Reflections on Brexit: The rude awakening

Westminster lightning storm

Almost two months after the British decision to leave the EU, the UK and Europe are still reeling from the fallout. For David Cameron, who thought by calling the referendum to pacify his right wingers and see off the challenge from UKIP, and for those who dreamed that a leave vote would usher in a golden age of independence and regained sovereignty, it has been a rude awakening.

An unnecessary referendum

David Cameron had no need to call a referendum. A clear majority of members of Parliament supported EU membership and, according to the polls, most people in Britain were content to be in the EU or at least indifferent; there was no widespread call for a referendum other than from a small, albeit vociferous, minority in UKIP and the right wing of the Conservative Party. Had the Prime Minister kept his nerve and taken a firm hand with his Euro-sceptic colleagues, he could have got on with the business of governing the country, Britain would still be united, the Scottish independence issue would have been settled “for a generation” and Cameron himself would have remained as Prime Minister at least until the next general election in three years’ time.

Instead, government has been paralysed since the referendum was called and remains so as almost every government department struggles with the practical consequences of leaving the EU; the pound has plummeted, stock-markets around the globe have been in turmoil and UK property markets have slumped putting smaller banks under severe strain so that the Bank of England has had to introduce special measures to support them. The share price of low-cost airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair has collapsed (EasyJet by 30%) over fears about continuing access to European markets.

The wider fall out

Governments in Europe and around the world received the news with dismay. The Japanese government held a special Cabinet meeting to discuss Brexit. Many Japanese companies manufacture in Britain because of the access it gives them to the European market. It is now probable that thousands of British jobs will disappear as this manufacturing is transferred to continental Europe. For the United States, the UK has hitherto had a special role as its interlocutor on European affairs because of both its membership of the EU and the Special Relationship with the US. The vice president of the US Federal Reserve commented on American television that, while the US would not be greatly affected, this decision would have very severe consequences for both Britain and Europe. President Obama has also made clear that Britain would now have to go to “the back of the queue” when it came to US relations with Europe.

A country divided

At home, the country has become deeply divided. In fact, only England and Wales voted (by a narrow margin) to leave while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain. The UK is thus split along geographical and national lines. It is also split along socio-economic lines with the old, the poor and the less well educated voting to leave while the young, the better educated and the relatively better off voted predominantly to remain. Communities have been torn apart as anti-immigrant feelings have been whipped up resulting in sporadic violence, (most tragically in the case of the ghastly murder of Jo Cox MP). Around Europe, far right and neo-fascist parties, encouraged by the British vote, are now demanding their own referendums and whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. The future for Britain is very uncertain and David Cameron’s own political career is in ruins. His decision to hold the referendum must class as the most catastrophic error of judgment in modern British political history.

Referendum or vote of confidence?

What could have caused such a debacle? Cameron ignored the golden rule about referendums, i.e. that one should only ever give the voters a choice between an outcome which the government wants and has planned for, or the status quo. To allow voters to reject the status quo with no clear alternative, leaving them open to the blandishments of a motley assortment of ultra-nationalists, racists, xenophobes and self-interest groups, with no responsibility for delivering on the wild promises they were making, was not simply foolish but appallingly irresponsible. It turned what was supposed to be a referendum on EU membership into a vote of confidence in David Cameron’s government.

The revolt of the working classes

One of the most striking facts about the referendum was that, while the Labour Party officially supported the Remain campaign, most solidly Labour working class areas in places such as Wales, South Yorkshire and the North-East of England voted to leave. Post referendum interviews reveal that many of these voters had little understanding of or interest in the economic arguments for EU membership. Some were certainly seduced by the anti-immigrant rhetoric. But most, encouraged by Vote Leave campaigners to believe that this was a vote against the “Westminster establishment”, saw it primarily as a chance to give the hated duo of David Cameron and George Osborne a bloody nose. For these voters it was payback time for years of austerity, cuts in benefits, the bedroom tax, high unemployment, lack of affordable housing and a myriad of other grievances which had little or nothing to do with the EU but a great deal to do with UK government policies.

A lamentable failure

Coupled with that was the lamentable failure of the Remain campaign to contest robustly the outrageously mendacious propaganda of the Leave campaign on immigration and EU financing compounded by the lack of strong leadership. Both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn lacked credibility because of their hitherto ambivalent attitude to the EU while Cameron’s largely futile “renegotiation” on the issue of benefits for EU migrants encouraged voters to believe in a problem which did not really exist and actually weakened rather than strengthened his case for remaining. Finally many Scottish Nationalist voters, although in favour of EU membership, knowing full well that a leave vote in England would trigger a second independence referendum in Scotland simply stayed away (and this despite Nicola Sturgeon’s very principled stance in arguing the Remain case).

A chimpanzee’s tea party

Meanwhile, those mainly responsible for persuading the British public to vote Leave have simply walked away. Boris Johnson declined to contest for the Prime Minister’s job; Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, resigned (again), leaving his colleagues in the British and European Parliaments and numerous local councillors in the lurch and with an existential crisis as their whole raison d’être has disappeared. Commentators around the world have been shocked at such political irresponsibility. US commentators shook their heads in disbelief at the political shambles in Britain while a respected German newspaper compared it to a chimpanzee’s tea party where, having smashed all the crockery and thrown the cakes around, the main protagonists drift off leaving other people to try and clear up the mess.

Thus the United Kingdom is being allowed to slide out of the EU, not because of the “will of the people” but because of the political ineptitude of one man. The whole fiasco has been a text book example in the limitations of direct democracy and the dangers of government by referendum. In particular, allowing the future of the country to be determined by a populist vote, overturning an established government policy supported by a clear majority of the elected MPs, has made nonsense of the “sovereignty of Parliament”.

Whither the UK?

So what happens now? The rapid confirmation of Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister has restored some stability to the government and avoided a prolonged period of rudderless drift, while the shambles over the Labour Party leadership has given her some political space. That Theresa May understood what the referendum vote was really about was evident from her first address as Prime Minister when she pointedly ignored the EU question but signalled a complete break with the austerity programme of the Cameron-Osborne government and promised to focus on social justice. She has also astutely placed the principle Brexiteers, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davies, in the Europe-facing departments where they will have the unenviable task of trying to negotiate the terms of the British exit.

She knows full well that the really difficult time is still ahead when the disillusion with Brexit sets in; when it becomes clear that, despite the wild promises, Britain will not be able to put a halt to immigration in anything like the near future – indeed we will almost certainly see a spike in EU immigration as many would-be immigrants rush to beat a possible cut-off date. With a potential end to free movement they are also more likely to bring their families and settle permanently, provoking the very strain on health care and social services which Brexit was supposed to prevent. Moreover, if Britain wishes to retain access to the Single Market it will have to accept the Single Market rules, including EU regulations, continued free movement and the payment of custom revenues to the EU budget, as do Norway and (to a very large extent) Switzerland but without any say in the EU decision-making processes. Whatever the new Prime Minister may say, there may be an increasing demand for a further referendum once the true costs of leaving become clear and the British people realise that they have been misled. It is by no means a done deal.

The end of the Union

Theresa May has also stressed her commitment to the United Kingdom and taken the earliest possible opportunities to meet with the heads of the devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Island and Wales. But she knows full well that if Brexit goes ahead without special arrangements for Scotland and Northern Ireland to allow them to remain in the EU (which has already been ruled out in Brussels) the break-up of the UK is surely inevitable. Without Scottish oil revenues or the excise duties on Scotch whisky (the UK’s 3rd largest export) and with much of London’s financial services industry moving to Europe, the residual parts of the UK would be much poorer with significantly less money to spend on things such as health care, pensions and other social security benefits or nuclear deterrents. Some economists are predicting a long period of slow economic decline with England and Wales reverting to its ancient status as a relatively insignificant country on the fringes of Europe. That would be a sad prospect for a once great nation.

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British citizen Michael Carberry is a long-term resident in France who did not have a vote in the EU referendum. He found this very frustrating given that he has been concerned with or directly involved with Britain’s place in Europe for over half a century. He first spoke in a debate about Britain’s proposed membership of the (then) European Community in 1964. As a UK diplomat in the European Community Department of the Foreign Office during the Thatcher government he coordinated aspects of Britain’s EU policy across Whitehall departments, answered MPs’ letters and parliamentary questions on EU matters, drafted the negotiating briefs for Britain’s representatives in the Council of Ministers and European Council meetings and himself took part in official level meetings in Brussels. After leaving the Diplomatic Service, he dealt with EU affairs for major international companies based in both the UK and France, regularly visiting the Commission in Brussels and some 19 of the current EU member states as well as working with colleagues from almost every European country. He was also a candidate for a seat in the European Parliament.

Not having a vote has not stopped him from taking an interest in, and thinking about, the referendum debate. This article is the fourth to be published on the Votes for Expat Brits Blog and which are the fruits of his reflections on the referendum campaign and its outcome so far.

These are his personal views.

Scroll down this page to “See Also”, below the comments area, for the full report and more articles on Brexit and the UK EU Referendum.