Tag Archives: Brexit

Time for us all to grow up

Brexit is a terrible indictment of our political culture. We have all, on both sides, refused to behave like grownups, to take responsibility for our mistakes and misjudgements, and to be prepared to spend time understanding the issues, and recognising that change takes time. Watching a video of a woman in Lancashire in tears, berating some Remainers with “my father fought a war against the Germans, and they are walking all over us” reminded me sharply that on both sides people are experiencing extreme distress, the issues are as much emotional as practical. We are a deeply divided society, and the Prime Minister’s assurance that “65 million people want us to get on with it” is a straight and deliberate lie.
Human beings naturally tend to take recent achievements for granted, and complain about the things which have got worse. Those who hark back to the time before joined the Common Market forget how cold it was, how limited our diet, how poor most people’s education was, and how (by today’s standards) feeble our health services. We lived with the real risk of a nuclear war which might destroy the human race. Life expectancy was much shorter, and much work was hard, dull and damaging to people’s health. We had polluted rivers and poor air quality, only two TV channels, six month waits for a telephone line, few foreign holidays,
However, although most of these things are immeasurably better for almost everyone now, we Remainers failed to pay attention to what was happening in many communities which lost their sense of purpose in the 1980s. For them, the past has looked rosier than the future for a long time (partly because we were all younger then!). We have had a long time to think about it, but when the economic and cultural tide was swinging in our direction it felt as if all was well with the world, and we failed to see the need to take action. This was not just about a fairer distribution of money (though that might have helped). Money matters, but meaning and respect matter more. What was needed was an idea of how we create meaning in the lives of individuals and communities which had been founded round a clear purpose – mining, fishing, manufacturing, seaside holidays – which was not longer there. We still have no clear answers, but Brexit will certainly not provide one.
On the other hand, the Leavers, and the political representatives of their communities, failed to recognise that change comes slowly, some changes are irreversible, and all change involves compromises with people we disagree about, or with different interests. Nothing our government can do can bring back coal and steel, and there are no simple answers. Demagogues and populists offer simple, easy to understand, recipes, but they never work because the world is not like that. In its Article 50 letter, the Government is already proposing a Brexit which offers much less than the leavers promised. The referendum campaign focused around two major issues: free trade with our biggest trading partner and nearest neighbours, and the control of immigration. It was always clear that we could not have both, and the Government is now proposing to abandon the first in favour of the second. On the first, the loss of free trade will affect everyone. On the second, either we have a significant reduction in immigration, which will cause severe economic and social damage, or we don’t (as the Government is now hinting) in which case the leave campaigners will feel betrayed.
At the end of March a YouGov poll suggested that most people believe that Brexit will reduce immigration, but also that they will be worse off, prices will rise, and the UK will have less influence in the world. The people of the “left behind” communities will not have more influence over a Conservative government in Westminster than they have over a combination of Westminster and Brussels. When Brexit brings recession, these are the communities which will suffer most. Putting it right means working at creating change, and putting effort into real politics – thinking about alternatives, and working to bring them about.
People have always distrusted politicians, and the right wing media actively campaign to undermine trust in political institutions, because when they work well, they constrain the power of the rich and powerful. But politics is how we bring about change, and it is more than turning out to vote for a party every few years. We have failed to treat political education seriously in our education system, partly because of a crowded curriculum, and partly because of fear of indoctrination. But if people don’t learn about how change happens, and how it can be influenced, the sense of powerlessness persists, and feeds resentment and anger. It is not about how many MPs there are, it is about understanding how to find the facts, how to make the arguments, and how to make change.
It’s time we tried to be more grown up and to do the real work which citizenship requires.

A dark day for the UK

Yesterday the UK Government served notice that it intends to leave the European Union. We are leaving the second largest economy in the world, severing links which have kept the peace and brought us together with friends and neighbours for over 40 years. We have created uncertainty and instability in the lives of millions of people who have moved here from other parts of the EU, or have moved from here to other parts of the EU. We have given up our influence, our friends, and our economic future.  We have abandoned the idea that we could work better with our neighbours to solve major problems like climate change, product safety and quality, and decent working conditions. We have abandoned the idea that it is better to have a single European Court to rule on the implementation of agreements between European countries

For 40 years we have been one of the “big three” nations in the EU, with a major say in policy decisions. Membership magnified our influence on the world stage, and not much ever happened in Europe without the agreement of Germany, France and the UK. That is one reason why the overwhelming majority of MPs of all parties voted remain. Those who want to “take back control” over laws and regulations can rarely identify any specific regulations which they actually want to remove except things like the working time directive, which protect workers’ rights. On many progressive issues it is our Government which has obstructed progress.

Opinion polls suggest that the most important reason for people to vote leave was to control immigration. However, almost all the people living here who have come from other parts of the EU are either working, or are students. So our economy needs them. Since freedom of movement of people, capital, goods and services is the fundamental principle of the Union, full access to the single market was never going to be compatible with controlling movement of people into and out of the UK. So we are throwing away our free trade with our biggest market (44% of all our exports go to other EU countries), and our vote on how the Europan ecoomy is managed,  in return for controlling immigration. But if we reduce it, labour shortages will severely damage our economy: if we don’t reduce it, we will have given up our political influence and economic strengths in return for nothing.

We are leaving on the basis of a referendum which was explicitly advisory, where a narrow majority voted leave, and the leave campaign claimed that leaving would not prevent us remaining members of the single market. The Government’s claim that “65 million people want us to get on with Brexit” is demonstrably untrue. 11 million are under 15 and have no vote. Of those eligible to vote in the referendum 37% voted to leave, 35% voted to remain, and 28% did not vote. It is reasonable to claim therefore that at the time of the referendum 63% of the electorate did not want to change the status quo and leave the EU. Opinion polls since show that few people have changed their minds in either direction. The Government, and the leave campaigners have consistently tried to maintain the myth that the referendum result was a clear and overwhelming decision.

As of March 2017, we have no idea what kind of settlement will emerge from the next two years.  The process has started, and no political party expects to reverse the decision until the position is much clearer. However, it is entrirely possible that the terms of our leaving will be much worse, economically, socially and politically than remaining members, and it is possible that the majority of the electorate will agree, when the picture becomes clear. This is particularly likely since most young people, and most people with higher education qualifications voted to remain and most old people, and people without qualifications voted to leave. Over two years the balance between these two groups will inevitably shift in favour of the former, as young people enter the electorate and older people die.

The Government has promised that at the end of the negotiation Parliament will have a vote on whether to accept the deal (just as the Parliaments of the EU and the other 27 member states will). However, this plan will be a binary choice, between the deal negotiated or leaving without a deal, in which case a mass of regulations will be left in limbo, and we will be trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, which will introduce tariffs and customs checks on many of our exports and imports.

This does not need to be the only choice. There will, in reality, be four options at the end of negotiations:

  1. Leave the EU on the terms negotiated. At present we have no idea what those terms might be. We know something of what our Government is asking for, but we cannot know what the other parties might be prepared to accept. There are strong political reasons why this may not be generous to the UK.
  2. Leave the EU but remain in the European Economic Area (like Norway). This is possible, since we are members of the EEA under a separate Treaty. EEA membership includes full membership of the single market, but not all the regulations (Norway opts out of the Fisheries policy). EEA members can restrict the free movement of people in specific circumstances.
  3. Leave the EU without agreement, reverting to World Trade Organisation rules. This would mean the immediate imposition of tariffs on British exports to the EU and to all other countries. The economic consequences would almost certainly be worse than the previous two options.
  4. Remain a member of the EU on the current terms. This might be achieved by our formally withdrawing our Article 50 notice. Whether this is possible is unclear, since the EU Treaty does not specify a right to withdraw Article 50 notice but neither does it prevent this. The draft response to our Article 50 letter from the European Parliament explicitly says that we can withdraw our notice, and this is currently under consideration in the Irish Courts. It would ultimately be a matter for the European Court of Justice to decide. Alternatively we could ask the other 27 states to agree to us withdrawing our Article 50 notice. They might wish to do this, and if they all agreed, they could legally allow this (members of the EU make the rules).

I believe that the final decision should rest with Parliament, considering all four options. Since the Brexit decision was made by referendum, it might be wise to undertake a referendum on the four options, to advise Parliament. This would avoid giving disproportionate weight to “the will of the people” as expressed at a particular moment in 2016.  Such a referendum would be less divisive than the 2016 one, since there would be four choices on offer.