After observing the Brexit poll at close quarters, guest Mule contributor John Carmody travelled on to Europe and continued to reflect on the significance of the vote. In this follow-up post he reflects on the historical journey of the European Union and his reasons for thinking that the Leave vote was a terrible mistake on the part of British voters.
I have also continued to reflect on the vote and have arrived at a similar conclusion for different reasons. I do have some sympathy for some of the political sovereignty arguments for Leave (although not those based on Farage and UKIP xenophobia), but I still think that Remain is the better option. The best analogy I have come up with is someone regretting the decision to get a large tattoo. While it may have been better never to have had the tattoo, removal can be painful and leave an ugly scar. In the same way, Britain does not have the option to wind back the clock and eradicate the last 40 years of history: it did join the Union and an exit will lead to a very different Britain. There is no way to transition to a counterfactual Britain that never joined back in 1973 and had developed its own trade agreements, human rights legislation, environmental legislation, funded all of its own infrastructure, scientific research, etc, etc. Exit will be painful and, even if joining in the first place was a mistake as some would argue, leaving will be worse.
But back to the guest post…and I would be interested in reactions to this post, so please post your thoughts in the comments.
As with beauty, the rights and wrongs of the British “Brexit” vote will lie in the eye (or the prejudices) of the beholder. Certainly, innumerable words are still being deployed about it, though many of them (notably, but certainly not exclusively, in Britain) are rather self-interested or poorly informed. I believe that the Anglophone world, in general (including in Australia), has a poor understanding of the structure and operations of the European Union and a fortiori of its genesis in the fraught history of Europe, since the Reformation.
It is in part a historical institution and in part a philosophical one. It has grown from the fraught history of European religious, territorial and mercantile wars as well as the growing sense, notably in the twentieth century, if the “idea” of Europe. As an island (even insular) nation which has not been successfully invaded since 1066, Britain has played only a sporadic often simply self-interested part in those developments. And Australia, influenced so powerfully by Britain (as, indeed, it still is) shares much of that ignorance of European history and thought.
Experience commonly determines understanding. As time passes and people forget or, without that lived experience of adversity, become complacent (especially, in this specific case, about Europe’s peace since 1945): it is the serious responsibility of politicians, as well as teachers and journalists, to impart this knowledge. Even writers in the International New York Times, who ought to understand a federation, use such demeaning words as “bloc” or “imperfect union”—as if the USA is any different in its fallibility. Of course, the EU is “imperfect”: it is (like every human institution) “a work in progress”; but commentators need to acknowledge that it has made astonishing progress. Of course, for a diversity of reason (not the least of which is language) it is not as mature a federation as those of the US and Australia, but in fields as diverse as health and the environment, education and agriculture, for example, it has transformed Europe. There is, for all its limitations, a far greater sense of a European identity than when I first went there 40 years ago.
Regrettably, for years, journalists and politicians—in particular those in Britain (and hence in Australia, because our journalists are essentially compacts)—have failed in their responsibility to inform, rather than manipulate, their constituencies. In fact, it has often seemed that they were determined, for their own partisan interests, to misinform and profit from prejudice — especially in that recent “Brexit” campaign. Australians are all too familiar with some of this behaviour: we have seen many comparable instances when our politicians have engaged in what is called the “blame game” between the states and Canberra. Thus, British politicians have blamed “Brussels” for decisions which were democratically made in the European Parliament, even when they were elected members of it and they actually voted for the contended measures.
All too frequently the talk is about some sort of opaque and unaccountable bureaucracy, whereas the truth is (as I have been advised by well-informed lawyers) that the administration exercised by the European Commission (as that civil service is called) is pretty lean, and smaller than pertains even in some of the larger cities in Europe. Furthermore, is it overseen by two levels of representative oversight. Contrary to what many in Britain believe, or are told to believe, this Commission does not control Europe, any more than the public service in Whitehall “controls” the United Kingdom or the Canberra bureaucracy “controls” Australia. That authority is exercised, jointly, by the Councils of Ministers and the European Parliament. Those several Councils are composed of the relevant Ministers from the legislatures of the constituent countries of the EU, all of whom are accountable to their home Parliaments and electorates. The European Parliament is made up of directly elected members and is, therefore, no less democratic a body that the House of Commons (and it is decidedly more democratic and representative than the House of Lords). Of course, as happened with Federation in Australia, when the uniting colonies ceded some powers to the Commonwealth but retained others, this sharing of power is undertaken for a greater good, but it has costs: it is certainly not a “loss of control” as Boris Johnson and his henchmen duplicitously asserted and (either through lack of ability or conviction) David Cameron failed to properly contradict.
That was not the only lie of the recent British referendum. Another was the claim that a vote for “Brexit” would return to the National Health Service an amount of £350 million each week (the asserted, but seriously inflated, figure for the current British payment to the EU budget). Almost as soon as the referendum results were declared, the “Leave” proponents were repudiating that promise. A former Conservative Leader, Iain Duncan Smith, brazenly insisted that “I didn’t say that”, even when he was reminded that the posters and leaflets which his group issued had promised exactly that. His revised promise became, instead, that the NHS would receive “the lion’s share” of whatever was left over after the essential compensation was paid to British farmers for the loss of their substantial subsidies from the EU.
Other falsehoods, though, continued to be promulgated after the referendum. In a column in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson wrote that “there will continue to be free trade, and access to a single market.” In other words, the insular British could continue to have their current cake and eat it too (Johnson once said that this was his “policy”). It was a reiteration of the campaign propaganda—that it was possible, in effect, to remain a member while avoiding all of those inconvenient costs of membership, political and financial. That is utter nonsense. Either Britain is a member or it is not. There is no possibility of being “a little bit pregnant”. The situation of Norway was often mentioned.
But, I am advised that, as a non-member wishing to enjoy free-trade, Norway must pay about 90% of what its contributions would be if were actually a member. Britain would have to pay something comparable if it wanted access to the European market and, given the stern attitudes which, understandably, are currently attributed to such leaders as Dr Merkel and M. Hollande, more attractive rates are highly unlikely. The bitter result for Britain from Johnson’s interpretation of “free access” would be a comparable cost but with absolutely influence on EU laws and policies.
Some Independence Day for Nigel Farage and his “UKIP”! Some “regaining control” for the Colonel Blimps and their powdered ladies of “Middle England”! And even worse prospects for the struggling under classes, especially in the north. Wrongly, they feel neglected by Brussels (the reverse is actually the truth), but, for decades, Westminster has shown little regard for then.
Even if, to other than close observers, the outcome of the poll were unexpected (it had seemed highly likely to me), the heterogeneity of the results – age by age, region by region, class by class—were a harsh reminder of what a fractured county Britain currently is. The “United” part of the name UK, is meaningless. Scotland (68%), Northern Ireland (56%) and London (60%), for example, voted strongly to stay in the EU; much of the rest of England voted to leave (52-58%).
Various analyses have shown that education played an important role. In regions where fewer than 22% of the population have a degree, 62% voted “Out”, but that vote was only 42% where more than 32% of residents have a degree. The age disparities were even more stark. Commercial polling, after the voting closed, showed that 73% of 18-24 year-olds support EU membership but only 40% of those over 65. Those with a future have been trumped by those who may not live to see the promised “independent future”. As a Cambridge colleague recently said to me, “We feel in free-fall”. Many Europeans to whom I have spoken are just as perplexed. Perhaps the real truth was recognised by an astute and experienced Italian journalist, Beppe Severgnini, who wrote, “One should understand that it wasn’t fear, or anger, that brought so many English to vote for Brexit on June 23. It was nostalgia…….nostalgia for a self-sufficient, cosy Little England that is long gone. But they don’t seem to realise that nothing, not even voting to leave the European Union, can bring it back.”
Of course, there were as many individual reasons as there were voters: but in some places there seemed an almost wilful determination – notwithstanding that the rage was probably directed at the wrong target – to inflict self-harm. In some places which depend upon EU finances for their very lives (and certainly their jobs), it ironically became art transformed into life with the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” cry in The Life of Brian turned into “What has Europe ever done for us?” When reality eventually strikes, it will certainly be harsh and those misled communities will feel the greatest pain and social upheaval. Certainly, given the deep and serious rifts in her party—let alone British society at large—the task which faces the new Prime Minister designate, Theresa May is immense.
The voting figures indicate that there are clear political divisions as well. On the day after the vote, the formidable Nicola Sturgeon was unequivocal. As the First Minister in the Scottish Government, she pointed out how strong the “Remain” vote had been north of the Tweed. A new referendum on independence for Scotland, she declared, is certainly “on the table”. Indeed, without Scotland, Britain would shrink to “Little England”, with the serious risk of a crippling reduction in its importance as a financial centre, let alone its potential scientific losses. Furthermore, whether the enduring sectarianism of Northern Island would prove an implacable impediment to some sort of union with the Irish Republic in the south has become a hot topic because, otherwise, their border would also become the British border with the EU and securing it would be an enormous challenge for both sides in every conceivable respect.
Much has been made of the concern that “Brexit” might encourage more breakaway movements. While the focus has been on Madam Le Pen and her National Front in France, or the extreme Rightist party of Geert Wilders in Holland, concern will also be felt about the intentions of such nationalist groups as the Basques and the Catalans. It is ironic that, as the world is supposed to becoming more integrated, notably as electronic communications and transport become ever faster and less expensive, smaller communities and political groups seem so alluring. Currently, this is simply speculation, but to many people (not just politicians) it is troubling just the same.
Even so, the final card may not have been played in Britain. The political and legal power of such a referendum as was recently held there are far from clear in that nation’s diffuse constitution. A corollary of the contemporary rhetoric is that the people want the British Parliament to be supreme. The logical consequence of that aspiration would be that the parliament must make the ultimate decision about whether to act on that slender 52%:48% margin (keeping in mind the principle that a greater majority—say of 66% or even 75%—ought to have been mandated before any radical action was triggered). To deny the people their “choice” might seem politically foolhardy (or, even responsibly statesmanlike); but that it why so many nations have parliaments, rather than frequent national plebiscites.
Yet, legally speaking, the position it far more complicated. It is certainly not a matter of the new British Prime Minister sending a letter to Brussels to trigger exit negotiations. That action, under the terms of membership agreements, requires action by the appropriate law-making bodies in the member country in question: in Britain that it the parliament—it certainly is not the cabinet, let alone the individual PM. So, this can hardly be done – in the legal way which Brussels would require, before Parliament returns from its scheduled summer recess, if only because the required legislation (especially if it is to specify the conditions of the negotiations with the EU in the requisite detail) will be difficult and time-consuming to write and debate.
For all that many are said to be calling for a speedy resolution, it simply cannot occur in a hurry. Lady Macbeth’s wish that the deed should be done quickly might be appealing, but it is not practicable. Patience is less often understood as the political virtue that is should be. Like beauty and its appreciation, it is uneven in its distribution. Sagacity, not seduction, is what is now required on all sides.