29 March 2017 was not a good day in the history of the U.K. It was the day when we took a wild leap into the unknown, chasing fantasies over reality. What Brexit actually means is hardly clearer now than when the referendum was called.
The prize for the most absurd Brexit comment on the doorstep in the first three months of 2017 goes to the person who said: “I voted Leave. We were fine before we went in and we’ll be fine now. It’s my children and grand-children I feel sorry for”.
The litany of lies from the Leave campaign should anger people: the £350 million a week for the NHS (denied the morning after the vote), the fantasy of a threat that Turkey would join the EU and flood us with immigrants (suddenly not an issue), the threatened end to free movement of people causing nurses to leave the country than burst of jobs, “take back control” turning into having to obey the rules others make in what Michael Hessletine has called “the greatest loss of sovereignty in British history“, and renewed pressure for Scots independence and Irish re-unification which brings the Brexit-related break-up of the U.K. much closer.
The rise of China promises a fundamental change in the world. The way China is used to operating is so far outside how the West is used to operating that it is hard to engage with. One of the things fuelling anxiety over globalisation is that this is happening beneath the radar. The change isn’t necessarily bad, but unfamiliarity breeds fear.
In the west, we are use to thinking of ourselves as global powers. In our own terms, we have been the world’s major economic powers, and have proud colonial histories. In reality, those colonial histories are murky, and we have only had dominance because of widespread poverty. The rise in the economic might of China and India has gone with increased living standards: the only thing that could stop a major re-alignment is the sort of humanitarian catastrophe which we should see as morally repugnant.
But change is not just about economic might: it is also about how nations naturally do things. The western mindset that has been dominant is not the only way.
I’m increasingly conscious that one really important group has become invisible in the storm around Brexit: the people who actually voted for it.
Canvassing recently my ear was firmly bent by someone who voted Leave and is worried about the NHS. The promise of £350 million per week might have evaporated on the morning after the referendum, but her concerns have not. She’s not angry at the lie: for her this is just one more in the chain of politicians’ lies. The worry is real.
One of the memorable moments in Laura Kuenssberg’s documentary on the referendum had Leave voters in Sunderland saying “now people in London have got to listen to us”.
Instead we have a prime minister saying “Brexit means Brexit” and talking of the “will of the people”, but who reacted to being reigned in by the courts by bring a bill before parliament to give her huge powers in the Brexit process. This sounds like a land grab from No.10 rather than an attempt at listening.
I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a leader to stop it. We need something different. I am mentally contrasting the stereotype of the fascist leader, who whips up the darkest desires of the crowd, and the wise leader who enables people to be heard so that wisdom emerges rather than fear and mudslinging.
One of the ironies of the referendum campaign was the (unsubstantiated) claim that the EU is about to create a European Army. Yet as anti-federalists get jumpy about the tone of Guy Verhofstadt’s comments on closer co-operation on defence, Trump pushes for something similar. Has closer co-operation on defence just become a really good idea, and essential for the UK to be part of?
The sequence of events feels almost surreal. During the referendum campaign several former generals, including Lord Guthrie, came out in favour of Brexit, supposedly over fears that the EU is about to create an EU army. In the swirl of half-stories it was not clear what was actually being said: there has been shared policy on security and defence for a long time, which became the Common Security and Defence Policy in the Lisbon Treaty. Crucially, anyone with a grip on the different stories of EU member states would be aware that this is very complicated — particularly because of the anxieties in Germany about armed forces serving a purpose that’s anything other than defensive. A move as big as creating a fully-fledged European Army would also need treaty changes, which require the agreement of all the member states, so there is no chance of it happening without the agreement of the UK as long as we are in the EU.
A stream of polls show the wafer-thin support for Brexit edging away. There’s little evidence that Theresa May’s government has a plan for Brexit, never mind a credible one. Meanwhile the political tremors from Trump’s election in the USA are a reminder of the political value of a stable European union.
Over Christmas I spoke with an elderly couple who vote Leave. A months ago they were buoyed up: they had bought the stories from the Leave campaign, been worried about the number of immigrants when they saw a television programme from the place where they grew up (and haven’t visited in a long time), and were excited by the optimistic stories in some of the pro-Brexit papers. Now things are different. They had thought we would be out of the EU as soon as the vote happened — like resigning from a club — and are waking up to the sheer complexity of leaving. They are worried, particularly for young people.
His article deserves to be widely read and reflected on: at a time when the public discussion seems to veer between squabbles over who has the authority to give notice under article 50, the eurosceptic part of the media painting a wildly optimisitic vision of Brexit and a steady stream of stories highlighting the damage, it is very encouraging to see some serious reflection from the House of Lords, and from Andrew Duff.
Under the coalition government the Lords Europe Committee undertook a thorough review of the balance of competences between the UK and EU, only to see their report buried because it didn’t support the repatriation of powers. I fear their excellent work now is also in danger of being ignored.
I strongly encourage people to read the whole post, but key points include:
The referendum campaign, the attitudes it unleashed, and the horrifying language reported from the 2016 Conservative Party Conference have been horrifying.
In the run-up to the referendum, on immigration immigration seemed key to the Leave campaign, who pushed in an irrational and emotional way. They correctly identified that people were sensitive to this.
There were scare stories that Turkey was about to be rushed into the EU and posters with an arrow from Turkey to the UK and the number “76 million”, strongly implying that vast numbers were queuing up to come to the UK. All that was missing was evidence.
The 2016 Tory conference will go down as a landmark moment. I fear it will come to be seen as the signalling of a chilling new “class war”.
On the surface the language could be heard as optimistic, with talk of opportunity and investment and everyone benefitting, and “Hard Brexit” being tough but good.
But the scarcely-concealed panic should be ringing alarm bells. Austerity abandoned, money to be borrowed for investment in housing and infrastructure. That sounds like a Keynesian reaction to an impending economic catastrophe induced by Brexit. Is that catastrophe what people voted for?
Recently [September 2016] I was out with some Bishop’s Stortford Liberal Democrats, gathering signatures on a petition for citizens of other EU nations currently in the UK to be allowed to remain in the UK.
In a few hours we gathered just over 250 signatures on a not-that-busy street. Some were delighted to sign. Some were relieved that we were not taking the opposite position. Some said their businesses would struggle without people from other parts of the EU.
More worrying was the small minority who disagreed, loudly wanting foreigners to “go home”. A prize for confusion goes to the person who said that, and then added that she wanted to retire to France.