It’s been such a chaotic week since the EU referendum that it’s hard to know where to begin. Given how divisive the whole situation has been, it might be best to start with my own position. I’m a staunch remainer. This isn’t just because I think that the UK is better off in the EU, or that the EU is better off for having the UK in it (although I do think both), it’s because I’m a supporter of the EU in general. I think it’s a great organisation and I think that international collaboration is not just the way of the future, it’s the way of the present. We are a stronger, bolder, more influential and more enterprising nation for being a part of the EU (and of NATO, and of the UN, and all different kinds of international organisations.) I’m also very strongly of the opinion that the question of EU membership should not have been posed to the UK population, because the issues are so complex, the effects far-reaching, and too much was put at stake. Given this, and although it’s painful to say so, I’m in favour of overturning this referendum. We live in a constitutional democracy, and part of that means having an arsenal of political tools in our belt. A referendum is certainly one of the more powerful tools, but it is also only the start of the constitutional crisis we face, not the end.
The vote to leave seems to surprised everyone, from both sides of the debate, and neutral bystanders. Even Nigel Farage, who championed disillusioned leave voters, almost conceded defeat before the first result was returned. The win came a surprise to David Cameron, who promptly stood down and delayed the activation of Article 50 (against previous pledges to the contrary.) The win came as a surprise to Boris Johnson, who has been falling over himself trying to find the right words to say. It came as a surprise to the pollsters who predicted a mild win for remain. It came as a surprise to the rest of the world who think we’ve lost our collective hive mind. The surprise also comes with a nasty sting in the tail, because for remain there was an obvious roadmap for how to proceed (do nothing.) For leave, there are several different options of varying severity, and no outcome will please everyone.
Let’s take a step back before we look at the bigger picture. Right now there’s uncertainty about what choices the UK will take, or even who will be the Prime Minister who implements these steps. Whatever decisions they make the need to walk a fine line, balancing a handful of very strong forces. First, there is the economic pressure to remain in the single market, and this pressure will determine whether the UK sinks into a recession in the coming decades. Second, there is the democratic pressure to retain sovereignty and respect the will of the voters. Third there is the pressure to be credible politician who does not engage in deception or U-turns. The first pressure seems obvious enough that almost everyone with a functioning brain agrees we should remain in the single market. The second it’s a grey area, and where there is lots of scope for movement. The third is the weakest of the three pressures, but one we should not ignore. The person who takes on these challenges will probably not do so if it means stepping down in a few years due to perceived weak leadership or dishonesty. There’s just not space for someone who overturns their decision at the last minute. There are other forces at work, of course, but I see these as being the principle forces.
So who is running? It looks like for some reason, Boris Johnson had a last minute change of heart and decided to pull out of the race. That’s intriguing. I’d love to know why he chose not to run.
(There’s Jeremy Hunt, who has already made himself infamous with the way he’s treated the NHS. Oops, he didn’t run in the end.) Michael Gove, who helped get us in this mess in the first place. Some homophobe who I’ve never heard of. And Theresa May, who seems to the be the safest option, although that’s not saying much. May may be the sanest choice, but she also seems to be the depressingly ruthless choice as well, making it very clear that she intends to proceed with Brexit and quickly and responsibly as possible, meaning we could end up losing out within a year. That’s a bitter collection of pills to choose between. Better to have a general election and let the nation decide, because if there’s one thing we don’t need, it’s further austerity on top of another recession.
At this point I think that the best option would be to aim for a Norwegian model, where we retain access to the single market, and we retain freedom to cross borders. Personally I would stand to gain from the freedom of movement to live and work abroad without hindrance, and the economy would recover most of what has already been lost. Unfortunately it means we would also lose our seat at the table, and that would be an admission of defeat. This option would also against the spirit of the referendum. If we leave the EU and stay in the single market, isn’t that just EU membership in nearly all but name? It would also lead to a significant loss of sovereignty, which is what the pro-leave campaign has been complaining about since the beginning of the campaign. That’s just one of many ironies that smother this whole mess.
The movement of people seems to be a sticky wicket for the UK population. There are many who seem to be under the impression that a leave result means that people who aren’t white enough and aren’t English enough should leave the UK. This has spilled over into racist and xenophobic abuse, verbal and physical. Most people of any authority (what little of that is left) have right come out to condemn these acts and sentiments, as well as giving the police more resources to cope with the 500% increase in these incidents, but in my opinion that’s not enough. These acts should never have happened in the first place, and the minority of far-right bigots who are causing these problems should not been given the sense of legitimacy they are currently enjoying. As many have already commented, there are striking similarities between what we are seeing today, and what commonplace in 1930s Germany.
As someone who is certainty white enough and English enough to not be on the receiving end of such abuse, I have to tread carefully here. One of the hypothetical scenarios I came up with as an avenue to remaining was to simply ignore the referendum, and try to contain the ensuing race riots. A friend commented that they didn’t know if this was a “worst case” or “best case” scenario. It was only after some reflection that I saw the more sinister side of what I thought was a cathartic, throwaway line. It’s easy to make punchlines about race riots when you’re not one of the ones who’d be on the receiving end of the violence. There must be thousands of people up and down the nation who currently live in fear of what is to come in the following months. They, like the rest of us, are stuck between a rock and hard place, but the difference is that they might end up with their bones broken or their shops burned. As a nation we may need to choose between economic ruin or endemic hate crime (or possibly both) and I’m too white and too English to fully grasp what that decision entails. Unfortunately we’re going to end up trusting some of the most privileged, whitest and most English people in the world to make those decisions for us.
I keep bringing it back to Englishness because it’s mostly due to votes in England that the leave campaign won. It turns out Wales also voted to leave (which surprised me) but the real powerhouses of the leave vote were in England. The Scots, the Northern Irish, and those in the cities voted to remain. Rural England voted to leave, and they voted in droves. The pattern of voting didn’t seem to match the levels of EU investment in different areas. Wales and Cornwall, who benefited from billions of Euros, found themselves voting to leave, and now are looking to regain the funding they chose to throw away. The irony is painful to watch, and it leaves me in two minds about the situation. On the one hand, the EU funded these areas because they desperately needed funding, so there’s a strong argument to say we should continue the support to prevent the areas becoming even more deprived. On the other hand, if a region voted to leave, it only seems fair that they lose the benefits of the EU. The people of those regions would suffer as a result, but votes have consequences, and in a time when we have to tighten our national belt it doesn’t seem fair to reward those who are responsible for the belt-tightening. Looking further North, many people expected Scotland to carry a lot of remain votes. On the night, the turnout from Scotland was disappointingly low, and it wasn’t enough to turn the xenophobic tide in England.
This naturally leads to the question of Scottish independence. It’s only been two years since the Scottish independence referendum, and already there are calls for a second. The EU referendum was certainly a game-changer, and I can’t blame the Scottish for wanting another vote. There are also calls to remove the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If both were to go ahead then the name of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” would have to change. First, the “and Northern Ireland” would obviously have to go. Then “United” would have to go, as the Act of Union would be repealed. With Scotland sharing the island of Great Britain, the remaining nation would be one of two kingdoms occupying less than all of the island, making it “A” rather than “The”, and “Lesser Britain” rather than “Great Britain.” Finally, as we currently don’t have a King we may as well use this name change to move with the times. Perhaps a more accurate name would be “A Constitutional Monarchy of Lesser Britain”. Or maybe just “England and Wales”. As the nation shrinks, so does its outlook and power on the world stage.
With such a change in its makeup there are all kinds of unanswered questions to confront. If Scotland votes to leave the UK, does that mean it falls out of the EU, or not? The UK no longer exists, does the seat in the UN Security Council diseapper or not? If it stays, does the remaining England and Wales contingent get it? That hardly seems fair, even though it seems obvious. What would the military consequences be if Scotland chose not to join NATO? What currency would Scotland choose? If they chose the Euro then England would find one if its borders dealing with currency exchange, and might eventually be persuaded to adopt it alongside the rest of Europe. There are dozens of other issues to consider in the case of regions seceding, and we haven’t even discussed Spain and Gibraltar yet.
Gibraltar is, and always has been, a very special case. It’s been a base of operations for the British Navy for as long as anyone can remember. It voted so comprehensively in favour of staying in the EU that it would be hard to ignore the mandate to let it go. Where would it go? It’s possible that Spain would make a move to take it. We also need to consider Spain when we talk about Scotland. It’s well known that Spain does not want to vindicate Catalan separatists, so it’s likely that Spain would use its veto to prevent Scotland rejoining. However Spain does not have a functioning government at the moment, so Scotland may make a bid for an early independence referendum to pre-empt Spanish jealousy. So would Gibraltar be traded to Spain to appease them over the Scottish question? Or would Gibraltar campaign to be part of Scotland? Surreal questions posed for a strange time. On the other hand, Scottish independence would finally answer the West Lothian question (although this seems to hold little consolation for London at the moment.)
London is one of the special cases. The UK economy depends heavily on the strength of London, and many of the most robust sectors in London are the easiest to move abroad, namely the financial services. How can a city like London, which voted so strongly to remain, be surrounded by a country like England, that voted to leave? How can a country that voted to leave depend so much on a region that needs to remain to survive? For some people the answer is simple, and that’s to make London part of the EU again. It’s a novel idea for sure, and would lead to almost instant economic ruin for the rest of England and Wales. Is it feasible? Is it even possible? What would the effect be on local communities? If you could be in one nation in Zones 1-4, and another in Zones 5-6, how would that affect the already ludicrous housing crisis in the capital? It seems ridiculous to give London autonomy, but then again Berlin survived on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain for decades. London has more going for it than Berlin, including (to a greater or lesser extent) friendly surrounding regions, free access to the sea, two impressive airports within the M25, a high-speed rail link to mainland Europe (including Brussels!), and the City of London itself. London has a decent chance to make it alone if they can gain independence.
What would that mean elsewhere though? One of the main reasons for the leave result was because of resentment from more working class areas. These people were disillusioned and angry. They had felt underrepresented, underfunded, and under-appreciated by 6 years of Conservative rule and austerity. It’s easy to see why these areas would want to kick the establishment parties, even if doing so was not in their own interests. On a personal level this is one of the hardest parts to forgive. When both the leave and remain campaigns had had their say, all a voter had to do was listen to both sides and make up their own mind. It find it very hard to accept that the populace would not see through the deceptions of the leave campaign. I’ve always had a firm belief that the working class of this nation was intelligent, resourceful and forward-thinking enough to make sensible decisions. A person doesn’t need to be educated to be intelligent, and doesn’t need to be privileged to realise they’d be negatively influenced by a recession. When I go to the ballot box I vote with my social conscience, and think about how my vote will affect the poorest and most vulnerable in society. If a significant proportion of these people don’t even vote in a similar way then I can’t see a way for society to progress. The wilful ignorance expressed by society in this referendum is unforgivable, and the talk of “turkeys voting for Christmas” is very close to the truth, except I’d rephrase it as “turkeys wilfully voting for Christmas”. There was a campaign of deception, and I don’t think anyone denies that, but an individual voter has to be complicit with the lies to turn their back on the well-reasoned warnings of the remain campaign and its experts.
Voting for Christmas goes further than just embittered working class voters kicking the establishment. For many voters the wilful ignorance extends to the vote itself. Some people voted leave as a protest thinking that their vote “didn’t count”, as if they were voting in a general election and were in a safe seat. This is the kind of dangerous ignorance that seems to be prevalent at the moment, and it would be interesting to find out how much of this genuinely due to people misunderstanding how votes get counted, and how much is due to people feeling jaded and expressing their frustration through a familiar sentiment. Whilst I’m apportioning blame, there are also those who didn’t vote, most notably in the youngest age range. The turnout was very poor (around 36%) for the youngest group of voters, meaning that even the 65+ group has a higher proportion of remain voters. This is unacceptable and unforgivable, especially considering that the youngest will live with the consequences of the crushing vote for the longest. To anyone who didn’t vote and wishes they had, they only have themselves to blame for making the bed that we now all have to lie in. At the other end of the scale there are the 65+ who had a high turnout and voted mostly to leave. They are now asking to have their pensions ring-fenced. Based on my arguments about Cornwall and Wales you can probably guess what my attitude is to those voters.
So far the discussion has looked at the effect on society as a whole, from recession punishing everyone for the vote, to the breakup of the union. What about taking a more detailed approach? There are plenty of people who leverage the freedom to move and work to their (and the economy’s) advantage, and that’s a freedom I’ve enjoyed myself. By removing the freedom to travel and work, we are cutting entrepreneurs off from the opportunities they need to keep their businesses vibrant (and their subsequent taxes boosted). We need to encourage a culture where people have not just the right to work across borders, but the freedom to do so. If someone wants to work abroad the response is usually “Just get a visa”. Speaking as someone who has tried both models, having a visa for the USA, and EU citizenship for France and Belgium I can say that requiring a visa is a pain and somewhat dehumanising. When you are are answerable to a foreign power for your continued presence your world shrinks. You have fewer opportunities to pursue your passions, and very often you can’t afford to look past the end of your visa period (or spend an inordinate amount of time trying to justify extensions to the visa). Removing that burden allows people the freedom to follow their inspirations and set up new enterprises, and that ultimately benefits us all, even if it only directly affects a tiny minority.
Entrepreneurs are one minority, but there are many others. LGBTQ+ people owe many of our rights and protections to the EU. Then there are workers’ rights and maternity leave. The kinds of politicians who want to free us from EU red tape are also the kind of politicians who want to regress us socially to a time when England was white, straight, Christian, and the poor worked long hours in poor conditions. (Why else remove that red tape that protects us?) It’s worth bearing in mind that a recession helps the rich. It’s true that massive amounts get wiped out of accounts (with Virgin losing about a third of its value) but it’s also true that redundancies and unemployment lead to a working class which is desperate for jobs, willing to work longers hours for less pay in worse conditions. For the rich who survive a recession, they come out richer on the other side at the expense of the poor. In the meantime, libertarian politicians often have a perverse fascination with repealing the rights of minorities.
As a scientist I find the referendum very worrying for universities and science labs up and down the country. It’s no secret that science is an international collaboration, and that we can’t afford to exclude people for seemingly arbitrary reasons, for fear of ruling out the next Einstein, Curie, or Darwin. Science is a niche sector of society and one which is overwhelmingly pro-remain. The attitude of many was summed up by Michael Gove when he said that the public have “had enough of experts”. That’s a deeply worrying stance, and one which Brian Cox has said will “lead us back to the cave”. I don’t want to live in a post-fact and post-expert Britain. This is exactly why we have elected officials who appoint NGOs to look into tricky problems for us. We need experts, and we need to give them the freedom to find sensible answers to difficult questions. Putting a decision as complex as the EU to a simple vote is an act of lunacy, especially with only two options on the table.
Even if it had nothing else in its favour, the remain option is at least predictable, reliable, and dependable. With a remain result we’d know exactly what we were getting and how it would affect us. Existing structures would not have to adapt (although attitudes might) and we could carry on as normal, focusing on the issues that affect us more directly, such as healthcare and the environment. Similarly, even if there are no other factors to consider, a leave result without a plan would mean (and has resulted in) chaos on a national and international level. At one extreme there is the “one island” approach where we separate ourselves out from the rest of Europe completely, with closed borders and closed markets. At the other extreme is the Norwegian model where we obey all the EU’s rules, keep access to the single market and keep the free movement of people. Any position including these two and anything in between is conceivable, and right now there is no coherent plan about which to choose. This is very much like walking out of one job without another lined up, or moving out of a home without somewhere to stay. Even worse, it’s an act that been performed against all the conventional wisdom of the time, which some have likened to walking off a cliff, being told not to worry about gravity. We cannot underestimate the gravity of such a situation. Having no plan and relying on wish-thinking is not way to lead a nation. It’s not even way to lead a dog.
For the first week or so after the referendum I decided not to get involved, and to watch the chaos as it unfolded. The actions of politicians seemed beyond satire, and the promises from the leave side quickly evaporated, while the prophecies of the remain side seemed to be fulfilled. My own indignation for the working class voters who voted against their own interests was (and still is) very hard to ignore, as was (and still is) the young voters who chose to not even show up, despite being recently registered. To add insult to injury, there were those who searched “What is the EU?” on the day after the referendum instead of the day before, and TV channels interviewing pro-leave voters of colour. I do not understand how someone of colour or who is Muslim openly says they will vote leave on TV, because they are pushing on the floodgates that lead to racial and islamaphobic intolerance that will land in their front door. Why would they vote for such a thing? Can they not see what it will lead to? All of these thoughts were (and still are) passing though my head without much time for respite. I found it hard to see a way forward for a nation which seems so beyond help. Given all the information, and enabled with a one-person one-vote system, it was such a spectacular failure to see individual voters fail to put all the pieces together. I was about as demoralised and outraged as as I have ever been.
That was last week though. I’ve started to soften since then and started to look for a way to proceed. I accept that, however misguided some people were, the vote on the 23rd June represented the will of the British people on that day. We know a lot more since then though. We know about the lies of the leave campaign. We know that “project fear” was a collection of accurate predictions. We know how the economies (at home and abroad) reacted to the vote. We know how much fear and uncertainty now surround us. We also have very strong evidence that if there was a second referendum today, the remain side would walk away with a comfortable win. The solution then seems simple. We have a government (and opposition) in a state of upheaval and panic, and nobody wants to be the one who push the button that makes us leave the EU. Other nations want us to stay and the EU itself wants us to pick one way or the other and do so quickly to minimise damage. Since pulling out of the EU would harm us irreparably, and nobody wants to make that move the government needs a way out. A second referendum would give them that way out (or in the case of a leave result, a very strong mandate to leave that would shut people like me up for good.) I do not understand why this is not already being considered as the best way forward. There is plenty of precedent, and the government made it clear that (unlike previous referenda on the voting system and Scottish independence) this vote was not in any way binding. Why make it exceptionally non-binding, then choose to be bound by it? That is madness, especially given how destructive leaving would be.
There is another way out that doesn’t involve a second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon suggested a Scottish veto, although that seems unlikely to me. There are other political machinations though. Triggering Article 50 would almost certainly involve an Act of Parliament (as the sovereign body of this nation) so it would go through intense debate and amendment in the House of Commons, and will probably not leave that chamber in one piece. Once it’s ascended to the House of Lords it might well be struck down by the upper chamber and sent back. This ping-pong cannot continue indefinitely (as it might lead to the end of the House of Lords, or invoking the Parliament Act, or both) but it may continue long enough for the House of Commons to realise what a mistake it would be to proceed. Creating this amount of tension and confusion would be enough for MPs to say that, although there is a mandate (admittedly a weak one) to leave, the implementation is simply not feasible.
Aside from a second referendum, and parliamentary ping-pong, there are four other strategies that could kill the referendum result, and give the government the escape route it quite desperately needs. First, remainers can lobby their MPs with concerns about jobs, the future of their children and other issues, to try to get a majority in the House of Commons to oppose leaving. This would be a hard sell for some MPs, who would cite the will of the people, but since most MPs support remaining, this strategy could be credible. Secondly there is lobbying from experts, which is already underway. If MPs can cite expert advice about the inevitable upheaval caused by leaving, that could be enough to justify remaining. Then there are legal arguments. It’s hard to justify taking away the rights of people against their will, and even hard to justify taking away their citizenship. It would be interesting to see exactly how those kinds of arguments play out in the discussions in the House of Commons. Finally an emergency general election could result in remaining, especially as the Liberal Democrats have promised to remain if elected. I find that claim hard to believe, given their past promises, their inability to gain a majority, and their past history of power-grabbing, but their could be movement if the Conservative party do not win a majority in the next election.
If this were a purely internal matter, the process could be delayed until it went away. The longer we spend talking about the consequences of leaving, the less likely it is to happen. Unfortunately we have pressure from the EU to act one way or the other. The pound has already fallen in value and dragged the Euro down with it. The longer we stay in limbo the more the EU suffers. There is also pressure to proceed because due to an obscure arrangement of treaties, negotiations cannot start until the UK has fully left the EU. Either we stay or we go, but the EU wants a decision now, while the UK government is putting on the brakes while we get our house in order. The state of the main political parties doesn’t help, with some saying that the Conservative and Labour parties are in a competition to see who can lose the next general election by the most seats. I would not be too shocked if the Conservative party leadership were secretly hoping for a Labour majority in the net general election, to absolve them of the responsibility of destroying the nation.
It also seems that as time goes by, attitudes will change. If we chose to remain then the economy would continue to pick up, and our politics would return to the centre, as opposed to being so polarised. If that’s the case then the current feeling of xenophobia and euroskepticism would be passing phenomena, which makes the result even worse. Throwing away a decades long future with the EU for the sake of temporary political tensions in a single party is pointlessly short-sighted, and I hope that our leaders can see this.
Where does this leave us? We are in a terrible situation with truly awful choices to take. Are race riots an acceptable price to pay for us to stay? Who gets to make that decision? If we choose to ignore the referendum or overturn it is democracy dead? If we choose to respect the referendum, in light of current mood and revelations about deceit and personal ambition, is common sense dead? What does it mean to enact a policy that is clearly against our best interests? How did we even get into this situation where the political in-fighting of a single party has torn our nation apart to satisfy the egos of a few, while simultaneously being self-defeating for them? The only way out I can see is a slow, methodical retreat from the cliff that we see before us. It has to be slow, it has to be reasoned, and it has to be a campaign of persuasion so we don’t leave huge resentment. Only then can we get back to the kinds of discussions we should be having, about public services, about the environment, about equality, and about protecting our economy. We have a great nation with a lot of potential, but need to look at our own institutions, and to do that we can’t afford to waste time avoiding looking out.
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