So the people had their say and despite institutional arrogance which predicted otherwise, the Brexit vote to leave will take the United Kingdom and probably the rest of the EU into uncharted waters. Assuming the democractic process is respected and some institutional compromise (fudge) is not found. Certainly, the decision is a seismic one which will shape the nation for the next two generations, but it is doubtful that the decision is as cataclysmic as EU enthusiasts predicted before the vote, or die-hard commentators doggedly maintain even after the Nation has spoken. The United Kingdom, (or most parts of it), will join that global club of sovereign, economically successful countries such as Japan, Canada, Australia, South Korea to name a few who thrive effectively without membership of a supranational political organisation.
Why did the Referendum have to happen?
The relationship between Britain and Europe has never been a marriage made in heaven, more a partnership of convenience. The fractious, often emotional, but always deepening links, have been ground out with reluctance and truculence in equal measure. The European project always meant something different to the British people. A disingenuous campaign by Edward Heath took Britain into what was billed as an economic trade area and then with typical British aloofness to all matters foreign, successive governments largely ignored the relentless political integration project, which rolled remorselessly on. Only occasional flare-ups disturbed the European enthusiasm for the clawing of powers from national governments and Britain seemed powerless to halt the march of integration, its diplomatic and political feet failing to gain traction as the bureaucratic bulldozer carolled them into line.
The passive relentless production of centrally produced directives and regulations created little opposition from a number of states whose populations have been conditioned over years to the suspension of democratic processes and government by unaccountable edicts from central bureaucracies. The 2004 enlargement of the EU bought into the fold those former countries of the Soviet Union. These newly independent nations saw the EU as symbolising democracy, a view that was at odds with the British vision based upon an undisturbed millennium of parliamentary authority. The British had never bought into the political integration and in 1974, the referendum did not address the political and federal premise that underpinned the deepening union. After forty years, it was right that the British people had the opportunity to resolve a question they had never been asked.
Why did the UK Leave?
Immigration, immigration, immigration. Despite Remain politicians attempts to divert the referendum agenda back to the economy and the dire implications of departure, it was the unending tranches of cheap unskilled labour displacing working class voters from employment and then competing with them for dwindling health, education and housing resources that filled the Brexit fuel tank with votes. That this was largely unappreciated by the Westminster political classes says a great deal of the remoteness of politicians in today’s Britain. As one senior Labour politician put it, ‘…less socialism, more Labour’, may have given a clue to voting intentions in the deep heartlands of working class Britain. It is difficult to argue that freedom of movement is not a good thing – it just means different things to different people. One celebrated UK political journalist was lamenting the loss of opportunity of the young to, ‘live, work, study and love anywhere in Europe’. Such romantic tosh means nothing when you are a twenty year old fork lift driver in a manufacturing company in Sunderland, married to a similarly aged shop assistant. In those circumstances, freedom of movement means competition for your job from eastern European migrants happy to work for two thirds of their pay. The idea they have to travel across Europe to find work does not sell – why should they? In truth majority of UK migrants to EU countries were high skill, financially independent professionals. Lawyers to Brussels and bankers to Frankfurt was not the equalisation of labour that Remain politicians tried to suggest it was.
Many also found it deeply offensive that Australians, Canadians, South Africans, with whom we share long and dramatic history, often with professional skills we need and are denied access behind Romanians, Bulgarians and Hungarians with low skills we don't. The fact is that the UK was just too dam attractive to EU migrants who perfectly reasonably wanted to improve their own life chances. The ingress was too great, showed no signs of ending and could not be controlled. It was not a fair playing field and a reprisal by the British voter was inevitable.
To many the constant drip of sovereignty away from parliament was more than could be tolerated. When a country has had a democracy for a thousand years, fought to keep it, fought to return it to others who have lost it and then finds its sovereignty continually eroded by a bureaucracy that lurches from crisis to crisis, is founded on grandiose political ideals without root in fact and rational design becomes just too difficult to swallow. Having transported legal, political and administrative systems around the world, the British do not find the vanity project of European political integration appealing. You can only take so much of flag waving and Beethoven’s ninth ‘Ode to Joy’.
Who is to blame?
The list is long and the EU itself must take its share. Before the 2015 General Election when it judged the chances of a Conservative government were low, it was dismissive of David Cameron’s calls for a renegotiation of Britain’s role. Even when the Conservatives formed a government it was reluctant to be drawn into providing anything meaningful by the way of reform– an approach the voters from the second largest net contributor to the EU budget found aloof and patronising.
Cameron’s decision, based upon domestic politics, to offer the referendum must have seemed a good idea at the time. It would simultaneously dislocate UKIP from the voters, remove a cancer from his own party and land a telling right-hook on a weakened and disorganised Labour party. Only the last of these objectives (perhaps not helpfully), has been achieved. He may have been levered to the decision by a clever political screwdriver from UKIP – but the strategy and timing was Cameron’s alone. It would be odd if he does not now ruefully reflect on the poor wisdom of that decision.
The disconnect between the millions of working class voters and all of the political parties was starkly illustrated by a leave vote. The surprise on the faces of Labour politicians as they realised the vote they had been encouraged to turn out was voting against their wishes was telling. It spoke of a sanctimonious misjudgement of the population towards the EU and a self-indulgent approach to the value of their own view.
What happens now?
Less than people think. Following initial hysteria currency and markets will settle. In the short term the media will milk the journalist drama and those politicians and institutions on the losing side will continue to predict doom and maybe even attempt to frustrate or subvert the decision. There will be attention (too much) on political personalities. Getting past all of that, the UK is a large and robust economy. Europe can no more afford a poor political and trading relationship with the UK, than the UK can alienate itself completely from the EU. They need each other and it is unlikely that the UK can be bullied in the same way as Greece. Arguably, the political consequences for Europe are greater. There are a number of countries within the Union containing powerful political elements who eye the British decision with envy. They are likely to seek to replicate the process. Certainly pressure within the Union for internal reform will increase as powerful political entities coalesce around the British decision. Many in the EU may have cause to thank the British as Commission driven plans for further integration take a backseat and the EU centre of gravity (at least for a while) shifts to the Council. Political leadership led by Germany, will be forced to take control from the Commission’s bureaucracy and undertake some serious thinking on the direction of the EU project. Having lost its second largest economy, most capable military, a highly proficient diplomatic service, never mind internal administrative expertise from within its institutions, the EU now has a great deal to think about.
For the United Kingdom, the immediate challenge is for government to take charge of the agenda. The early frustration and accusations of no apparent planning does not take account of the quiet contingency planning that has been taking place, whether the government cares to admit it or not. The political face of this with new leadership will follow in due course. The hysterical critics demanding a costed, resourced blueprint immediately will have to wait until the many institutions have absorbed the decision and organised accordingly. There will be no immediate invoking of Article 50 – a decision that will frustrate many. It is right that this critical enactment takes place under a new leadership, able to bring vigour and belief to the negotiations.
Much of the disentanglement from the EU is just simply bureaucratic ‘work’ – the dry administration of repeal and drafting. It will take substantial time, certainly years. But that is what the Civil Service ‘does’ and it should not concern us greatly. Strategically a key requirement is to establish the UK-EU partnering and trade relationship (as well as trade relationships elsewhere). There will be challenges, compromises and costs to this and we can expect a relationship somewhere between Norway and Canada, depending upon the political and negotiating appetite on both sides. There is no shortcut to this process: it is a matter of negotiation that will take its course until both sides are content.
The long term outlook is bright, Europe will continue to trade with the UK whatever anyone says. Too many Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and VWs head to these shores, airbus still needs its wings and ultimately trade will always trump politics. Liberated from the EU framework the global future for the UK looks strong. A trading nation, with a common law system and mastery of the English language there is no reason to fear the challenge of creating a global economy, including Europe, just not part of the EU.
Whatever, it looks like and costs, the UK will be sovereign once more. Protected from political integration and interference and from entanglement in the Eurozone mess. This is a price the current political chaos is worth paying. When it is over, we can turn our attention to the more complex problem of solving the crisis that is English football.