QUO VADIS BRITANNIAE?
I’m still trying to come to terms with the BREXIT outcome. The bald truth is that Britain, the fifth economic power in the world, the second in Europe, has signalled its intent to walk out of the EU. Can it be fixed? Can it be reversed? At this point in time this does not appear likely, but as the dust settles something may emerge. Some personal reflections follow.
I felt a waft of déjà vu last Friday morning as Britain woke up to the result. The whole establishment, the chattering classes, bankers, businessmen, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, came out solidly for a vote to remain in the EU. Sound familiar? Ring a bell? It was Ireland the day after Nice One and later after Lisbon One. To the dismay of the elite, the referendum result was not what had been confidently expected.
There the resemblance ends. In Ireland’s case the treaties as originally framed had been rejected but our membership of the EU was not at stake and there proved to be enough wiggle room, not to mention good will and anxiety to reach a deal on our specific concerns from our EU partners, to resolve matters. Cameron and the British government, however, have metaphorically bet the house , precipitating a crisis not just for Britain but for Europe itself. It remains to be seen whether there is any scope to undo the damage. An important element in Ireland’s case was the willingness of both sides to accommodate to reach a solution. Britain is currently leaderless, so one side is unable to engage, even should this prove feasible. The early indications are not encouraging.
It’s now Wednesday and , déjà vu again, the spectrum of reactions resembles that here – and in Europe – in the wake of our “No votes,” writ much larger of course but not dissimilar. On the BREXIT side, triumphant hubris, a chorus of anti EU sentiment and flat assertions that the vote was final, there can be no going back and no second vote. On the domestic losing side, numbness, dismay, disbelief, and a feeling of helplessness not helped by Cameron immediately choosing to fall on his sword. In Europe at the political level similar reactions of dismay and disbelief, with an obvious fear that the contagion may spread and encourage others to contemplate leaving. European leaders seemed asleep to the danger in advance, as the extent of panic among them as June 23 approached demonstrated. It was yet another example of the disconnect between Europe’s elite and the people. Some of the first public statements from Europe have not helped.
Several days before the Vote I wrote in my IAN column that the result was at that stage too close to call, noting that the latest polls were showing the Leave camp slightly ahead. I pondered whether the momentum – clearly with the Leave faction – would be halted by the hiatus following the murder of Jo Cox, and observed that the “Stay” campaign were mounting an Operation Stable Door. My gut feeling subsequently – wrong – was that the Stay side would win, based in part on the expectation that the undecided would plump in the end for the devil they knew. I also took heart from the poll analyses of experts and the bland assumption that an electorate would vote, even with misgivings, in their own best interest and take any promises from the Leave camp with handfuls of salt.
There was a particularly devastating assessment of Cameron by Max Hastings (who voted Remain) in the Daily Mail several days ago which painted up his limitations and tactical ineptness. Certainly a lot of blame must attach to David Cameron, in calling the referendum, in choosing to hold it when he did, in framing it as a simple In-Out choice only and then for running an inept campaign. It’s not as if a referendum was necessary, and indeed the result is only – theoretically – “advisory” rather than “obligatory.” But having decided on one, its terms and wording should have been set with care. Even with those particular dies cast, a more astute politician would surely have thought long and hard about the date, which was only announced in mid-February, without any pressure to hold the poll so early.
And Cameron should surely have reflected at the very least at how the political scene elsewhere in Europe was evolving. I wrote last week as follows: “ Little-England nationalism aside, the Brexit movement should perhaps be seen in the context of the sizeable and almost universal Europe-wide popular disenchantment with the way society is perceived to be evolving, with the existing establishment and party political dominance under threat from populists on both the left and right.” Cameron could hardly have been unaware, from his frequent meetings with fellow HOGs, and from those briefing him, including reports from British Embassies sur place, of the extent of this disenchantment, often inchoate but also often organised, and expressed in elections when opportunity presented itself, whether in Spain, Greece, Ireland, Austria and in state elections in Germany, and otherwise reflected in opinion polls throughout the EU. Did he think the British voter was immune?
So why do it now? Was it overconfidence? Cameron had a comfortable Parliamentary majority following his unexpected General Election victory last year. He had also the experience of the Scottish referendum in 2014 and perhaps thought, that having headed off the threat from the Scottish nationalists he could head off UKIP and the Tory malcontents by a short swift campaign, particularly having extracted, as he saw it, fresh concessions from Brussels. The concessions – cosmetic – fooled no one, while his reading of Scottish nationalism was myopic – symptomatic of his whole approach. Even the framing of the question – an “X” in the Remain or Leave box – was less nuanced than that in the 1976 vote (“ Do you think the UK should stay in the EC?).
Yet having decided to plough ahead with a vote, he and his government seemed content to run the campaign on autopilot, only waking up to the danger recently as the Leave campaign gained momentum. Again there are interesting parallels with the approach of the Irish governments to the first Nice and Lisbon referendums. Satisfied that the majority of the Irish electorate knew where there bread was buttered, Irish governments twice campaigned “softly” and paid the price, while their opponents hammered away on a few basic themes. On Nice it was a brutally effective poster campaign – “ You will lose Money, Power, Influence.” On Lisbon the opposition focussed on the partial loss of an Irish EU Commissioner and fears of involvement in a European army as well as playing on public unfamiliarity with the contents of what was primarily a technical tidying-up treaty. Again, ceteris paribus, sound familiar?
For Farage and Co. it was Immigration, over-regulation from Brussels and slogans about sovereignty and “getting our country back.” They also played on the basic unfamiliarity of the man-in-the-street with the EU and how its institutions worked. Moreover they could and did point to the Europe –wide disenchantment with governing elites and to the Brussels bureaucracy. The deliberate distortions and misinformation from the Leave side were deplorable. It was win at all costs. The EU was demonised, Britain’s net contribution overstated and the complexities of unpicking complex legislation and benefit structures minimised. A major platform plank, that the cash-starved NHS would benefit by billions annually after leaving has since been disavowed. Apart from that the Leave leaders post –referendum have confined themselves to bombast or to minimising the likely difficulties of any forthcoming negotiations. There appears to be no Plan B.
Cameron apart, the chattering classes have no shortage of villains or scapegoats, whether Farage or Johnson or Gove or the tabloid press which pandered to the deceitful and misleading campaign the Leave side ran. All true, but hardly sufficient to explain the results as with the assertion that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour campaigned less than enthusiastically for the Remain side. Which leaves those who voted Out. We are told that the old, the less prosperous, the less well educated and the racists all voted to leave.( In a particularly nasty aside the old are being accused of having ruined things for the young.) All apparently true, but again, why?
Immigration was clearly portrayed by the BREXIT side as a major issue and immigration from other member states (shorthand for the 2004 Accession countries) has been identified by Cameron as a reason for much of the leave vote. Yet I don’t see the 52% of the British electorate who voted Out as being racists or necessarily anti-immigrant. I have little doubt that, had the vote been 52%-48% to remain, those same chattering classes would now be preening themselves about the “ maturity” of the British electorate in rejecting Farage and co. and racism. Millions of immigrants have entered Britain since Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech and have been successfully, and on the whole seamlessly, integrated into British society. There have been incidents, certainly, but in terms of the massive multicultural influx into Britain, particularly after 1980, such incidents have been inconsequential. And indeed some of the more humorous T.V. interviews aired have been with immigrants or the children of immigrants who last week voted to leave the EU.
It seems to me that Immigration – or rather the perception that Britain was unable to control its own borders – became the lightning rod for a variety of grievances in Britain, rather as Irish Water did in elections here in 2014 and 2016. The last thirty years have seen the significant erosion of the great achievement of post war Britain – the Welfare State. This has been accompanied by the collapse of many of Britain’s traditional rust-bucket industries. Pressure on resources in health and education, limited employment opportunities and an obvious growing gulf between the rich and the rest have generated a sense of alienation and discontent, particularly in the lower socio- economic groups. The recent economic recession, increased taxation and reduced benefits fed into this.
With the 2004 EU Enlargement came the arrival in Britain of a million plus migrants from Eastern Europe (far less, incidentally, than the numbers who arrived in the twenty five years before from the sub-Continent, the Caribbean and Africa) , perceived to be willing to work harder and for less and also to be receiving state benefits. This could have been avoided, or at least postponed, had Britain chosen to follow the example of twelve of the other Fifteen, including Germany and France, in restricting workers from Eastern Europe for seven years. It’s worth pointing out here that of the EU three who allowed unrestricted access, while relatively few workers emigrated to Sweden, proportionately far more came to Ireland than to Britain. Even today the percentages of Poles Latvians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Hungarians and Czechs living and working in Ireland are far greater than in the UK., though you’d never think it from reading the British tabloids. There’s an interesting “Compare and Contrast “ study to be done on this.
The new arrivals, highly visible, on the one hand, and the catalogue of what appeared an ever-growing number of EU regulations affecting everyday life on the other, melded with the other senses of grievance and alienation, with EU membership becoming an obvious blanket scapegoat for all these perceived ills. Cue Farage, Johnson and the others playing on these fears and on misapprehension and misunderstanding of how membership of the EU had benefitted and was still benefitting Britain. The vote last week was a protest one. It has proved to be the Mother of all Protest Votes!.
As to what to do now, no ready solution seems on offer. If indeed the Referendum result is considered to be irrevocable and not to be revisited, which at this point in time appears to be the case, lengthy and complex negotiations lie ahead. Whether these can be concluded within the two years specified by Article 50 once invoked remains to be seen, but this is technical and can surely be tweaked .Yes, an IGC could easily amend the time limit if in everybody’s interest. Alternatively surely the EC old device of stopping the clock could be used. The significance of Article 50 is that invoking it is the starting gun.
Any such negotiations will be of major importance for Ireland. From our national point of view the consequences of BREXIT are enormous, not only economically – Britain is our largest trading partner – but because of the Northern Ireland dimension, involving as it does the whole Peace Process, the land border ( the only one the UK has with the rest of the EU) and the vital Common Travel Area between the two countries. Will that survive? And how will it be regulated? What if Ireland were to become a back door for entry into Britain? And what of the Peace Process? A landmark success but arguably still bedding down. Noel Dorr has an interesting piece on the importance of this for Ireland in today’s Irish Times One Scottish columnist lamented what he referred to as the “casual vindictiveness” with which the English had voted. Most in Ireland would concur. And indeed, what will befall Scotland?
The formulae for getting around the Irish vetoes hardly offers a way forward, though if there could be agreement on the end to be achieved that would be a start. (In Ireland’s case there was a willingness on both sides to achieve the necessary compromise and none of the fundamental foundations of the EU were in dispute.) Here the first and perhaps fundamental red line, if and whenever any negotiations actually begin, appears to be for both sides the issue of free movement of labour. Could this be tweaked? A lengthy derogation perhaps? And what about EU citizens already in Britain?
If this issue could be sorted, by both sides showing willingness, it might be feasible to contemplate a new British government, with or without an election, taking the plunge on a second referendum. There are already signs of the “Oh Jesus” factor emerging – i.e. “ Oh Jesus! Did we really vote for that?” with the subtext that we might vote again. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But Britain already has a major opt-out of arguably another of the EU’s cornerstones – Schengen. Right now there is a huge hole threatening in the fabric of the European economy, with possible worldwide consequences. The nature of the EC/EU has been to stagger on and advance crabwise; not ideal but practicable. We should be considering all options and agreeing on what is least-bad for all.