as some leavers would like, but it won't be as clean as they expect. This might suggest a transitional deal would be in everyone's interest, but that would mean the UK agreeing to initially continue as-is (same tariffs, same regulations, same contributions) but with the only immediate change being exclusion from decision-making, which would disappoint both leavers and remainers. Political necessity requires substance, which inescapably means a formal end to free movement. Anything less would be an existential threat to May's administration.
The shape of Brexit is unlikely to surprise. As Stephen Bush remarked, "It’s crystal clear what not being subject to the free movement of people and leaving the ECJ means: a hard Brexit, with no continuing membership of the single market. And it’s equally clear that the government’s hope is that it can use its status as a major contributor to the EU budget to buy a measure of the access it needs in order to keep the banks sweet and Nissan chugging out cars in Sunderland". The vexed relationship of free movement and the single market is above all a domestic political problem. As John Curtice notes, "To many in the EU, the British public’s apparent desire to retain free trade while no longer granting freedom of movement will seem like a wish to have their cake and eat it. An alternative view, however, is that many people in the UK – including some who voted ‘Remain’ – reject the EU’s recipe for baking the cake in the first place. For them, freedom of movement as currently implemented in the EU is not a necessary concomitant to free trade".
Curtice's interpretation implies a continuity in attitudes - pro-free trade and anti-free movement - not just since 1991 but going back to the 1970s, but this lacks nuance. When the UK joined the EEC, the cake and the eating thereof were considered to be unrelated: concern over immigration was focused on the New Commonwealth while free trade was seen largely in terms of goods, with only a few sophisticates considering services, never mind labour. The free movement envisaged by the Delors Commission in the 1980s was essentially middle-class - the routine transfer of corporate workers and professionals to aid big business - rather than working class, the continental movements of the latter seen in the 50s and 60s having tailed off by the late-70s. It was the accession of East European states, a move championed by the UK in part as a way of slowing down integration, that revived working class migration, though this didn't have a visible impact on British society until the mid-00s.
What occurred in the 90s in the UK was the rhetorical linking of trade and movement, with foreign (and largely non-EU) labour and asylum-seekers being cast as examples of "unfair trade". This was at root a cross-party attempt to deflect attention from the failure of neoliberalism to revive deindustrialised areas, in which globalisation was characterised as a problem of the movement of labour rather than the movement of capital. It was this idea of "unfairness", which was emotionalised through stories of "benefit tourism" (foreigners are lazy) and wage-undercutting (foreigners work too hard), that helps explain why some Brits have been simultaneously in favour of UK citizens having the right to live and work anywhere in the EU while denying reciprocal rights to other EU citizens. This isn't the persistence of arrogant imperialism but a popular belief that we were doing Europe a favour, by exporting our skilled professionals and setting up retirement colonies in impoverished areas of Spain, while they were taking advantage of our hospitality.
Dominic Cummings made some interesting remarks about this in his recent brain-dump about the referendum campaign: "In 2000, focus groups were already unhappy with immigration but did not regard it as a problem caused by the EU. By 2015, the EU was blamed substantially for the immigration/asylum crisis and this was entangled with years of news stories about ‘European courts’ limiting action against terrorists and criminals". This reinforces two points: that the "immigration crisis" took its modern narrative form in the mid-to-late 1990s, essentially as result of party political calculations; and that its framing, both as "problematic labour" and an assault on sovereignty, owed much to a press unwilling to blame capital for globalisation's discontents. The latter was exacerbated as media organisations themselves became increasingly global following the relaxation of ownership rules and the growth of the Internet, but Murdoch only explains so much. The real shame lies with the Tory and Labour administrations that facilitated business-friendly immigration rules while publicly decrying the social consequences between 1990 and 2009.
The referendum might not have happened had it not been for the Liberal Democrats' decision to enter coalition in 2010. The knowledge that the government would not lose a vote on whether to hold a referendum on EU membership, coupled with the feeling that this was being denied by the junior coalition partner, boosted the Conservative rebellion against the government's three-line whip on the subject in 2011. A quarter of Tory MPs voted for a referendum and at least as many voted with the government reluctantly. At that moment it became clear that the Tories would have to eventually accede to the call for a popular vote or face a split. Cameron's miscalculation was to believe that 2015 would produce another hung parliament and thus an excuse to defer the issue again. Theresa May's calculation appears to be that in securing an end to free movement she will earn sufficient popular credit to offset the compromises and contributions necessary to secure the privileged access of the City and big business to EU markets. This isn't as risky a strategy as it might at first look.
The EU isn't interested in knocking the City of London off its perch. Apart from the short-term risks to financial stability that any radical change would entail, it is in the EU27's long-term interest to keep systemic risk in global financial markets safely quarantined in London, where it has been since the late-80s. In the event of another 2008 and the failure of major banks, they would rather the UK bear the brunt of any bailouts. It is hard to believe that after years of imposing austerity on the periphery to reduce the exposure of German and French banks to bad property loans the EU core will blithely take on even greater risk. It is for the same reason that they were always sanguine about the UK not adopting the euro, as this would have potentially spread the liability for a systemic bailout to the rest of the EU via the ECB. While there will be attempts by Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt to prise low-risk business away from the City, this will be a gradual erosion of London's market share, not a smash-and-grab.
Similarly, it is in the interest of the EU for London to remain a centre for dirty money and a gateway for offshore tax avoidance, which provides a benefit to many rich Europeans who in turn make donations to political parties. While they will seek to regulate (rather than wholly prevent) domestic access to London's wealth management facilities, they have no interest in providing a competitive concierge service for Russian oligarchs or Chinese princelings. Far better that the money is first laundered in London before some of it is spent on the continent. What this means is that Theresa May will probably be able to preserve the high finance leg of the stool - the privileges of the City of London - and may also be able to secure mutually-beneficial deals for the larger capitals (probably motor manufacturers and possibly pharma). In contrast, the geopolitical leg is crumbling fast. Since 1989, the value of the UK to the US has been as a proxy within the EU. That role is now a dead letter, while the election of Trump means that EU leaders will be unlikely to treat the UK as an honest broker in any approaches to Washington: the Europhile Foreign Office will be seen as irrelevant while Trump's British fans will be seen as unreliable.
Brexit means that financial services will once more be promoted as an engine of national growth amid assurances that the prudential lessons of 2008 have been learnt - something Theresa May and Philip Hammond should be able to find common ground on with Mark Carney. The determinant of relative success will be the absence of a major Sterling crisis, which will further amplify the influence of the City on political decisions (so don't expect austerity / sound money to go out of fashion) and lead not to stability but volatility. Our one-legged stool will be more like a pogo-stick. The irony of Brexit is that it isn't taking us back to the early 1970s so much as the early 1990s. Euroscepticism then was driven not merely by a wariness towards "social Europe" and the prospect of German hegemony but by a sincere belief that the Thatcher "revolution" had positively altered the nation's economic prospects and that it could thrive as an independent power in the new global order. It proved to be an illusion that was ultimately shattered on Black Wednesday.