23 July 2016

Brexit - The End of the Story?

It's now a month since the UK's European Union referendum when there was a slim majority of votes in favour of leaving the EU. That has given me a bit of time to take stock of the shocking result. Those of you who know me well are probably thinking, "When will he stop banging on about it?". Well, I don't know if I can answer that question but I hope that given there's been time to think about the issues, the quality of what I have to say will be somewhat higher than the helpless thrashing around, wondering what on earth to do about it, that may have been characteristic of my earlier posts.

1. The majority for leave was very slim.

First, the figures. The headline figures are 51.9% for leave, 48.1% for remain. (http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/electorate-and-count-information). This was on a turnout of 72.2%. In other words, 37.4% of the electorate voted for leave, 34.7% voted for remain and 27.8% did not cast a valid vote. I would be pointless to speculate what the 27.8% would have voted for, but it's true that it could swing the result in either direction - either towards an overwhelming majority for leave, or an overwhelming majority for remain. I do not have the figures for what proportion of people eligible to vote were actually registered, but there have been plenty of concerns expressed over recent changes to voter registration which means certain groups are significantly under-represented (e.g. students). Many people also think that 16/17-year-olds should have been eligible to vote. Given that they will be affected by the outcome for longer than any other voters, I think this is a strong argument. The same argument was made for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and they were duly given the vote.

2. The referendum was not set up properly.

Most referenda are set up with some strong safeguards. For example, sentiment towards important issues fluctuates from day to day and from week to week, and if it just happens to creep over the line on the day the referendum takes place, this is hardly going to lead to a fair outcome. I'm not say that's what happened in this case, but the majority was slim enough that it's a possibility. It can also vary depending on the weather - if it rains in an area where there is strong support for one side or the other, then turnout will be lower in that area. Another fact is that this referendum was not legally binding, and only advisory. David Cameron said he would trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty straight away in the case of a leave vote. He did not honour this, instead choosing to resign. His successor Theresa May made no such statement.

The more normal way this is handled is for a referendum to be made legally binding, but requiring a super-majority (e.g. 66.6% or 75%) with minimum turnout requirements, or for example 50% of the electorate (as opposed to the 37.4% we saw in this referendum) voting for a course of action. The way I think it should have been done here is for a requirement of say 66% voting to leave meaning it's legally binding, 66% voting to remain meaning that leaving is ruled out for a defined period (say 20 years) and anything in between meaning that there is scope for the issue to be revisited. All of this of course requiring a turning of say 75%. In any case, the question asked was so vague as to be essentially meaningless. It should have been framed as 'we remain in the EU on this set of terms, or we leave on that set of terms.' To give the benefit of the doubt to David Cameron, it could be argued that the terms of remaining were well-defined after his renegotiation, but there was not equivalant on the leave side - and as it turns out, no plans at all as no-one really believed they could win.

2.5 As Ian Hislop said, despite losing we still have the right to continue to make the argument.

This I think is an important point. People have often said that if you continue to make the argument you are a bad loser, or you do not respect democracy, or similar such arguments. I have been accused of both. I will reiterate his point that in a general election the opposition doesn't just go silent for 5 years. They carry on campaigning. that doesn't mean they don't accept the outcome.

3. The people have spoken, but we still don't know what they actually said.

One of the criticisms I made of the leave campaign was the they did not make it at all clear what they were campaigning for, as I outline above. It was clear what they were campaigning against (i.e. remaining in the EU) but so many people were asking whether they were campaigning for a Norway-style deal, a Canadian-style deal, a Swiss-style deal and so forth but none of the leading leave campaigners were able to answer this. In actual fact, I think the same criticism can be made in a lesser way for the remain campaign - i.e. is it just 'business as usual' or are we going to make some definite changes? Perhaps the remain campaign can be partly forgiven, as David Cameron did go through a 'renegotiation' and came back with very little.

4. Theresa May is in a holding pattern.

So we have a new Prime Minister who not even her own party voted for, without any real democratic mandate and whose party only has a slim majority in parliament. She has repeatedly said 'Brexit means Brexit' without giving any indication of what she means by that. I sense that she will not be able to continue to say this for much longer without putting in a few more details, although I do understand her reluctance to do so. I think there are basically two views of where she is at:

(a) From the point of view of those who wish to remain, it may be that she is hoping the sentiment towards leave will diminish once people start to see the reality of what leave might mean. The pound has fallen significantly and there are data emerging that the country is going into recession. It will take time for the full pattern to emerge. Meanwhile, she has tasked the leading Brexit campaigners (minus Michael Gove, for what I presume are personal reasons) with coming up with a plan. This is akin to "here's a load of rope, see if it's enough to hang yourselves with" as the well-known expression says. She will hope to come out of this stronger, having persuaded the population of the error of their ways. After all, pro-EU sentiment has increased in other EU countries now that they've seen what's happening in the UK.

(b) From the point of view of those who wish to leave, she is serious about delivering it and will trigger article 50 once she has ascertained how it will likely look. That gives her time to talk to other EU leaders (she has wasted no time in talking to Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande already). Her statement that she will not trigger article 50 this year is merely a pragmatic one. After all, she has a reputation for pragmatism. Which of these do I think is more likely? The short answer is I hope for the former, fear the latter but really have absolutely no idea right now.

5. Whatever happens, the UK is changed for ever, and it probably isn't for the better.

Britain has become increasingly divided over the last 20 years or so, and I think no-one really realised that. What the referendum has done is to make these divisions apparent. I am in the position of living in a small town that voted Brexit, and working in a medium-sized city that voted to remain. When I travel the 17 miles from one to the other, the difference is at times stark. They might as well be in different countries.

It is my personal view that austerity politics should shoulder a large part of the blame for this divide. The nature of austerity has not hurt the interests of those who feel a sense of security in society, who are mainly comprised of the better off, degree-educated people who probably own their own homes. The people who have suffered are those in insecure work, insecure rented accommodation and who don't have a high level of education to help them get out of this situation. I paint a stereotypical picture but these two groups often have very little to do with each other. This divide closely overlaps with voting patterns, with the former predominantly voting remain and the latter voting leave. I have heard it said that the latter group have felt disenfranchised for 20 years, and it's only now that the remainers are starting to feel a similar level of disenfranchisement having unexpectedly lost the referendum. There may be some truth in this.

We really don't know what will happen over the next few months/years. Given what's happening in the world, I think there's a high probability of everything being overtaken by events elsewhere. I'm looking at you messrs Trump, Erdogan and Putin among others. You have your hands on or close to the levers of power that could determine how this world looks in 10 years' time.

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