The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by John Chudleigh.

‘Brexit means Brexit’, so chimed the somewhat circular and cleverly obfuscated reassurance from the UK’s new PM Theresa May in her attempts to reassure both the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party and 17.4M (52%) of citizens voting to leave the EU on that momentous day June 23 2016. Since no one knows what Brexit really means other than the invocation of the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 50 and the UK being outside of the EU, this statement is an Oxymoron since it is both committal and non-committal.

It is now nearly two months since the unprepared-for result and whilst life in the UK appears to carry on pretty much as normal, bathing in its post-Olympic glory, the effects are slowly starting to sink in.

For many like me who voted Remain, it feels like a mini journey through grief. Denial, Anger, Depression and finally Acceptance? Currently I’m somewhere between Anger and Depression. I’ve not only been a staunch Remain supporter for professional but also personal reasons. My wife, a recent naturalised Brit, came from Germany over 20 years ago, working most of that time in higher education. Her citizenship was in part down to my pestering, after Cameron’s referendum pledge, as an insurance policy in the then unlikely event we voted Leave.

I remember the 1975 Referendum campaign but too young to vote was still impressed by the passionate causes for remaining, articulated by a generation of orators seared by memories of WWII and noting that ‘Keeping Britain in Europe’ was a bigger thing than simply comparing selected grocery prices in Brussels, London and Oslo.

There has much hand-wringing and naval-gazing about the result given all the warnings of

self-inflicted damage to our economy, which despite growing at a healthier rate than the rest of the EU since the financial crash, is still precariously burdened with a generational debt legacy.

Why did we have a referendum?

A strange paradox existed for years, where despite both the EU being low in voters’ concerns and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, UKIP only ever having had one MP, the perceived feeling within the Conservative party was that this was a 25-year old boil needing lancing. Cameron’s pledge to hold one, in 2013, was designed to appease his Eurosceptics and take the electoral wind out of UKIP’s sails for the 2015 General Election. Cameron took what he saw was a calculated and winnable risk, increasing the chances of a Tory majority government and finally putting to bed the Europe issue which he wanted his party to ‘stop banging on about’.

Why did we vote the way we did?

The reasons the way we voted are complex and nuanced and I’ll only touch on the bigger reasons here. Within the four countries making up the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain whilst England and Wales voted Leave. Because England is demographically disproportional to the rest of the UK representing 84% of the population, its vote outweighed the results elsewhere. This not only created fractures inevitably between the countries of the UK, but within itself.

Those voting Leave were from across the political spectrum, including lower income groups and those feeling left behind. For many it was simply a way to have a go at the Elites, whether from Brussels or Westminster. Despite being a nation of immigrants the ‘left-behinders’ felt they had gained nothing from globalisation, immigration and austerity. Fuelled by resentment and misinformation not only through the tabloid press and social media but also the increasing divide between rich and poor, the Referendum presented a generational opportunity to vent their anger. UKIP cleverly exploited that, filling a vacuum or, to put it another way, talking about the ‘Elephant in the Room’ immigration, other parties up until it was too late were too scared to.

The Remain campaign relied too much on Project Fear buoyed by its apparent success during the Scottish Referendum. However, despite various warnings, some of which were true and others exaggerated, the simpler and distorted messages about ‘taking back control’, cutting immigration and saving £350M a week for our beleaguered national treasure and sacred cow, the NHS, made traction with the Leave voters.

This demographic is not unique to the UK. We see it played out in different forms across Europe and in the US with Trump. Traditional blue collar and lower middle classes feeling they have little or no stake in ‘post-industrial’ societies, unfairly competing for limited resources with what are perceived as alien cultures, particularly in rural and post-industrial communities not traditionally used to influxes of migrants.

Other reasons perhaps not so emotive or visceral to others concerned the issues of sovereignty and the Eurozone. Despite opt-outs from the single currency and ‘ever closer union’, recent Eurozone crises in both Greece, the other PIGS (Portugal, Ireland & Spain) and the social consequences resulting from ECB imposed austerity medicine, were still fresh in the memory. Moreover, there still appeared to be no strategic vision for the Eurozone, with seemingly irreconcilable forces pulling in opposite directions. Do Euro states surrender more sovereignty to achieve a more stable currency or less in order to avoid potential Frexits, Deuxits or Itexits? Donald Tusk, no less, has implied that closer union sentiments need to be reassessed.

More recent ‘Events dear boy’ (paraphrasing Harold Macmillan, the first British PM applying for membership of the then EEC) not of the EU’s making, relating to mass migration from Syria and North Africa, and recent terrorist tragedies in France also wrongly fed into the emotive narrative.

There were also those oddly wanting to register a protest vote, never thinking we might actually leave and shocked by the result as much as the Remainers. Although hard to quantify they exist and along with those felt they were lied to, belong to those showing ‘Buyers’ Remorse’.

What are the constitutional implications for the UK?

Despite Brexit meaning Brexit and the establishment of a Brexit ministry, invoking Article 50 will not happen until at least early next year and possibly even later or even ever? Can it be invoked by the PM’s Authority alone without parliamentary approval whose members overwhelmingly voted Remain? We are always told Parliament is sovereign and the irony is that the original and long standing objections to UK membership was the erosion of this. Could Parliament still vote against Article 50 or against whatever deal Mrs. May’s Brexit team cobble together? Bizarre though it may seem, could Article 50 be revoked within the 2-year exit timeframe? These issues are now being discussed within legal and constitutional circles.

These imponderables will run in parallel along with other seismic constitutional implications involving the very existence of the UK.

The vote to leave the EU was only won through the weight of English votes. Two of the UK’s nations, Scotland and Northern Ireland voting decisively to remain, creating a dilemma the governing Tory party until June 23 and the narrowish result of the recent Scottish Independence Referendum were not really willing to address.

Will there be another Scots Indie Referendum? There has been talk of this given their Remain vote, but it is only that at present. There appears to be no appetite for another now and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party recognises this. If she put the country through another one and lost, even by a narrower margin, it would spell disaster for the nationalists and kick any such aspirations into the long grass by decades. There is also understandably no blue print from the SNP for independence in the wake of the EU Referendum result. There has also been talk of a cross-border poll in Ireland about the North reuniting with the Republic but given its recent troubled history I don’t think this will happen any time soon.

Since the general consensus amongst Europe’s political elites is not to encourage separatism, particularly in Spain, Scotland would have to be accept both the Euro and Schengen, thus creating a hard border with the remainder of the UK which after being inextricably linked for over 300 years would be possibly an even greater risk than leaving the EU.

In an effort to retain the UK as a nation state, constitutional reformers are already examining a looser and more federal arrangement beyond the existing devolved governments for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales so that all four nations become in effect self-governing. The exceptions would be areas like a Central Bank, Supreme Court, UK Senate, Defence and Foreign Affairs, entered into through a voluntary union, although whether constituent parts of such a federal UK could be accommodated within the EU remains to be seen. Such an arrangement, effectively abolishing the existing British Parliament, might be the only way to avoid its long-term break-up, allowing the politically very different countries within the UK to have more say in their own affairs, including the establishment of an English Parliament for the first time in over 300 years. This is all some way off and speculative, but it is being considered seriously and chaired no less than by a Conservative peer of the realm. Mrs. May poignantly noted in her maiden speech on becoming PM about how precious the Union was to her, reminding all that she and her government are members of the Conservative and Unionist party.

What are the Economic choices for the UK?

During the Referendum, the Leave campaign naively presented ‘pick and mix’ trading options which could be chosen with relative ease, citing Canada, Norway, Switzerland and even Greenland as examples.

Do we become part of the European Economic Area (EEA) where the UK would still have full access to the Single Market, including services, and regain controls on areas like Fisheries and Agriculture? If we do, something is going to have to give, unless Mrs. May’s negotiators (of which she is busily recruiting) can deliver a better deal than Norway with some controls on free movement of labour, ensuring Leave voters’ aspirations are addressed, i.e. Control of Borders and Immigration. The irony is that in order to have access to the Single Market, the UK will still have to pay into it with no say in the rules made or, as the Norwegians call it, ‘Fax Democracy’.

Whether the UK remains the world’s fifth biggest economy or not, it will have to make compromises some of which will be uncomfortable for those adamant about their presumed ‘red lines’ and why they campaigned or voted Leave. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has suggested that we could potentially shrink our GDP by 4% by not having full access to the Single Market. If that were the case, would it be a price worth paying?

We would then be left with variations of the Swiss and Canadian models, or by simply becoming a member of the Word Trade Organisation as an independent state rather than as currently part of the EU.

This is a hugely complex task with the options and potential outcomes too numerous to mention including big areas like Financial Services, Public Procurement and the status of existing resident EU nationals. Whatever is concluded at the end of this indeterminate period will have at the very least to be put to the British Parliament, in whatever form that is, and quite possibly to the UK plebiscite again in the form of yet another referendum.

If there is another referendum, Brexiters next time will have to be more chastened and present a far more robust and unified case based on facts and not half-truths and lies, e.g. ‘Turkey is joining the EU’ to hopefully a wiser and more informed electorate.

In the meantime, paraphrasing both a rediscovered World War II poster, we phlegmatic Brits will ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ because like The Eagles’ Hotel California, although we can check out (of the EU) anytime we like, maybe, just maybe, we can never leave?

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