The British people have spoken. Three times. In 1975 to confirm whether to remain as a member of the common market, or more precisely the European Communities (Iron and Steel, Economic and Atomic Energy), that we had joined 2 years previously – 67% voted to stay in. The 2011 referendum was to decide whether to change the electoral system to the alternative vote system. Genuine proportional representation was not on offer, presumably because it might have been accepted. 68% voted against change. The 2016 Brexit referendum whether to remain or leave the EU resulted in 52% for leave, around 37% of the electorate. The British people had spoken, but not with any very clear message.
At least one sample post referendum survey (albeit non-scientifically sampled) suggested that over 11% of the leave voters did so because they were ‘so fed up with David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg’. There was no mention of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, Ian Duncan-Smith and the rather well spoken Jacob Rees-Mogg, though the 11%, all Labour supporters, would no doubt have included them as also influencing their vote.
That narrow vote to leave was muddied by the simple fact that, since no negotiations had taken place, it was not possible to define what leaving the EU would entail. The validity of the leave majority was further undermined by the revelation that the Brexit campaign was fraudulent, not just by its aggressive promotion of fake news and claims that leaving the EU, would help make Britain great again (to borrow a Trumpism). It was also guilty of targeting voters online with fakery as confirmed in evidence to the all-party digital media, culture and sport (DCMS) committee by former Cambridge Analytica employee, Christopher Wylie. The Vote Leave campaign has also been fined £61,000 and has been referred to police after the Electoral Commission found it had broken electoral law, exceeding its £7m spending limit, passing £675,315 through the pro Brexit youth group, BeLeave, whose founder, Darren Grimes, was also fined and referred to police for further investigation.
Former Vote Leave director, Dominic Cummings refused to answer to the DCMS committee regarding claims that the campaign broke electoral law. Committee member Paul Farrelly, responded “There is no point in us huffing and puffing about this and allowing people like Cummings to thumb their noses at us.” Parliament needs to act. But what should that action be?
Despite the mixed motives of voters, the narrowness of the majority, the fraudulent conduct and criminal rigging of the Leave campaign, as well as the apparent shift of opinion towards Remaining as details of the likely Brexit outcomes have become increasingly apparent, despite all that, the diligently incompetent Theresa May appears determined to make Brexit, with all its obvious damage and destructions, absolutely inescapable.
Substantial segments of the UK’s GDP will depart as foreign manufacturers see less point in continuing to invest in their UK operations once we are no longer EU members. That situation has been made much worse by more than three decades of self-deluding neoliberal “open for business”policy, welcoming the sell off of UK owned businesses for short term gain, unlike Japan and Germany. It is also obvious that the City of London will give way to Frankfurt as the base for legitimate European financial transactions, though London will no doubt retain its role as the global centre for money laundering, tax evasion and avoidance expertise and as headquarters of the global tax haven system.
That doesn’t seem a very solid foundation for making Britain great again.
There has been much debate about the impossible specifics of departure from the EU, such as Northern Irish border. But there has been little discussion about what the EU actually is and what it is that we will be leaving, that will give such satisfaction to the Brexiteers? Surely it isn’t just a matter of migration!
The Europe we joined in 1973 had been formed by six nation signatories to the Treaty of Rome, with a founding intent to prevent the European nations going to war with each other ever again. The Europe we will be leaving will comprise twenty seven nations which form a cultural, economic, legal and political union, mostly formalised by the 1993 Maastricht Treaty. The EU was founded on the values of “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including rights of persons belonging to minorities … pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men”. Its stated aims are to promote peace, European values and its citizens’ well-being, provide free movement for its citizens with external border controls in place, provide an open internal market, establish the Euro currency, and respect the charter of the UN.
But the EU also agreed to be based on democratic principles with citizens represented directly in the European Parliament and by their governments in the Council and the European Council which are accountable to national parliaments. Many Brits held at the time that the establishment of a European parliament was a step too far that the UK should never have agreed to. It causes obvious confusion as to who actually rules what. And while its practical role has so far been largely one of rubber stamping, it nevertheless poses a potential threat to national sovereignty which might become real at any point in time. It also has to be paid for.
It seems probable that other members of the EU also feel that establishing the European parliament was a step too far for them. They might consider joining an outer circle of member states who are not participant members of the parliament, but in other ways accept the pluses and minuses of membership, so long as their right to veto European legislation affecting their nation states is preserved. That might seem to be barring the EU from further development and integration, but that would only be the case for the outer circle of member states. The inner circle could proceed to full integration as they pleased.
The UK Brexit fixated government appears to be dominated by people whose experience and aspirations seem limited to little more than hearing the sound of their own voices. Theresa May is advised by Michael Gove and till recently by David Davis and Boris Johnson, all of who have followed the examples of David Cameron, the old-Etonian who got us into this jam, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith with his Universal Credit. They all quit when the scale of their cock-ups became so unavoidably obvious. As well as that, government is now even, apparently, being increasingly under the influence of Jacob Rees-Mogg.
A more flexible approach should be on offer from opposition forces, but is not yet apparent.
Those who wish to remain – which almost certainly includes the majority of the electorate if honestly polled – are not bound to obey the corrupted Brexit vote. Referendums are not legally binding, and governments do have the moral duty to act in the best interests of the people they represent. That duty is not being fulfilled by the determination to exit.
Wouldn’t it be much better to change the tone of the negotiations with the EU? Instead of seeking impossible terms for an advantageous exit, and resigning when failure is complete, would it not be better to pursue the possibility of remaining, but with adjustment to a looser form of membership, rather than commitment to full integration as expressed by membership of the European parliament?