As you may have noticed, I’ve been mute on the subject of Brexit since the UK General Election in December. Having written about little else for more than three years, I had begun to feel that Brexit was having a terrible impact on my creativity. And without being overly-dramatic, I was also starting to think it was having a dire effect on my mental health too. Brexit had become an amphetamine, a speedball of obsessive fury, and many of us were overdosing. It’s bad enough to have a handful of people in the grip of addiction, but this one was like an opioid epidemic: almost everyone was using. You don’t need to Google to figure out that a constant hit of heightened feeling and agitation isn’t a good thing. Just watching an episode of ‘Question Time’ turn into a real life version of Orwell’s ‘Two Minute Hate’ would tell you all you needed to know about the lure of disappearing down psychoactive rabbit holes of political drama cast in our own imaginations.
Sadly for all of you, most of my narcosis was being published to Facebook. Something had to give. It was time to lock myself in the room and nail the door shut until the cravings stopped.
I began the year by saying that I wanted to use Facebook more wisely. At the time, posting that felt like coming clean at an AA meeting. But since December, I’ve generally avoided UK news and politics altogether. I’ve stopped reading and listening to the news in detail, vacated Twitter and switched to Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In Our Time’ instead of the James O’Brien show on LBC. I am the proverbial Martian who would now land on Primrose Hill and simply ask ‘What’s happening?’ instead of looking for Leavers to scorch with my death-ray.
Like all of you, I’m just a regular person. Before 2016, I was political up to a point. Probably more so than the average man in the street, but never enough to consider myself an anorak. I never wanted to be in The Thick of It. Brexit changed that, not merely because I disagreed with the June 2016 result, but because this particular referendum was so obviously flawed and ill-founded that it inflamed me both intellectually and psychologically. Even before the vote, it was clear that nothing good was likely to emerge from the process set in motion by David Cameron’s selfish complacency. And afterwards? Well, it’s hardly been our finest hour, has it?
So now that Brexit day has finally arrived, I am temporarily breaking my vow of silence. There are some things that need to be said, some seeds that need to be planted, some ideas that need to be held on to. Some day in the future, rain will fall. But after today, and until then, I want no part in the debate. What we lose today is, to my mind, incalculably more than what some people hope to gain.
The brilliant economist Will Hutton, whose views I respect, says that Remainers should fight our EU exile. If he means watch in silent judgement as events deviate ever more from the fantasy promoted by the ERG and anti-EU commentators, then I agree. But I have no energy to shout ‘I told you so’ every step of the way. I think fighting Boris Johnson and his allies, as we have fought them since 2016, would only empower them and give them breathing space to pass the buck. In some respects, the resistance of Remainers allowed Brexit supporters to blame us for their failure to deliver the unicorns. I think there is more benefit in observing as events unfold and simply asking the question when things don’t go according to plan “Is this what you promised us?”
And, more pertinently, if not, what are you doing to do about it?
Fundamentally, Brexit is not a triumph for democracy. The opposite is true. I believe it is a colossal failure of democracy, at many levels and for many reasons, and this is what I want to clearly set out.
I’ll talk about the will of the people in due course, but let’s begin with the obvious point that the EU Referendum in June 2016 excluded a very large number of people who had a direct stake in its outcome. The eligibility criteria didn’t include 16-17 year olds, British expatriates and EU citizens, legally resident in the UK and paying their taxes to maintain our society. All three of these groups will be profoundly affected by Britain’s departure from the EU and yet they were denied a say in determining their own future. This is not just unfair, it is immoral.
In terms of demographics, it’s undeniable that Brexit is a policy chosen by the elderly (over 55’s voted 60:40 in favour of Leave) against the wishes of the young (under 35’s voted 70:30 in favour of Remain). There are no precise figures on the absolute number of voters in each age bracket but it’s likely, for a variety of reasons, that more older citizens cast their vote than younger ones. Having benefited from Britain’s EU membership for most of their adult lives, older voters have withdrawn those advantages and opportunities in the future from their younger compatriots – a future that they will not have to negotiate. And worst of all, they failed to offer them any concrete or reliable alternative in return.
Second, no threshold was stipulated for the outcome of the referendum. Part of the reason for this was that the referendum was presented to Parliament as being advisory and non-binding. Ironically, if the Executive had been bound by an Act of Parliament to implement the result then a higher majority would almost certainly have been required and Brexit would not be happening. In the end, just 37% of the narrowed franchise voted to leave the EU. This is a shockingly inadequate margin for such massive constitutional change. In the House of Commons debate to define the terms of the Referendum, David Liddington, the Minister for Europe, stated that “the legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows”. This principle was established right up until the point that Leave won, after which it became buried under a landslide of triumphalism.
No less ironically, if the 2016 Referendum had been binding on via an Act of Parliament then the result would have been annulled because of the proven breaches of electoral law perpetrated by some of the Leave campaign groups.
Think about that. It’s truly stunning. The biggest political decision in Britain’s modern history is happening because of a referendum process the government was not obliged to act upon. And if it had been obliged to act, the vote would been declared null and void due to one party breaking electoral law and campaigning illegally.
Once the result was known, the new Conservative government, with Brexit supporters in all the key ministries – Foreign Office, Trade and Exiting the EU – immediately, and wrongly, declared the result to be a mandate, at a stroke erasing the views of the 16.8 million people who voted to Remain. A more impulsive and divisive strategy could hardly be conceived. Worse, the new Cabinet attempted to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to formally start the process of leaving the EU without any Parliamentary discussion. It required a Supreme Court judgement on behalf of Gina Miller to thwart efforts to deny Parliamentary sovereignty by those self-same ministers who had boasted about restoring it when Britain left the EU.
Again, this is a critical point to keep in mind when considering what Brexit has done to us. Without Gina Miller’s intervention, the principle would have been established that the Executive could, any time it desired, take prerogative decisions without needing the support of Parliament. Outside of time of war, only totalitarian states and dictators operate this way.
In response, the independent members of the Supreme Court, our highest judiciary were labelled ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘traitors’ by politically motivated newspapers owned by fabulously wealthy and entirely unaccountable businessmen. This vitriol empowered a movement which boasted about restoring ‘freedom’ and ’sovereignty’. One can only wonder whose freedom and sovereignty they were referring to.
The Conservative leadership tried to ram an abbreviated bill through the House of Commons under a three line whip to force their MPs, regardless of their views, to vote for Article 50. Time would soon reveal how the absence of any forethought or consideration about the Article 50 process would damage the political process, undermine our tradition of representative democracy and toxify civil soviety.
But Brexit was never really about leaving the EU. It was not motivated by a failure or crisis of confidence in the EU or in the UK’s relationships with any of the other twenty seven member states. The Brexit referendum was called by a weak Conservative leader who thought his offer would thwart the recidivist and xenophobic voices on the right wing of his party, who had made the issue a totem for their grievances ever since the UK joined the Common Market. David Cameron’s ‘plan’ such as it was, became compromised when the Conservatives unexpectedly won an outright majority in the 2015 General Election. It forced him to follow through with a commitment he never expected to have to stand behind. Cameron’s inability to govern his party made Britain an almost ungovernable ochlochracy, paralysed by the divisions hard-wired into the 2016 referendum result.
The vacuum of national interest or purpose behind the Referendum enabled the various Leave groups to fight a post-truth referendum campaign. Without any obligation to produce a manifesto or be bound by a commitment to govern afterwards, they could – and they did – gush forth a torrent of false claims and misleading statistics of which the ‘£350 million per week to the NHS’ is merely the most notorious example. Afterwards, trying to pin down politicians like Nigel Farage on the concrete advantages of Brexit was like trying to play whack a mole. The admirable Led by Donkeys campaign would later skewer the differences between the promises and the realities of Brexit, but by then, the country was too fractured for their efforts to break down the partisan divisions.
But of all the claims made about Brexit, the one that most disturbs me, now and in the future, is the notion that this is somehow the ‘will of the people’. Here we have skirted the margins of fascism by creating a new hyperpatriotism in which anyone who disagreed with the referendum result was somehow less of a citizen, the ‘other’ in the midst of ‘true’ patriots. In true Orwellian fashion, the meaning of the phrase ‘will of the people’ was repeatedly changed to suit the purposes and convictions of the Leave campaign in any given moment to secure their objectives. The single binary question ‘Should we stay or leave’ was endlessly re-fashioned into an affirmation for triggering Article 50, leaving the Customs Union, leaving the Single Market, trading on WTO rules, ending freedom of movement and a host of other propositions, some of which openly contradicted each other. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. “And absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market”.
Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit”. In reality, the only constant was Remain means Remain. Brexit, on the other hand, meant whatever you wanted it to be. It was like the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter, showing each onlooker their heart’s desire. Endlessly repeating “Brexit means Brexit” only made it clear that it was the combination of a safe none of the most strident supporters of Brexit knew how to open.
Just consider the bare facts. The UK has a population of around 60 million. 17 million people voted for Leave. 16 million people voted Remain. 32 million didn’t vote at all. At a stroke, “Brexit means Brexit” invalidated the concerns and preferences of all of those who voted otherwise, as well as those who didn’t or could not vote, which aside from being a falsehood, also makes it a politically inept interpretation. The phrase ‘One Nation Conservative’ must now be buried for all time because the Conservative Party and its members no longer speak for the Union. On the contrary, the political and national identity of the United Kingdom, a deep and powerful matter for every British subject, and hugely significant for those who make their home here, was just another inconvenient barrier to be blundered through in pursuit of Brexit, hijacked by a unstable mixture of resurgent English nationalism and sectarian opportunism in the shape of the DUP.
Further emphasising the dishonesty of the claim that the Referendum result represented the ‘will of the people’ is the fact that Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted by wide margins to Remain. The approach of the UK government since the Referendum has rekindled nationalist sentiment in Scotland and made very real the threat of violence and conflict on the island of Ireland. Again, these present and future consequences rest on the shoulders of those who voted to Leave: the mere 26% of the British population whose opinions have been conflated to speak for all of us.
Since 2016, the British economy has been becalmed: GDP growth has decelerated, productivity is weak, the pound has depreciated, purchasing power has gone down, and inward and outward foreign investments have declined. Relative to G7 countries, the UK has slipped from having the highest growth rate in the G7 before the vote, to the lowest now (OBR 2018). And the gap between output per worker in OECD countries and the UK has widened since the referendum. Britain’s economy is ill-prepared to fund the extravagant promises made by Boris Johnson in the General Election of 2019. Only through massive borrowing or substantial tax increases can these funding promises be met. And if there is any disruption to our major trading relationship with the EU, the consequential hit on the UK’s finances will make both the borrowing and taxation route onerous. The economy could easily slump into a deep spiral of recession triggered by negative growth and difficult trading arrangements. All of this suggests that in terms of aligning with European regulations, accepting freedom of movement to ensure labour supply and protecting foreign investment, Britain will need to concede on almost every point to the EU in order to avoid massive economic shocks. Whether one regards this as vassalage or the bite of cold hard reality will very much depend on how one voted in 2016, but the effect will be much the same.
Of course, the emotional bedrock of the Leave argument was the idea of taking back control. The White Paper published in 2017 gave the game away by stating that the will of Parliament had always been sovereign, justifying Brexit merely on the basis that “it has not always felt like that”. Leave campaigners complained endlessly about being subject to EU laws while being unable to name a specific one they violently disagreed with. Listening to radio phone-in shows over the last three years has been to be reminded of H.L. Mencken’s observation that “democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance”.
Never is this more true than when considering immigration. Despite 26% of NHS workers coming from overseas; despite European migrants living in the UK contributing £2,300 more to public purse each year than the average adult; despite that our future prosperity outside of the EU will be even more dependent on migrant workers to fill labour shortages; large sections of the population have been groomed to regard foreigners as the ‘other’. Extreme views that once would have been beyond the pale have become normalised. This is a tragedy for the United Kingdom. Racism is despicable in its own right. Racism based on misinformation that causes harm and hurt to others, and damages one’s own economic self-interest is pathetic foolishness that deserves to be scorned without mitigation.
And so, on Brexit day, this is where I must leave my country. Ruptured and undone. In his poem, ‘Going, Going’, (weirdly written just as Britain was about to join the EU) the poet Philip Larkin wrote a morose and somewhat exaggerated lament to a tradition of England that he saw being swept aside by modernity (not by Common Market membership!) But today, his closing lines seeme very prescient:
Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.
Larkin’s ‘spectacled grins’, pursuing their ‘five percent profit (and ten percent more in the estuaries)’ are firmly in control. And they are pursuing a mission that most people didn’t intend or ask for, including many of those who voted for Brexit. Britain faces a very uncertain political future and is now governed by right wing forces that have hijacked our constitution and subverted the interests of the nation to pursue their own agenda, including but not limited to: financial deregulation, privatisation of the NHS, the abolition of the BBC, the dismantling of the Welfare State and the destruction of communal values inherent in the postwar settlement. All of these things are what Brexit ‘means’ now.
I’ve said enough. I believe and hope that the UK will rejoin the EU in my lifetime, provided that Brexit and the disruption it will cause doesn’t undermine the stability of the entire region. I have this confidence because I believe that sooner rather than later, Boris Johnson and his supporters will be exposed as charlatans. And simply because of demographic change, eventually I think there will be sufficient numbers of younger voters energised to demand a different future (as we already see happening with climate change campaigns). When this happens, I think there will be the political will to revisit the June 2016 referendum and allow the people to have the opportunity to change their minds. Until then, however, I believe Remainers need to hold our peace and allow the Leavers to get on with it.
I regard this as pragmatism rather than defeatism. I would man the barricades to fight the rise of genuine fascism but I’m not prepared to maintain fires against the strand of right wing incompetence represented by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and Mark François.
If UK car manufacturing crashes due to tariffs and other barriers to frictionless trade, I have no consoling words or support to offer the Leave majorities in Swindon, Dagenham, Sunderland and Castle Bromwich who said they knew what they were voting for, including the destruction of their livelihoods.
If the promised funding for the North of England constituencies that voted Conservative last December doesn’t appear, I will not be angry or upset or campaign for urgent action. Things must run their course. Recession and severe economic challenges were part and parcel of the choice they made.
And if future slowdowns limit government investment in public services and welfare, leaving people more vulnerable than ever to the vicissitudes of the private sector and precarious employment, so be it. Brexit will merely be a chronicle of a decline foretold.
I am aware this may sound harsh and ungenerous, but I have been shouted and screamed at by too many people, for too long, for doing my best to protect their interests. Like many Remainers, I tried very hard to persuade people with different opinions to my own who will feel a far greater impact from Brexit if – as I believe – it doesn’t go the way they were promised. But they finally had their way, regardless. I think it’s time to let go of this battle and in so doing, conquer my own Brexit addiction.
H.L. Mencken also said that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
And now they will. Oh boy, now they will.