I thought Brexit wouldn’t happen and was heading for the long grass (but now I’m not so sure)
After the referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU, I felt anger and disappointment at the ignorance, insularity and xenophobia that led to the result. For the first time in my adult life, I also felt ashamed to be British; to share an identity with those who were prompted to vote leave based on the aforementioned. My beef isn’t with those whose rationale (albeit not shared by me) to vote leave was based on what they they thought was best for the country rather than the above.
While my anger didn’t subside (and actually grew with reports of racist attacks by people who felt emboldened by the result) in the following days, I increasingly thought that Brexit wouldn’t happen. I even referenced it in my analysis of the referendum and what it said about British society. As the lies of the leave campaign quickly emerged (such as the £350 million a week that they claimed post Brexit would be diverted to the NHS), the number of so-called ‘Bregretters’ (leave voters who subsequently regretted their decision to vote leave) grew. And with such a narrow result, an identical referendum a week later would have resulted in a reversed decision.
The unprecedented complexities of leaving the EU began to become obvious along with the negative impact on British society and the British economy. Since the referendum, Britain has edged closer to an Enoch Powell wet dream and it’s palpable. Sterling has also slumped following the referendum and only recently a ‘flash crash’ saw it fall 6% to $1.1841. On the day of the referendum, it was $1.50. The Bank of England will be investigating the cause but I suspect they’re wasting their time or in denial. If it wasn’t already clear, Brexit isn’t deemed good for business and it isn’t deemed good for the economy either. Overall, Brexit isn’t good for Britain.
I had thought the acceptance and realisation of this amongst politicians and within public opinion would strengthen the argument for why Brexit would be abandoned. After all, the referendum wasn’t legally binding. Alternatively, I thought a Brexit in name only might be pursued. Such a route would placate the Brexiters with a departure from the EU but pragmatism would nonetheless retain access to the single market with the ‘compromise’ (as idiots would see it) of freedom of movement and labour coming with it. Basically a soft Brexit that for all intents and purposes represented the status quo albeit with a few tweaks that the government could claim were a victory for those racists who voted “to get their country back from immigrants”.
I couldn’t see how leaving the single market and unraveling decades of legislation would be something that the government would run with. It’d be a mammoth task; the extent of which would very quickly become apparent. Furthermore, given such a significant decision, I couldn’t envisage parliament not getting a vote on the decision to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and certainly what any post-Brexit Britain would look like. At that point, I expected parliamentarians to reject a Brexit with the knowledge of just how bad it would be for Britain and public opinion to support their decision.
I wasn’t even sure if Brexit would get that get that far. Even leave campaigners such as Boris Johnson called for an unhurried exit as they realised what a palaver they had foisted upon the country. I thought there was a good chance that Brexit would be kicked into the long grass with the Brexiters blindly high on their somewhat Pyrrhic victory for long enough to not realise that we were still actually in the EU but merely with more overt and comforting xenophobia to distract them from reality.
I still think any of the above scenarios that don’t see a ‘hard’ Brexit could happen. Alas, I increasingly feel less confident about it and primarily for one reason — Theresa May and her now loyal following of prejudiced and equally ignorant right wing Tories.
I’ve never been a fan of Theresa May. As Home Secretary, I thought many of her policies and rhetoric had undertones of racism. She oversaw the vans carrying billboards telling immigrants to ‘go home’. Stop and Search operations aimed at illegal immigrants were also not only reminiscent of the 80s where non-whites were subject to aggressive racial profiling that led to racial tensions, a generation of distrust for the police (that hasn’t really disappeared) and race riots. So for May to become Prime Minister at a time when racial tensions in the UK had been exacerbated by the leave campaign, and latterly the referendum result, didn’t bode well.
May’s first soundbite as Prime Minister was “Brexit means Brexit”. It was an expected attempt at portraying herself as a leader who had listened to the people and would follow their wishes without any ambiguity. Yet even so, most leaders following a referendum of this nature would have voiced similar sentiments.
As May settled into her role, there were signs that perhaps she really did mean Brexit means Brexit. But there were also indicators that Brexit wasn’t happening anytime soon When David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, told Parliament his details for what Brexit would look like he outlined…. well, nothing. He even gave us the clarity that Brexit “means leaving the European Union”. Thanks for that Dave.
Meanwhile, increased reporting of post referendum xenophobic crimes continued and there was a tangible sense that anti-immigrant and racist sentiments no longer had to be kept behind closed doors. Following Team GB’s success at the Rio Olympics, Heather Wheeler MP felt it was OK to celebrate the efforts of the now defunct British Empire as Britain’s own success. When you consider the Empire was essentially the legacy of slavery and brutal colonisation by Britain, Wheeler’s tweet can only be considered as racist, stupid or both.
The referendum result had made it fine to say you didn’t like immigrants, regardless of if they were from within the EU or beyond, and you got the sense that such views were the oil of the Brexit train that until recently, hadn’t really built up speed.
That was until the Tory Party Conference, an event that was akin to the Nazi’s annual Nuremberg rally post 1933 when the Nazis had become the only legal party in Germany and therefore felt untouchable and high on power. The similarities with the Nazis are also extended to the racist undertones of every major speech. Poet, author and commentator Michael Rosen even wrote an apt poem, ‘I was listening to a pogrom on the radio today’ that brilliantly captured the essence of the Tory Party Conference. The Tories were embracing their tag as the ‘nasty party’ and anti-immigration champions and they were doing it with pride and absolute hubris; the latter being what I fear the most is leading us to a hard Brexit.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told of a reduction in foreign doctors and May reiterated this in telling the conference that foreign doctors would be allowed to stay “until further numbers (of home-grown doctors) are trained”. The arrogance beggars belief that it’s suggested foreign doctors are doing us a favour by working here. Home Secretary Amber Rudd gave a deeply inflammatory speech in which she announced a policy where UK businesses would need to publish the number of foreign staff they employ and added that foreign workers should not be able to “take the jobs that British people should do”. Rudd’s speech was likened to Mein Kampf which is probably the line that the Tories are going for. What a time to be alive in Tory Britain.
May herself, not wanting to be outshone by her Tory peers, was the showstopper in essentially indicating a hard Brexit with her dismissing any compromise on freedom of movement in exchange for access to the single market. Even with the Tories’ beloved backers of the financial services sector standing to lose money and jobs with such a move, May is seemingly willing to cut off her nose to spite her face. Despite my disdain for the attitudes and some characters within the square mile, they may be one of the few groups that can effectively lobby to save us from a hard Brexit.
Other unlikely saviors may come from Tory MPs who are urging May not to relinquish Britain’s access to the single market. The more a hard Brexit becomes May’s target, the more pressure she can expect from all MPs and the public in providing a parliamentary vote on Brexit but also transparency in the process which both May and Davis have told MPs they should not expect to be forthcoming. Indeed, even to invoke Article 50 without a parliamentary vote would not be in the spirit of British democracy.
EU leaders aren’t going to let Britain play the big man of Europe on this occasion and if anything, they’ll look to punish us. François Holland has said that “there must be a price” to deter other EU members seeking to leave the EU while retaining the benefits and it’s likely the EU will make Britain pay that price dearly. I don’t blame them but Theresa May and her rabble rousers are seemingly too arrogant to avoid that happening.
I still think there is a good chance that Brexit won’t happen or at least not a hard Brexit that causes a fundamental shift. Although at present no one is facilitating that. This could be the fight that the Labour Party needs to galvanise itself and just as May referred to the referendum as a “quiet revolution”, the stance of the right could be what the rest of British society needs to actually revolt against what is happening. MPs too need to hold May to account as if Brexit happens with no say from Parliament, it really will be a mockery of British democracy and an even bigger consequence for the future of Britain.