Referendum – where it all went wrong
The global economy looks a bit flaky this morning and the UK political scene looks a complete mess. Why? Because the UK has just voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. We are publishing two articles today – unusually; this one, and Anthony Lipmann’s piece (Does This Mean Curtains for the UK’s Eurovision Entry?) on the joys of Brexit, seen largely through the prism of the EU Chemicals Directive and its effect on the trading of minor metals. Anthony sees the change as almost wholly beneficial; my view is somewhat less rosy than that, although I would have had issues with either outcome. I am still – days after the event – an undecided voter.
But that’s quite strange, really. When the referendum was announced in the conservative party manifesto last year, I knew what my view was; I’d choose to stay. Half my family comes from Europe, we grew up travelling there and having a steady stream of visitors in the house (my grandfather’s and father’s businesses – which were what paid for my comfortable upbringing – were intimately tied into the economies of post-war western Europe), so I’m an instinctive Europhile and would be a natural voter for the Union. But that doesn’t mean I saw no problems. I would freely admit that I preferred the economic unity of the EEC to the political drive of the EU, and the Euro gives me serious cause for concern; not to put too fine a point on it, I’ve always thought it would fail, because it makes no logical economic sense to me. Well, I’ve been wrong on that one, so far; bear in mind that ‘so far’, though. But the Euro does create a little chink, through which we can perhaps glimpse that all is not quite as clear as it should be.
But first, the referendum itself. It was, of course, never intended to happen. When David Cameron included it in his party’s manifesto, he never expected to have actually to do it, because he was at that point still expecting to be in a coalition with partners who would never have agreed to a vote on Europe. So offering a referendum looked a good ploy – safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to happen, yet giving the appearance of listening to concerns. And then came an unexpected election result, and suddenly the referendum was in play. Ah, thought the strategists, we may not have wanted it, but we know how to deal with it; after all, we’ve just won in Scotland. So Project Fear was dusted off again, but they failed to grasp the essential difference between this one and the Scottish one. Then, there was either a change of or a retention of the status quo from which to choose; now, there was no status quo. The changing nature of the EU and the changing relationship which would be caused by the very fact of the referendum having been held meant that this time, the vote was for a change either way. That, I think, is why Project Fear failed to work – it couldn’t present a comfort-blanket status quo as a choice. Concern with it not moving the polls then led to ever more outrageous claims of war, famine, pestilence and the rest. That was the point at which the campaigns made me begin to feel very, very queasy, and I have to admit I began to listen less and less to either side as their pictures of the future became more and more hysterical and shrieky.
The next problem with the referendum was that what I was told I was going to be able to vote on in the end didn’t appear on the ballot paper. I was told I would have the choice of voting to leave the EU or to remain a member of a reformed EU. Well, Mr Cameron, a reformed EU was exactly what I wanted. The failure to secure any meaningful changes was the point at which things went horribly wrong. There is an enormous commonality of interest in reform across the EU; it’s not just a British disease, despite what our press tell us. And, by the way, I am confident enough in that statement to put it forward not just as an opinion, but as a fact. A proper attempt at renegotiation would have have found that common ground, and used it wisely to promote flexibility. Let me give one example. The free movement of people within the EU has been a huge benefit to us all, for years. Until very recently, that is, when the sheer size of the mass migration across the world has created a disconnect between what we should do and what we are able in the short term to do. This affects almost all EU countries, and the UK renegotiation should have afforded a perfect opportunity to propose a pragmatic solution to what is – I believe – a short-term problem brought about by particular circumstances. I’m not going to go through all the points of possible re-appraisal, but the result of what was supposedly a renegotiation seems to me to have been that the EU 27 and the UK came out of it with more entrenched arguments than they started, strangely. Or perhaps not strangely; I think the grown-ups were away that day.
Having that pathetic piece of paper put in front of me as a ‘reformed EU’ was what really started my cast-iron Europhile brain beginning to think that I didn’t actually like either side of what was being proposed. And that in turn led me to stand in the polling booth last thursday afternoon with a piece of paper in one hand and a pencil (and I just long to be able to forget the #usepens lunacy) in the other, unable to decide where to make my mark. In the end I did, but what I chose remains between me and the CIA drone that I’m sure some paranoid conspiracy theorist out there is convinced was filming us all. I may include a sealed letter with my will so my children get to know – by that time, maybe we’ll have a clue whether it was right or wrong.
Anyway, that was my own dilemma. International relations are too important to occupy only part of an article, so I’ll save them for another time. But what about the domestic UK political scene? Well, Cameron created the mess (see above) and is getting out before clearing it up; I don’t think I’ve ever been as disappointed in a PM from ‘my’ party. But strangely, I think the real lasting damage is to the opposition. The conservatives will re-unify. One of the attractions of that party is that it is pragmatic; and please give me competence and effectiveness rather than ideology in my politicians every day of the week. The labour party, by contrast, seems to me to be completely shot. Last time around it lost its vital Scottish support and this time it has blown its position in the north of England, the Midlands and Wales. Given that southern England never varies much from being mostly blue to being totally blue, things seem pretty clear. Socialism is not in vogue, which is not really surprising; after all, it emerged mainly as a product of the laissez-faire industrial policies of the nineteenth century and, although I know many will disagree with me, I would suggest that it has no real place any longer in what is rapidly becoming a post-industrial environment. And since the labour party has largely turned its back on attempts to move it to a more centrist ground – despite the ten years of success it had there – it’s difficult to see where it goes now. Which leaves – post-referendum – (and I struggle not to laugh out loud at this even as I write it, so absurd does it seem) Nigel Farage and his merry men (I’m tempted to score a relatively cheap point and say not many women) as the putative voice of the working classes of the north of England. Well, I said at the beginning of this there was a dreadful mess. (Did I say I was laughing out loud? Probably should be weeping.) What I didn’t mention, in that tedious bit about my family, was that that probably does give me access to a second passport……
My friends, good luck, bonne chance, viel Glück.