Brexit: the beginning and middle
The UK has just held a rare national referendum, and voted to leave the EU. Voters turned out in levels not seen since the general election in 1997–72% of the enfranchised citizens of the UK cast their ballot, and 52% said they wanted a Brexit.
I must disclose that I was one of the 52% that voted leave, and I still stand by my decision. I would, however, like to distance myself both from the various permutations of the ‘leave campaign’ and from the stereotype of leave voters that is now pervading our media (institutional and social). I will come to the reasons that appealed most to me when deciding to leave the EU later on, as there are other issues that have been thrown up in the wake of this historic result.
In the run up to, and the aftermath of, the so called Brexit vote, I have been increasingly concerned by some of the rhetoric from people who voted to remain. Especially since the vote has been cast, people are quick to relay the idea that people who voted leave are not educated, reasoned or informed, or that they are purely anti-immigration, bigoted, racists that just ‘want their country back’. People who I considered to be liberal (in the classical sense), free-thinking, open-minded individuals are buying into a judgement of 17,000,000 people and spouting it as correct. The divisions are widening, and hate crimes have been on the rise. There has been a sharp spike in people who are apparently under the impression that 52% of people in our electorate condone attacks on others — it truly breaks my heart.
I have always thought there is a danger in making sweeping judgements of large groups of people, largely because it is logically impossible. As somebody who, by their own valuation, does not necessarily fit into the mould/schema/stereotypes that have been around for so long, it has never made sense to me that you can infer personality traits in a person based on what they are. This ‘us and them’ mentality is not only dangerous, it is silly. Too often, one example in a particular group is thrown up as a representative of their entire faction of society. Cue the ‘benefit scroungers’, the ‘rapefugees’ (what a fucking awful, insidious term), the extremist who wants to impose sharia law, the Asian paedophile rings and the simpleton working class lout. As far as I can see it, if you put any cross section of people together, whether it be split by gender, race, class, or age, there are likely to be some that are agreeable people, and some who are not. Generalisations don’t speak to the entire group any more than they speak for me, or you. To navigate this world, we are designed to find patterns and collect evidence that strengthens our hypotheses, and so stereotypes, personal past experiences and generalisations are used to assess situations thousands of times throughout each day. There is nothing wrong with that, but people must be shown that you cannot apply your judgements arbitrarily.
The danger of putting people in one neat little group is that you ignore the nuances and differences between them. Not all leave voters are racists, but all the racists voted leave — I mean c’mon, really? It is reductive, condescending and ugly. I cannot believe how some people, whose opinion I had really respected, have carried on. Not just in the fact they voted remain, which I totally respect and understand, but in their conduct afterwards. The media outlets have been spouting a tale of gloom and doom, again, understandably — their whole business model relies on selling copies, and what better way to do it than be controversial and divisive?
The problem is that, as outlined above, it is ridiculous to try and tar several million people with one brush, on either remain OR leave’s side. You could view the different ways that typically lower and upper class areas voted as those in the know vs those that are not, or you could look at it in terms of who has the most to benefit from staying in the EU and business as normal. Either way, I feel like somebody has to point out that, within either camp, people are going to make ill-informed decisions, biased decisions, and decisions based on others’ hearsay. To try and argue that the results of the referendum should be ignored because some were under the impression that either camp or campaign had the remit to make any promises is ridiculous. This was not a general election, votes were not intended to be cast for policies, figures, or anything tangible — this was a leap into the unknown. This vote was one of principle, and that is unquantifiable. To try and argue that nobody in remain voted that way because of media spin is just as nonsensical as assuming that nobody voted leave because of the same thing. To try and argue it should be ignored because some people ‘regret their vote’ is foolish too — does nobody think that this stands in both camps? At the end of the day, most of the criticisms made of the vote can be aimed at both sides. Some people ARE stupid, regardless of which box they fit in. Thousands of others are not.
Since the vote, I have not been affected personally by the rise in attacks because of race or colour — I am a white, middle (ish) class female, so it is not that I don’t care about this rise in xenophobia, it’s more that it hasn’t been something that has been directed at me. The thing that has affected me personally is the assessment of those who voted leave, so excuse my focus upon it. I have always tried to find both sides of an argument, and I really do feel that if you can’t do that, you have simply failed to understand the question. To dismiss the opinions of people that are different from yours as stupid or somehow less valid is akin to discriminating on any other aspect of a person, and I emphatically believe that this is wrong.
It is pretty clear to me (and hopefully most others) that there has been a largely apathetic approach to politics over my lifetime. I can’t really comment on goings on previous to my arrival in the world, but having been a keen follower in politics since around 17/18 (I am now 29), I have found myself in the minority in this respect. I have, I suppose, a reputation for banging on about issues that concern and interest me — I am quite a passionate person and, despite the privileged society I find myself in, I am deeply unhappy with the ‘status quo’ in the UK. For me, in the face of the multiple advantages I have, we are not creating a healthy, happy, fair, and just place to live.
The recent political debate has fired up burning passions in people around the UK — ostensibly, this is great. As any society is the sum of its parts, igniting a debate and swapping ideas can only result in new ones. The very nature of society is that it is a space where people co-exist, collaborate and cooperate — slightly idealistic, perhaps, but that is my spin on it.
I am so saddened to see that, in the wake of the Brexit decision, many people from both sides are retreating back to not caring. If you voted leave, it is easy to see why you would stop caring if the given stereotype does not fit you. If you voted remain, but don’t buy into the awful depiction of leave voters, it is easy to see why you might stop caring because the standard lines that are being trotted out don’t fit your view. Politics has long been something that alienates people — despite being democratic, it is often unrepresentative of the polity.
Whilst I am aware that this piece is unlikely to gain much traction, if any at all, I feel that I have a duty to kick back against some of the unreasonable things people are saying about those that voted leave. I don’t feel that the media are representing the Brexit view in a balanced way, I don’t feel that the media represent we the people any more than our politicans do. Just look at the current row between the Labour PLP and Corbyn — I don’t vote Labour, but if they oust him it will just be confirmation that our political class do not share the views of the citizens in its country (though that is a debate for another day), despite being there to represent them.
I first decided I was eurosceptic when I studied Law at university. I also did a Law A-level, and it is safe to say the subject blew my mind. I was bored to tears by the pedantic nature of contract law, but constitutional law ignited something in me (as did human rights). We were asked in our initial lectures about what law was, what it meant to us, why should it be observed?
In a nutshell, the concept was explained by something called the rule of law. It seeks to explain why laws should be followed, and it basically comes down to how democracy is made up. The executive is voted in by we the people (but not specifically using any method — I’m looking at you first past the post), the judiciary is independent from everyone else, and the legislature serve as a check and balance on the executive. All of these aspects come together to ensure that, even in the face of great power, corruption cannot occur, and no one legal body can act as it pleases. Parliament in the crown is sovereign — the people must be heard. This is what I understand to be a democratic system. If the people are unhappy with the way the government is conducting its business, they can vote them out. They are our servants and representatives, not our minders and guardians. They are there to carry out our will, as society is supposed to work for those who make it up. We are society, it isn’t something that is inflicted upon us.
My first problem with the EU is this ceding of sovereignty. I understand that there are many areas in which we give up some of our sovereignty, for example in the ECHR (European Convention of Human Rights). I am actually a big fan of the ECHR, and wholeheartedly believe that on issues of personal welfare that it is okay to cede some power. It is a static set of rules which must be followed by the UK — it is only because of the Human Rights Act that our public bodies must observe these rules too (though it is easy to dodge by contracting out to the private sector, who are not bound by it, but hey ho). Whilst the government of the day is tied by the Court’s decisions, they are not automatically observed into law. Each nation that ratified it is able to bring any judgements into law as they see fit, nobody is dictated by its decisions, though they must be observed. In this respect, the ECHR is supranational. I am totally comfortable with this.
What I am not comfortable with is the ability of the EU to create laws for its member states. Some of these rules bypass UK parliament. The very fact that they can do this undermines the UK parliament’s authority, and therefore the will of its people. It is true that the EU parliament has universal suffrage, and so any EU citizen can vote MEPs who do not represent them out, but it does not have the right to initiate laws. This is the role of the EU Commission, and the selection of Commissioners is not something that EU citizens have any control over. Justice must be seen to be heard, and the same is true of democracy. The imbalance of power in the EU institutions goes against the rule of law — nobody can affect the commission’s undertakings, or impeach them if they are not operating as we desire. That in itself rings huge alarm bells for me. If the EU does not wish to have the ‘status quo’ changed, it can withhold legislation from debate — surely, surely that is of concern?
This first objection is not one that can be solved with reform of the EU, it is integral to its constitution. Personally, I do not have any problem with cooperating and working alongside neighbouring countries in terms of trade and services, but I do have a huge problem with the way we are currently doing it. It is not fraternisation with nearby nations that I have issue with, it is the institution that we are currently using to do so.
You only have to look at the situation in Greece, where democracy was totally usurped and the Greek government ended up with a punitive deal as a result of daring to go against the wishes of the troika. There is nothing to say that, despite being outside of the Eurozone, the same fate would not meet the UK. The way these bodies, referred to as the troika, operate alludes to the trickle-down theory of economics I so vehemently oppose. They do not operate to protect or serve the electorate. I am no utilitarian, but it seems obscene to promote business agendas above societal ones. Populist is a term often thrown around in a derogative way, and I just cannot understand why.
I said before that democracy must be seen to be done (clumsy, but go with it). I had a look at the voting turnout in the UK since about 1945, and since the 1970s it is declining (from close to 80% to 65%). I loathe when people confuse cause with correlation, but it is my view that voting turnout has been declining, along with many other reasons, because people do not feel that the UK parliament has control. Why bother voting if it doesn’t make a difference? If removing the EU makes people feel enfranchised and involved, then perhaps that is a good thing. We have all heard over and over again that we can’t pass this or that law because of the big bad wolf we call the EU — is it any wonder that people believe it? People must be confident in their democracy in order to contribute to it.
The other thing that I find unattractive about the EU is a constant drive to homogeneity. If I got 28 sets of parents in a room and asked them to make a collective and binding decision, by majority vote, of how to raise their children, I can guarantee you that each parent would have to make huge concessions in order to get everybody to be happy. I do not like this lowest common denominator approach, especially if you accept all of these children are at different stages of their lives, with different needs, skills and disadvantages. Wouldn’t it be better for each set of parents to help the other with advice, loaning each other resources and swapping best practices? Is each parent not best placed to cater to the needs of their own children, equipped with intimate knowledge of the landscape and challenges that face them? Children are not the same, nation states are not the same. Tell me, why is uniformity a good thing? For anything other than economics and trade it is not. We should celebrate diversity, and encourage children/nations to flourish in their own unique and wonderful ways.
More than that, you could argue that in attempting to even the playing ground between member states in terms of trade, the EU has actually fostered a climate of growing inequality in its pursuit of business ideals. What was meant to be a harmonisation of standards to facilitate cooperative trade has turned into a political behemoth — too big to fail, too stubborn to reform.
Thirdly, the EU is fairly stagnant in terms of economy. The fact that this trading bloc as a whole is not flourishing means that I am puzzled as to why it is being held up as some sort of shining example. It is often criticised for being slow to react to economic pushes and pulls, just look at TTIP or CETA. These trade deals have been decades in the making, principally because 29 parties must agree, in some sense, to one thing. Member states are precluded from interfering with business and state ownership, so as not to give an advantage to any nation’s industries over another’s. Isn’t that just insanity?
On the subject of TTIP, it is an objection which is unpalatable even when looked at in isolation of the other points I have and will go on to make. This is a monumental treaty between the EU and US, in the free trade style I have come to know and detest from the EU treaties themselves. The US is a much more deregulated nation than we are, with much less oversight in areas such as pesticides, fertilisers and cosmetic ingredients. In fact, in nearly every industry, the US is less regulated than we are. They are neo-liberal, conservative and have much worse wealth inequality than we do. America have very few public services — everything including, of course, healthcare is privatised. If TTIP is ratified in its current state (as published by Greenpeace Netherlands), then this treaty will include becoming more harmonised with the US so as to facilitate trade and remove ‘barriers’. Barriers, protections, rights — all semantics right? They’re like that pesky red tape. This harmonisation does not mean that the US will increase its regulation, but that we will have to allow chemicals that have been banned on human health grounds. It will also mean that we will have to open up our public bodies to tender, including the beloved, much admired NHS.
Companies with the moral compass of Nestle will also be able to sue member states in private, in what are called ISDS (investor-state dispute settlements). This basically means that, even though we have a perfectly valid legal system that has evolved over hundreds of years, companies who feel that the actions of a member state have affected their FUTURE profits will be able to sue those member states. In private. Without an impartial member of the judiciary. The judge will be a corporate lawyer. If this doesn’t fill you with fear, then consider that if your country decided to divest from fossil fuels a faceless company could sue your government for billions in speculative future profits, even if the decisions was taken under public health grounds. That is not justice, hidden hearings are not justice, protecting business interests above all else is just not justice.
TTIP only serves to compound my previous fears about the undemocratic and pro-corporate, neo-liberal ideals embodied by the EU. This was supposed to be a trade deal, and we were conned into it. It has confused me how people have forgotten that the left have long been eurosceptic. It is with disbelief that I write that nearly everyone has forgotten that. You might argue that it needs reform, we can’t chip into the conversation on the adults table when we’ve been relegated to the garden to play. We got reform, as recently in February — it wasn’t enough.
There is also the ugly issue of immigration. This is the biggest issue for a lot of the UK public, and not necessarily limited to those who voted leave. I am pro-immigration, all for accepting asylum seekers and refugees (especially when they are fleeing conflicts that the UK had a large role in), and supportive of multi-culturalism. I love the vivid and colourful ways that different cultures enhance and develop my own — new perspectives can never be a bad thing for me, and neither can new cuisine (more please) and customs. I am no nationalist, but I do believe that immigration must be controlled to some extent. Not in terms of where the applicants come from, but in terms of numbers. Planning infrastructure requires a certain degree of confidence in projected volumes, and being a member of the EU limits your ability to control numbers. It is obvious that immigration has been mismanaged for years, resulting in a squeeze on public finances, infrastructure and resources, but it is no more the fault of those wishing to come here than it is those who are already making their lives here. There is an argument to say that non-EU immigration is just as high as EU immigration, which I accept — it doesn’t mean that I don’t think we should manage that too. It is not immigration that is the problem, but rather the planning and provisions for the new arrivals to our little island. If it had been done properly, if we had invested in providing for these contributors to our economy and culture, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Immigrants to the UK, on balance, provide more to our society than they take. If it was managed properly, I think the people of the UK, whether 1st generation or 10th, would be in a better position to understand that as they wouldn’t feel so threatened. I think people feel as if something is being taken from them, as if the slices of the pie are getting progressively smaller and smaller. There is no need for this, we need a new, bigger, more inclusive bake off.
On principle, I don’t like the fact that EU migrants are prioritised over others, I think that is wrong. I cannot blame anyone for wanting to move somewhere in order to pursue a better life, but I don’t see why we are handing that opportunity to places that are near us as opposed to the rest of the world. From where I stand, that isn’t fair. Wouldn’t it create a bigger net benefit to give priority to those who come from countries in various stages of poverty and conflict, when they too have the skills we need?
I don’t know what the answer is, and I do not profess to, but a points-style system would ensure that we get the type of skills we lack, instead of flooding markets with skills we already have and depressing wages. While there is a net benefit to immigration, we have to be careful that the benefit is evenly spread. This is not a race issue, for me at least. Some countries need low-skilled workers, some countries need highly-skilled workers, to compensate for the shortcomings in their own workforce. I can reference Australia, where people drive lorries to and from the mines for huge salaries, especially compared to the wage that they can expect here, where demand is lower. The value of a person’s occupation lies not in what it is, but what is required by a particular place, and a better distribution of skills would help everyone. Again in Australia, hairdressers are paid much larger wages than here because there is more demand for them — surely better, managed immigration would encourage this flow and help to match needs to requirements, instead of opening the floodgates with no idea of who might come in, and what effect they might have. We need an approach we can adjust in line with market trends and whatever else, instead of being stuck and tied down, without means to optimise. For non-EU immigration, we already have this approach. It doesn’t work now, but I think that’s because we are using it carelessly, as opposed to an intrinsic objection to matching demand to supply.
There have been a few accusations that the UK has declared itself as isolationist when voting to leave the EU — on the contrary, we are now free to contract with any and every country. We can literally do anything we choose, or at least attempt to. I don’t want to become ‘little England’ any more than I want to belong to the EU, and I don’t think I am on my own in this respect. The US, by way of Obama, might have said we are at the back of the queue, but I don’t think that to be true. Even if the superpowers turn their backs on us, there are plenty of economies that are flourishing outside of the EU, whom we could easily strike up trade deals with. I have previously mentioned that I am not a nationalist, and I meant it, but it almost feels as if people have forgotten how successful our country is (at least in terms of GDP). We have a trade deficit, which means we must import huge amounts of goods and services. This makes us very attractive to producer countries, especially those so close to us, but others as well. We are the 5th richest economy in the world and, despite the end of days stories that are seemingly without limit, we have an opportunity here to do something really great. We could put trade deals in place that are mutually beneficial for whatever foreign market and our own, which would be tailored to us and our country’s requirements. Those are not the same as Spain’s, France’s, or Lithuania’s. The possibilities are endless, there are six million ways to die and we must choose one, and choose wisely. It is up to us now — let’s do it right, do it inclusively, and do it with a long term agenda in mind.
The other isolationist line that I have heard is that we are stronger together, and if we leave the EU we will close ourselves off from the rest of the world. To me, this is a reductive argument and not one that I can really allow to pass. If you look at the achievements of the Paris climate change summit, COP21, it is clear that countries around the world are able to mobilise and come together to achieve the unachievable — we do not need to work with the EU to work with Europe. 187 nations signed the agreement, only 15% of those are in the EU. We do, and will always, need to accommodate, assist and enable other countries around the world because of globalisation. There is nothing stopping us from making arrangements with countries to facilitate trade of goods and ideals, and that is what I want. I just don’t see why we must limit ourselves to 27 countries, instead of a couple hundred.
Recently, there have been some loud voices on the left that have berated leave voters for putting us in the sole hands of the ‘evil Tories’. It was a sad day for me when the UK voted in a majority Conservative government in May of 2015, I was incredibly upset. I voted Green, for reference, though the merits of my decision are, again, for another day (and yes I did read the whole manifesto). However, my deep dislike of Tory principles did not stop me from voting leave, because this decision will affect us regardless of the party that is currently in power. How short sighted is it to vote in to stop the Tories, when they may well (and I hope they do) go in a few years? I didn’t want to waste what I perceived to be our only shot of getting rid of an institution with which I fundamentally disagree, just to avoid letting the Tories rule the roost without oversight. We are still signatories to ECHR, NATO, IMF and UN — they are not without checks. The UN have just delivered a scathing report on the fact that austerity politics affect the disabled, marginalised, and disadvantaged members of our society the most. The world is watching, we do not need the safety blanket of the EU, especially when it is choking us.
Additionally, even when Article 50 has been invoked, we will have a 2 year grace period to negotiate our exit, which brings us to 2018 at least. A government can wreak havoc in the two years further to 2018 in which we will have to wait for a general election, but remember our laws are passed in a democratic manner. Boris and Farage can make any promise they like, despite not being able to fulfil them, but the personal agendas of individual politicians are irrelevant when any bill must pass two houses before it is ratified by Liz. Even when we were in the EU, political pressure has been applied in order to prevent the Conservative government of imposing even more misery — I can cite tax credits and changes to disability-related benefits as two recent, and extremely welcome, u-turns. There is nothing to stop us from applying pressure if the suggestions they come up with on how to move forward are not in line with the populist view. I, for one, am already thinking about what my placard will say.
It is not fair to say that the EU is not without its achievements — workers’ rights being one shining example of what cooperation can achieve. You cannot detract from the fact we have cleaner beaches now, but you can’t say the same for our air. There are plus and downsides to many accomplishments of the EU, but really these are all things that we could produce ourselves with a franchised, engaged and progressive electorate.
I don’t know what is about to happen, but I do know that nearly two weeks later nothing has borne itself out for review. I had to write this to try and present a more thoughtful version of Brexit, one with a message of hope not hate. You can see around the world that people want a different, kinder, more inclusive kind of politics (see Greece, Canada, Portugal), and I will do everything within my power to make sure that that is what we get. Sure, it might be as inconsequential as writing a lowly circulated blog, but so be it. Ideas spread, so here is my contribution to the endless slog.
The end is not even nearly nigh.