Not since the Iraq War have I felt so enraged about the actions of our politicians and so I’ve put together some thoughts on the Brexiterendum and the mess it has got us into.
The First Mistake
This referendum should never been held at all. John Major succeeded in keeping the right-wing Eurosceptics in his party at bay. Why couldn’t Cameron do the same? And what made it worse was setting a simple majority. Surely a threshold of say 60% is more sense for a decision which potentially affects the country for ever. In the event only 37% of the total electorate voted for Leave.
The Remain Campaign
Remain brought out every financial organization you can think of: the IMF, Bank of England, etc. Obama gave them his support and they even wheeled out David Beckham, but their arguments seemed to fall on deaf ears. I think that Remain ran a poor campaign and that they were somewhat complacent about winning. They did not seriously address many of the points made by Leave and they did not press their case hard enough in terms that everyone could understand.
The Leave Campaign
Leave focused on immigration, which was not the subject of the question on the ballot paper. They were aided by the popular press especially The Sun whose owner Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have a vote here, and, if we were like the USA, would not even be allowed to own media outlets here. Leave made wild promises, like an extra £350m per week for the NHS. They parroted the mantra of “take back control” but they had no plan for what would happen if they won. They never said who was going to take back control and for what.
Why Did So Many People Vote Leave?
I fully accept that some Leave voters were well informed and weighed up the pros and cons, but it seems that many others did not really understand what they were voting for. In the end I have come to the conclusion that our education system is partly responsible for this. There were plenty of people who seemed ill-equipped to make their own critical assessment and informed judgement of the situation. I even read about people thinking they were voting against Muslims, and plenty may not have realized that their holiday on the Med would cost a lot more.
What Happened to the Leave Leaders?
The absence of the Leave leaders in the weekend after the vote surely shows that they did not think they would win. Boris played cricket, fiddling while Rome burned. Gove finally surfaced after a few days. It was two weeks after the vote before I saw any sign of Gisela Stuart and, after vanishing for a while, Andrea Leadsom, who is not even in the Cabinet and who three years ago said that leaving the EU would be a disaster, put herself forward as a candidate for Prime Minister.
As Remain predicted, the pound has fallen and businesses are in limbo, unwilling to invest and to create new jobs. Some banks are contemplating moving to Frankfurt and Dublin, taking their higher-rate tax paying employees with them. This has not only affected the UK, but around the world. Markets everywhere have fallen and, with a period of instability, will continue to be volatile. Falling shares don’t just affect businesses and their direct shareholders, but also occupational pension funds. There are now also some problems with major investments in property funds held by some insurers, and uncertainty in the housing market is becoming apparent.
There is no doubt that the size of the UK population is growing. Last year there were more migrants to the UK from outside the EU than from the EU. Leave are proposing an Australian style points system for immigrants. If, say, the rate of immigration from outside the EU remains the same at roughly 50%, the rate of EU immigration could be halved to about 25% of the total through the points system because we still need to fill jobs in the health service, academia and the like. I strongly suspect that there will not be an overall reduction in the population size because plenty of the British people living abroad in Spain etc will return if they no longer have access to benefit increases and the EHIC EU health care system.
The Single Market and Free Movement of People
It seems that the EU leaders will not budge on the single market and the free movement of people. If we want to trade with the EU without tariffs we have to accept immigration. Norway chose to go their own way to stay in the single market, but not to be full members of the EU because they did not want to be subject to EU regulations for fishing, their main industry. They still pay into the EU (at a lower rate) and still have free movement of people, but they do not have any say in how the money is spent. I don’t see how this model could work as well for the UK as our main business is now financial and other services. Norway’s fishing industry is local, but our main business depends so much on global links and can operate anywhere.
Leave Views on Trade
They don’t seem to have a unified view, but I heard one Leave leader say that we should be building up trade relationships with South Korea, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. This does not make sense to me. Why incur the costs of transporting goods halfway round the world when they can be taken on a 90 minute boat ride across the channel on a truck which can travel in all EU countries? This is not a trivial amount as over 5000 trucks pass through Dover every day. These costs will inevitably end up with the consumer. But we should be wary of TTIP where the Americans want to bring their own less regulated businesses into Europe.
Breakup of the Union
Full marks to Nicola Sturgeon who had got her cabinet together and come out with an action plan by lunchtime on the Saturday after the vote, when all other politicians appeared to be in hiding. She was in Brussels 3 days later pressing her case for Scotland to remain in the EU. There are indications that enough people would switch to Scottish independence in another referendum to make it happen. Will we then be in the “any other country” immigration line when we get to Gretna? And, set to leave, what will happen on our only land border with the EU between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland voted to remain. Perhaps they will leave the Union as well.
The Young People
I have a lot of sympathy for the young people of our country who have come off worst in this. It is their future and most of them voted Remain. They are already worse off than the older generation because of student fees and housing costs. Now they will have to foot the bill for the cost of all of this in extra taxes and a higher cost of living. They will have to suffer the effects of a decision which was not of their making but could affect their lives for ever.
The Effect on Universities
The UK has some of the best universities in the world which are in a position to attract the brightest minds, but universities will be one of the biggest losers in this disaster. The EU supports about 10% of UK research. This is mostly in partner projects where all the partners in different countries get the benefit of the knowhow generated. There is already some evidence that UK partners are not wanted in the next round of funding bids which has a deadline in August. Free movement of people is essential for cross-fertilization of ideas and there are EU schemes which promote exchanges for students and for researchers. Losing all of this will diminish our standing and make it more difficult to give an outward looking education to the next generation of young people.
Why People Really Voted Leave
Some of the people who voted Leave seem to have similar sentiments to those who are propelling Donald Trump in the USA. It was more of a protest vote. The Referendum became a vehicle for expressing disaffection. People were not really voting about the EU, but about the divisions in the UK. They feel left behind as the UK shifts further from a manufacturing to a service economy. They feel distant from London and the other multicultural metropolitan centres, especially those with a high proportion of graduates. Some of the older ones also seem to have been harking back to the past. The anti-immigration sentiment was high in some areas of the country which have very few immigrants, but London, the city with most diversity, voted strongly to Remain. Moreover, there is something wrong when Cornwall and Wales, which are the areas of the country which have received most EU development support, voted Leave.
A Brexit Government Agenda
If the Leave leaders manage to take charge of the next government, I fear that they will promote a very right-wing agenda. They could roll back EU regulations which protect workers’ rights and maternity leave, and those which safeguard our environment. Some of them have already written about dismantling the NHS and allowing American healthcare companies into the UK. When I lived in the USA I saw the effects of a society with minimal welfare benefits, and of oil drilling on areas of spectacular scenery and I have since heard about the contamination of water supplies by fracking. Fortunately I didn’t get seriously ill there, but I saw how much individuals have to pay for health insurance and how insurance companies determine what treatment patients can have. I also saw how much paperwork is involved in insurance claims with deductibles, co-payments etc, which is not want you want to deal with when you are ill. And life expectancy in the USA is lower than that in the UK.
What the Government Should Do
The Government needs to address the fears of the Leave votes. There should be special investment in areas of the country where high numbers of immigrants have put pressure on the NHS and schools. Austerity has contributed to the disaffection. Investment in public services will create more jobs and get more people contributing to the economy and paying taxes. Something, possibly using popular culture figures, needs to be done to ensure that people begin understand the benefits of being in the EU.
Our Next Prime Minister
What we need is somebody who can bring the country together. I was just about post this blog when I heard that Andrea Leadsom had withdrawn. What a relief. She has an inflated CV, and very little experience in government. I suspect that she joined Leave to promote herself. She gained the support of Boris Johnson, who was positioning himself again, thinking that she wouldn’t last long as Prime Minister. As soon as Cameron announced his resignation I felt that Teresa May was the obvious choice. She always appears calm and in control and has plenty of experience. Fortunately she has the support of the much of the popular press.
Making a Brexit Deal
Some Leave leaders appear to think that we can leave the EU and still belong to the single market without free movement of people. There would need to be a serious change of direction in Brussels for this to happen. Some other EU countries have Eurosceptic parties and would want to put a lid on anything happening with the UK which helps these other parties. It seems clear to me that the EU leaders are fed up with the UK and might want to drive as hard a bargain as possible. On the other hand the UK is a large economy and the rest of the EU might want to continue a trade relationship with us. There is a lot of negotiating to be done and we need the right people to do it.
A Change of Heart
A recent poll has indicated that over a million people now regret voting Leave. This number is very likely to grow as the fall in the value of the pound kicks in with higher food and fuel prices and a fall in the housing market. It will get worse towards winter when the UK needs to import more fresh fruit and vegetables. It will get worse again when people begin to lose their jobs as businesses move away or their markets shrink. And somebody has to pay for the unemployment benefit for all those who will lose their jobs.
Can We Get Out of This?
The door is not closed. Cameron made a smart move when he said that he would not trigger Article 50 immediately. More people will have felt the financial effects by the autumn and over 4 million people have signed the petition for another referendum. But in any case the referendum is not legally binding. Since we don’t have a written constitution, the constitutional situation is unclear, but it seems that Parliament has to vote on this. At present the majority of MPs appear to be in the Remain camp. We need to be sure that Remain MPs in areas which voted Leave don’t switch sides in fear of being deselected The lawyers are now involved. I understand that at present the final arbiter could be the European Court. Interesting.
A General Election
Although more difficult than before the Coalition agreement, an election can be held outside the 5-year period of Parliament. Leaving the EU is such a momentous decision that I think it should be put to the country in a general election and that the best outcome from this would be another coalition government. In spite of his support throughout the country, Labour seem unelectable as long as Corbyn is leader and cannot find enough support among the Parliamentary Party to fill his shadow cabinet. The Conservatives are still divided. UKIP have one MP who is not their leader and who is at odds with Nigel Farage, and the SNP want to stay in the EU. As for me, I’ll be voting for the party that wants the UK to rejoin the EU and that’s the LibDems.
Last But Not Least
The UK has a history of stable government and a reputation for tolerance. At present we have lost both of these. I just hope that we can get them back as soon as possible.