England & Wales, You Have No Idea What You Have Set In Motion. Or What You Haven’t
June 26, 2016
by Martin Odoni
In some ways, after weeks of witnessing constant deceit and visceral hatred from almost all sides, I am so plagued by referendum-fatigue that I am past caring, but I have to ask a question to the ‘Brexiteers’; –
Do you people have an inkling of what you have set in motion?
Doubtless many of those who have voted to leave the European Union will stand there, chests puffed out with pride, and say, “‘Course we do! We’ve taken back our liberty. We’ve brought our country back, given it its independence, we’ve started the resurrection of Britain!”
No, you have not. You have set in motion all sorts of other effects, but that one? No. Indeed, it could be argued that you have done the opposite.
To make myself clear, while I did vote for Remain, and did some campaign work for it near the end, I was not that strongly committed to it, and only made my decision in the last few weeks before the polls opened. I am a fan of the idea of European unity, but I am not a fan of the EU, which is, when push comes to shove, something of an ‘Austerity Club’. Just see its brutal bullying of Greece over the last couple of years to see the very ugly side of the European Union, and why its single currency is increasingly looking like a scam to crowbar Europe into sweeping away all semblance of a public sector. They are genuine reasons to want to distance ourselves.
So I was always open to the idea of withdrawing from the EU. However, it is an absolutely huge step – bigger perhaps than most Leave voters realise – with monumental knock-on implications. So if I was to be swayed, I needed to be presented with a clear, workable and coherent framework by the Leave campaigns, outlining what Britain would do next once it had withdrawn.
Instead, all I could find was an ugly, distasteful mixture of irresponsible, scarcely-relevant rhetoric about immigration, and obviously untrue claims about the expense of being in the Union. I had concluded, by the start of June, that there really was no coherent plan for a post-EU future – and there still is none* – and so the Leave campaign must have been entirely focused around the very questionable view that leaving the Union is an end in itself. “Anything replacing this has to be better.”
(I imagine people in the Weimar Republic were thinking that of their own country around 1930…)
In fairness, I was disgusted by the most vocal elements of both the Leave and Remain campaigns. Although Leave was more frequently deceitful, in one sense the dishonesty of the Remain campaign was even more inexcusable, as they really had no reason for it. The knock-on effects of the withdrawal ahead will be enormous, very, very complicated, and deeply destabilising. Had they simply laid out those details more fully and more often, instead of resorting to the usual preferred David Cameron/George Osborne tactic of threats and hyperbolic scaremongering, I honestly think Remain would have won handsomely.
Those knock-on effects are substantial, and some of them will be the opposite of what Leave campaigners imagine.
Most particularly, that very large core who keep telling us they are not racists i.e. the ones who want to slow down, or put a stop to, immigration, have scored a spectacular own goal. They fear the refugees in the camps around Calais are terrorists trying to get into the UK, and think that the EU’s ‘open borders’ under Schengen will let them sneak in.
What these people do not realise, of course, is that the UK is not even part of the Schengen Area; see the map here (Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, incidentally, which are not members of the EU, are Schengen countries). Furthermore, Britain, under the 2003 Treaty of Le Touquet, has the right to take part in policing the Channel Tunnel at Calais. The withdrawal from the EU actually jeopardises that treaty, and sure enough, there are already demands in France that it now be re-negotiated. Of course, a re-negotiation is not necessarily the death of that, but it will be an intricate, time-consuming extra process, at the end of which the UK will not have recognisably better control than it had previously. So was it worth it?
Control of immigration is in fact far easier within the EU, where the processes are co-ordinated with far more integration between different police forces across the continent. Step outside of that network, and the police forces on the continent will feel no obligation to carry on sharing the burden our own police have to bear. So again, was it worth it?
“Well at least we can reduce the number of EU migrants coming into the country to steal our jobs!” declare the strictly non-racists who keep using identical rhetoric to all past racist groups. But is it even true? Well not exactly, no. Pro-Leave MEP Daniel Hannan, (about whom there will be more later) has admitted that he expects Britain’s future relationship with the EU to be something akin to that of Norway. Norway is a Schengen country (see above), which means it has open borders, and is more or less compelled to follow EU rules when trading with EU countries. It just has no say over what shape those rules will take. We do have influence over that at present, and that is what we will be surrendering when we leave. So once again, was it worth it?
Even if immigration really did become easier to control outside the EU, that does not necessarily mean good news. The ancient mantra about foreigners ‘coming over here stealing our jobs’ is not only unfair, it is simply untrue. An influx of people make for a larger economy, and that is especially good news in a service economy like the one with which we are presently encumbered. More people in the country means more customers who need services. That in turn means more work for the service sector, which means more jobs are likely to become available. It is with high emigration that people’s jobs are most likely to be taken away. You might just as well grumble about babies ‘being born and stealing our jobs’.
I shall not ask again whether it was worth it.
But as I say, the knock-on effects of Brexit will not include better control of immigration anyway. While members of the Leave campaigns – official and otherwise – try to insist that no promises have been made on reducing immigration, it is very clear that many of their supporters believed it was, and since the vote have been emboldened in their aggressive behaviour towards foreigners and people of colour. (Many anti-immigration activists even seem to imagine that they have voted for repatriation of migrants, which is the form a lot of the growing tensions are taking.)
What the knock-on effects do include is instability. Serious instability, both inside the country and beyond these shores. At home, that anti-immigration unrest is one of the forms this instability takes, and there is already a danger of it turning violent
Add to this the very quick backtracking by Leave campaigners, official or otherwise, on implied promises, almost from the moment that the Leave lead was confirmed to be unassailable. This will also lead to unrest at home. Now the Leave campaigners can argue, and have argued, that such promises were not made word-for-word, but they did their best to give the impression that they were, and certainly made very little attempt to disabuse people of the notion. The aforementioned Daniel Hannan was a lot louder about immigration not going down after he had the result he wanted, than he had been before. Particular condemnation of course for Nigel Farage of UKIP, who also waited until the win was in the bag before disassociating himself from the official Leave campaign’s talk of reassigning £350 million per week in EU funding to the National Health Service. It was a false claim anyway, due to the UK rebate and the knock-on trade stimulus provided by being in the Single Market – the £350 million is simply the ‘priming of the pump’ which will only pump something back to us if we put that opening investment in* – but for Farage to retain any credibility or honour, he should have spoken out loudly and publicly against this fraudulence weeks ago. (On the flipside, the official campaign should equally have spoken out against the false implications of UKIP’s constant talk of Brexit leading to immigration reductions. To their credit, they did speak out against the racism of UKIP’s poster campaign, but not against the deceit of it. And the ever vile Iain Duncan-Smith, who is already trying to pretend that no pledge to transfer EU funds to the NHS was ever made, is claiming black is white yet again. Why did he never take a chance to clarify what the bus was saying while he was standing in front of it?
A verbatim promise? No. But it is plainly very, very misleading, and deliberately so, so it might just as well be a flat-out lie.)
Instability within Government has been substantial, with David Cameron announcing his resignation as Prime Minister (and with usual cynical cowardice, passing on the heavy responsibility of activating Article 50 to his successor), and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn facing an (admittedly opportunistic and fabricated) uprising by his own Shadow Cabinet.
As for effects outside the UK, just look at what this is going to do to Ireland; and heaven knows, it is long past time that the British stopped doing wrong by Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was one of the finest and most remarkable achievements in the history of European diplomacy, as it finally brought about what, throughout the previous quarter of a century, had seemed impossible. It brought an end, more or less, to ‘The Troubles’. And ‘Brexit’ has endangered it. This is because the Republic of Ireland is still going to be in the EU, but Northern Ireland is not. The border between them, which has been little more than a formality for a generation, will have to be enforced again, especially to prevent it from becoming a ‘back door’ route into Britain for immigrants who have entered the Irish Republic. Tensions will be increased, especially for Catholics in the north who will be cut off once more from the south, but also along the border in general; it was always easily breached during The Troubles, even while it was patrolled by the British Army, and will have to be policed very strictly post-Brexit, which is sure to cause some unease among locals on both sides. The Good Friday Agreement included a specific protocol that the people of Ulster would always be able to be citizens of the UK or the Republic, or even both, at their own discretion; but Brexit would mean they are both members of the EU and not members of the EU, therefore subject to the EU’s laws and yet not subject to them, simultaneously. The fact that the people of England and Wales (I will not say ‘mainland British’ as that is unfair on the pro-Remain majority in Scotland) do not appear to have thought about this difficulty implies almost a colonial lack of consideration.
Add to that the reality that the majority in Northern Ireland, perhaps with the above issues in mind, have voted against leaving the EU, and the possibility is raised that it may have to leave the UK. Potentially it could be absorbed into the Republic, or to stand alone as an independent province, but either way, the question is destabilising, especially as it risks stirring up old arguments that the Good Friday Agreement seemed to have settled. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Northern Ireland has been a picture of harmony over the last 18 years, after decades of blood and grief, peace has at least been the dominant condition. Now the agreement that brought it about may have to be re-negotiated.
Scotland, too, voted against leaving. One of the arguments that arguably swung the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence was that staying in the UK would allow Scotland to remain in the EU without having to adopt the euro as its currency. But the result of Thursday’s referendum has proven that notion completely false, handing the Scottish National Party the ideal pretext for reviving the argument and holding a second Independence referendum. With the current price of oil so low, an independent Scotland’s current ability to function as a trading nation is in a measure of doubt, but the prize may still be seen as worth the price.
The United Kingdom itself is, in short, now in danger of breaking up, and whether you believe that is a good thing or a bad thing – speaking for myself I am quite okay with it – it will certainly not be the resurrection of Britain; it will be its undoubted termination.
Meanwhile, the UK is not the only union that Brexit has imperilled. It has also given huge ammunition to extreme Right groups across Europe, fighting to extract their countries from the European Union. Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, within hours of the referendum result coming through in the UK, was calling for a ‘Frexit’ referendum, while Dutch extremist Geert Wilders was pushing for a ‘Nexit.’. It seems quite certain that at least a few more withdrawals will follow, and with each passing withdrawal, another withdrawal becomes more likely.
Britain’s decision has potentially destabilised Europe. What do I care what they do in Europe once we’re out of it? you ask. Simple, history is what should make you care; if there is one lesson the last three thousand years of European history has taught us, it is that the last eventuality anyone on Earth can afford is a dis-unified, destabilised Europe. People tend to die in horribly large numbers when we have a Europe like that. The British may not want to be a part of that, but if they could hardly stay out of it in the 1940’s, they certainly have no way of avoiding it in the face of the military technology of today.
Further afield, old treaties that were settled with the EU are now going to need re-negotiating by the British, and again, some of them are going to re-open old wounds. Territorial issues overseas with other European countries in particular will now become harder to reconcile without the shared governance of the EU. For instance, if the UK leaves the union, Gibraltar leaves too, even though it voted very decisively to remain in the EU. This immediately scuppers fair access to ‘the Rock’ for Spain. So naturally Spain is now demanding a complete new settlement, including shared sovereignty with Britain, for Gibraltar.
Due to Britain’s imperial past, there are many such issues that will now have to be re-addressed. Long, slow, wearisome, complicated, and individualised. Possibly expensive too. And once again, destabilising.
Add to this the economic instability Brexit has caused. £200 billion was wiped off the stock market’s value in a few hours, during the deepest and most rapid run-on-the-pound in history as sterling becomes less internationally useful, and hence less desirable, and knock-on slowdowns across the rest of the continent and elsewhere. The country’s credit rating has been downgraded. The British have in fact dropped a lit match into a pool of oil.
All of this, and to make a move that has no follow-up plan in place, only the withdrawal move itself. Now call me presumptuous when I say this, but I am very doubtful indeed that the great majority of people who voted Leave really thought of any of this beforehand. I am perfectly prepared to admit that some of them never occurred to me, but I still thought of enough of them, and asked what the alternative future we were being offered would be – and realised that nobody knew – to say no.
I am not, I want to stress, one of the people arguing for the referendum to be re-run. I accept the verdict, no matter how profoundly I disagree with it, and it would be anti-democratic just to overturn the vote. Also, as I mentioned at the start, I have referendum-fatigue after seeing this whole ghastly process shine a light on Britain at its ugliest. Between the ugly post-victory triumphalism and anti-immigrant aggression of Leave voters, the anti-democratic elitism to emerge from people rejecting the result, and the truly evil murder of Jo Cox (without a shot being fired, Farage? An insult has yet to be invented that is strong enough for you), this whole exercise has shown us as a country at our intolerant and intolerable worst. Even growing up among all the unrest of the 1980’s, I have never known my country to be quite as divisive or hate-filled as it has been over the last few months. It has made me nauseous, unhappy, sometimes frightened, frequently horrified, and I have numerous friends who feel the same as I do. Frankly, the atmosphere has been so fraught that I honestly do not know if the British are capable of another referendum campaign on this subject without descending into civil war. On a more personal note, I also do not know if my own health could cope with it. I concede there is a genuine legal basis for re-running the referendum, as all the retracted pledges from the Leave Campaign can be seen as a violation of contract – under, irony of ironies, EU laws. But no, for better or worse, the decision is made, and as the host of a favourite TV programme of mine used to say, “Once embarked, the only way is onward; there is no turning back.”
What I am saying though, is that the country is going to learn a painful lesson in the most painful way it can; that lesson is to stop misusing certain democratic processes to express opinions on subjects that they are not there to discuss. Many Leave campaigners clearly thought this was anti-immigration matter, and it is now starting to become clear to them that it was not. But it should have been clear beforehand, simply because the question asked was whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union, not whether it should throw out foreigners. Some voted Leave while wanting to Remain, because they carelessly assumed Remain would win, and they were just desperate to demand ‘change’. But as there was no way a vote to decide whether to stay in the EU could offer an articulate description of that change, the only form the change could make is withdrawal from the EU. (And no, the votes will not be interpreted as a call for a change of policy at home, only as a demand to leave the EU.)
In 2011, there was a referendum on electoral reform. People plainly voted No in huge numbers to punish Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for helping the Conservative Party put up tuition fees. But the referendum question was not asking about whether tuition fee increases were a good idea, it was asking about whether there should be a change to the electoral system. Tuition fees in the five years that followed have not gone down as a result of the electoral system staying the same, and an opportunity to make the electoral system (slightly) more representative was spurned for the sake of useless revenge.
I do appreciate that our MPs all-too-often ignore what the public are saying, and I do share the frustration of how difficult it can be to make our wishes articulate and known to those in power, especially when they just do not want to hear it. But misusing a referendum is not the answer to that, and what the country has set in motion in doing so is a machine that will be quite impossible to control. There had to be a clear and workable alternative future available for such a path to be chosen, and there was none. And do the people who did this imagine they got their message across?
So I ask one last time, was it really worth it?
*If you do not believe this, consider the way various Brexit leaders are suddenly insisting that there is ‘no rush‘ to get the wheels turning on withdrawal, while EU officials are saying, “If you’re really going, let’s get on with it.” If the £350 million really were just being wasted when it could be reassigned to the NHS – and if they really cared about the NHS in the way they want us to believe – they would surely want to get started straight away so they could stop making the payments at the earliest opportunity.
Strange, #Brexit leaders were saying it’s insane we’re paying £350m a week to the EU, now saying “No rush to leave”. £150m gone since Friday
— Martin Philip Odoni (@HavetStorm) June 26, 2016
Furthermore, it is all the evidence we need of my earlier point, that the Brexit leaders really do not have – have never had – any coherent or workable framework for what the country will do in the event of a Leave vote. They are now playing for time while they try and make up a policy platform as they go along, while hoping they do not look like they are making it up as they go along.