Brexit: a few thoughts for posterity

Given that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is not only one of the most significant political decisions made in this country in the last 70 or so years, but also about the *only* thing anybody’s been talking about for the last 3 months (note: I started typing this on March 29th) – I thought it’d be good to record a few thoughts & feelings on the subject, chiefly so that in 10 years’ time I can come back here and riffle through my statements with amusement with the benefit of hindsight… or in case it somehow gets picked up by some alien intelligence or benign deity and they can come down to us and talk some sense into these arseclowns.

I don’t want this to seem like a tired old rehashing of hackneyed arguments, because I’m not aiming to convince anyone. It’s more just recording what I’m seeing/thinking, like I did back with the London “Riots” in 2011.

So these are the main points swimming around my mind:

The question wasn’t properly defined

If someone asks “We’re doing Thing A now – should we keep doing Thing A, or do we now make an irreversible decision to stop doing Thing A and instead do Thing B?”, then in my mind it’s absolutely essential that the person asking the question does is present a clear and honest picture of what Thing B might look like. Referendums are a very, very blunt instrument – and as we’ve seen with the last couple (e.g. Alternative Voting) it’s often less a question of giving the people the opportunity to make a well-informed choice, and more about who can put together the more persuasive campaign. Which is why I strongly feel that the referendum really never should have been held without a detailed public information campaign (a-la what they had in Scotland preceding the independence referendum), and a clear model in place of what the status quo was to be replaced with.

Provable mendacity

The biggest and most obvious one being the “£350 million a week” figure on the red bus – which was debunked repeatedly at the time and since, and Boris Johnson is currently facing a court case over deliberately misleading the public with it.

There have been loads of other statements from the government about how easy this process will be, about how the UK is in a negotiating position of strength, about the positive effects it will have on the UK economy… and every single one fails at the test of scrutiny with reach of facts.

In addition to this the Vote Leave campaign was found guilty more than once by the Electoral Commission of breaking electoral law, specifically around dishonest overspending on social media targetting.

Understanding of impact

As alluded to above – prior to the Scottish independence referendum a document of around 600 pages (I think) was sent to every Scottish household, describing how an independent Scotland would affect a list of issues and areas so people could understand what it was they were voting for.

The Brexit campaign just sort of happened. The Leave Campaign’s “manifesto” was around 3000 words long. There was no attempt to inform people of what would happen, just pure manipulation in order to get the desired result.

Brexit has been doggedly pursued without a clear idea of what it means (“Brexit means Brexit”), how it will affect the rights and lives of UK nationals living abroad and Europeans living in the UK, how it will affect UK trade with Europe, and what trading opportunities the UK will be able to make with the rest of the world.

Motivation of principals

Every time I do one of those Political Compass quizzes it comes out that the party which closest represents my interests and priorities is the Liberal Democrats, with the Conservatives rating very very low in terms of crossover. It therefore concerns me to see a Conservative-driven agenda, such as May’s “Brexit Deal” repeatedly attempted to be rammed through parliament. It’s a fairly reductionist viewpoint for me to claim that all of the people pushing for Brexit are financially insulated from its consequences, but when you look at Boris Johnson (earning £23k a month for a weekly newspaper column, plus 5 and 6 digit sums for speeches on top), and consider that the issue was privately pressed/funded by Peter Hargreaves (£4.6 billion personal wealth, privately funded a pro-Brexit mailshot to the whole country) – it’s not these people that are going to feel the shockwaves if/when it all goes titsup. Either you have to work for a living, or you don’t – and it feels like the core of this whole debacle is a big game being played by people who don’t.

Isolationism

The key statement of Leave was “Take back control”, as if by leaving the members club we’d no longer have to abide by its rules – this was a lie on top of another lie, but the key sentiment behind it was that Great Britain is in some way superior to the rest of the world, and being part of a trading partnership was in some way holding us back from what we ought to be.

I suppose I can’t understand the sentiment behind any of this, because aside from making no rational sense, I’ve never particularly felt strongly about nationalism or national identity. I chose to move to the UK because it was a country with some very advanced centres of thought & learning, an enviable history of intellectual, scientific and artistic development, and had led the way to European cooperation and peace through the formation of the Council of Europe after the Second World War.

The feeling of “taking back control” was – as far as I could see it – very much a marketing-led message from the people who wanted to leave Europe designed to convince people that a load of things that had nothing to do with Europe were the fault of Europe, and the only way to stop it happening more was to leave Europe.

We live in an interconnected world, so while it’s fine to put walls up and separate yourself off from everyone else, sooner or later you’re going to need to interact with other countries, and to do that you’re going to need to establish terms on which to work. Britain might think it’s the best place in the world, but the trouble is that so does every other country in the world, so establishing those terms isn’t always easy given how each side will be jockeying for favourable arrangements. The whole point of the EU was to establish those terms so member countries could get on with doing it.

The motivations of some of the Leave campaign weren’t terrible

Last year in an effort to access a considered & well-constructed case for Leave, I read What Next by Conservative MEP Dan Hannan, who if he isn’t referred to by the group term “architects of Brexit” certainly wishes he was. In it he outlines his reasons for wanting Britain to leave the EU, and pretty much every single chapter I found myself disagreeing with – swinging between thinking he’d gotten his facts wrong, or was completely deluded. With the exception of the final chapter, which detailed that the European Union has a published statement of intent to develop “an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe” – he frames this as meaning the gradual shift from the EU being a customs/trading union, to becoming a political union/superstate, and that’s not what we originally signed up to. Broadly, I can agree with this statement as it does seem like the kind of mission creep that’s easily propogated by those inside the club as ideas just seem to make natural sense. However the UK successfully negotiated to be excluded from those restrictions/requirements. If Leave had been able to make a case based on this factor, and been able to argue that the existing affordments made to the UK weren’t enough, then maybe you could consider that one leg of a reasonable argument. But they didn’t/it wasn’t.

Abuse of the democratic process

Forcing people to go into a poll with a poorly-defined question and priming them with their answers based on a misinformation campaign would be bad enough to damage any sense of public trust in this shambles… but since the vote was taken it’s just been a litany of lies propped up desperately.

  • The law states that the result of the vote was “advisory”, and there was no constitutional or legal requirement for parliament to enact the outcome. Despite this the government have repeatedly stated that they must implement “the will of the people”.
  • The margin was so close on an aggregate level that it didn’t reveal a clear indicator of what people wanted. 1 vote ought to be enough to decide an election of a local candidate, but when it comes to making vast change to the way a whole country interacts with the world around it, I’d have thought a more sizeable majority would be required.
  • The Leave campaign have been found guilty more than once of illegal behaviour
  • The Prime Minister has repeatedly tried to force her deal through the House of Commons, and despite being defeated by a historically wide margin, keeps putting it forward with no changes. When the Speaker of the House intervenes, they accuse him of interfering with due process.
  • The government tried to deny Parliament a say on accepting the final deal, as if the 2% vote margin gave them a mandate to implement whatever leaving deal they wanted.
  • The government refuse to accommodate a “Peoples’ Vote” on the deal, maintaining that the outcome of a vote in 2016 (at the end of a provable misinformation campaign) means that they now have to implement whatever deal they can get (including No Deal), rather than allowing for the fact that since the referendum more people might have read more into the issue, and with a wider understanding be capable of making a more informed decision – particularly if the question was “Should we stay in the EU, or accept the attached deal?”.
  • After having been told that March 29th was the Hard Deadline decision point, it was then delayed into April, and now into October – with the question being if the UK hasn’t decided to leave by May 23rd it will have to participate in European elections.

In summary

It’s a total fucking shambles.

My hope is that it’ll be abandoned. There’s no compelling reason for the UK to commit this massive act of economic and political self-harm, and my hope is that whatever the outcome there isn’t any further cultural damage as a result.

The only point I’m prepared to concede is that it was a very slick operation to convince so many people that the reason why their livelihoods are stagnating was the fault of an economic partnership between a bunch of countries hundreds of miles away, rather than the people who propped up the architects of the banking crisis by slashing health funding, shutting down libraries, and forcing people with jobs to have to rely on food banks.