Monday, April 17, 2017

On the circumstances of Brexit. Again.

Over on Facebook, John Band linked approvingly [FB link] to a lengthy article by Fugitive Ink (FI): this post started as a comment in response but, it becoming somewhat lengthy, I have decided to post it here.

The FI article, written by someone who was involved with Ian Duncan Smith's leadership bid, is interesting and thoughtful; however, it also betrays much of the thinking that has led to an increasing disconnect between the political parties and their voters—and, thus, some of the reasons for the vote for Brexit.

Apart from the author's slightly tongue in cheek opinion on referenda—"… they’re mob rule! indirect democracy is the only non-disastrous form of democracy! etc, etc.…"—my original comment was sparked by two passages, the first of which is this:
Let’s be clear about this. No one, during the course of that 2001 campaign, was arguing that we should leave the EU. No one was arguing that we should give up the Common Market.
The second is this:
We had, self-evidently, settled the issue of Europe within the Conservative party for a generation—perhaps even forever. By demonstrating beyond argument that a charisma-free, intellectually limited, personally disorganised and badly-staffed unknown could defeat all sorts of proper candidates, purely because he did not want further European integration, we had paved the way for healing our painfully divided party.
FI's aversion to referenda is justified by his statement that "[n]o one, during the course of that 2001 campaign, was arguing that we should leave the EU"—but, of course, many Conservative voters absolutely were (and continued to do so): whilst the issue may have been put to bed as far as the party was concerned, it wasn't for a great many voters (and my parents, for instance, were not knuckle-dragging neanderthals desperate to kick out the dirty foreigners).

This complacency within the political bubble, and unwillingness to engage with decades-held concerns of nominally Conservative voters, simply encouraged those same people to believe that no party shared their concerns. Which, of course, explained the increasing rise of UKIP (organisationally shambolic though they were (and are)): increasingly, people reluctantly gave their votes to the Conservative Party at the General Election (largely because they feared a return to a 70s-style Labour government and union tyranny), whilst increasingly voting UKIP at European Elections.

There is an argument, of course, that this state of affairs could have carried on indefinitely—and it might well have done. But then came Cameron and his personal speciality of making un-forced political errors. Rightly or wrongly, a number of unfulfilled promises—around hunting, inheritance tax, and others—and, of course, the gay marriage issue, meant that the Conservatives were losing voters and activists at the margins. And, given the number of safe seats in the UK, the margins are where elections are won.

And so the promise of a referendum was given—to try to win back those voters, and to neutralise UKIP (the latter being effective in terms of Parliamentary seats—but less so on the pure number of votes). Cameron held the referendum, genuinely assuming that he would win: this was partly because he ignored the fact of those 4m UKIP votes—many of which came from Labour's heartlands.

Whilst IDS's campaign, and Fabricated Ink himself, seemed to believe that the issue of further integration had been put to bed—i.e. we don't want it, thanks very much—no one bothered to tell the European Union. As such, the EU has continued to press ahead (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) with the integration agenda: it continued to arrogate to itself new competencies, e.g. over energy supply and bin disposals through its environmental remit; over tax arrangements through state aid regulations, e.g. Ireland and Apple; .

And the EU did these things with, it sometimes seems, an almost wilful lack of regard, or care, for basic public relations nouse—seeming not to care about gross violations of traditional UK rights such as habeas corpus via the European Arrest warrant, as highlighted by the Andrew Symeou case; and, at the other end of the scale, ludicrous micro-management—such as deciding that the sale of powdered milk formula means that UK supermarkets cannot offer their customers free parking.

At the same time, the British government engaged in what many perceived as chicanery, and complicity with the EU, over such things as the European Constitution—sorry, the "Lisbon Treaty" (after the breaking of what voters perceived as a promise, both by Brown and Cameron, it almost didn't matter what the treaty actually said anymore).

Of the IDS campaign team's opinion of the EU in general, FI also says…
True, a lot of us wanted a looser, less standardised, less integrated Europe. We wanted a Europe that was more about free trade, liberal rather than corporatist, not over-burdened with fiddly regulations and tolerant of historic differences.
...

Some of us very much liked the idea of EU enlargement, if only as a way to mandate that looseness, the lack of standarisation and ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ variety.
Had the EU been able to say, in 2001, "alright chaps—you in the UK can stay as you are, and you're automatically exempted from any new Directives or Regulations", then we might still be in that organisation. But, of course, that would have been impossible—without continued compliance with EU laws, remaining within the Single Market and the Customs Union would have become increasingly difficult. A compromise might have been made by allowing firms who wished to trade with the EU to sign up to all of the regulations would, of course, have been satisfactory to the British—as it still would be, I believe—but it was not, and is not, to the European Union.

Furthermore, Cameron's inability to bring anything meaningful back from his key negotiations—despite repeatedly watering down his stated aims and declared red lines—gave the impression that the EU simply was not going to make any concessions. As such, by the end of 2015, it became abundantly clear that an EU "that was more about free trade, liberal rather than corporatist, not over-burdened with fiddly regulations and tolerant of historic differences" was not on the table—and it never has been.

From a UK point-of-view, the European Union has never really helped the pro-EU cause. Perhaps its functionaries thought that the "Little Englanders" would not notice the Irish, and the Dutch, and the French (the French, for god's sake—supposedly one of the pillars of the EU!) being forced to re-run referenda until "the voters gave the right answer"? But how would they not, given that some of those were in the context of a UK referendum promised—and then reneged on by British politicians?

This kind of bombastic and arrogant refusal to countenance that the peoples of Europe might not be quite as keen on a "United States of Europe" as its architects, led to a perception that the EU simply didn't care what the citizens' actual opinion might be. As such, the EU continued—and continues, even now—to announce further integration measures, often in direct contravention of UK politicians' frenzied denials, or attempted evasions, e.g. plans for a European Army.

Similarly, had those inept British politicians not given the impression that they were lying, dissembling, breaking promises and generally covering up the true scale of the EU's ambitions, then we might have voted to Remain. Or, of course, the vote might not have occurred at all.

But, once Cameron had promised the referendum, it is unlikely that his personal pride, if nothing else, would have allowed him to cancel it—after all, was he to be the Prime Minister who had twice broken his "cast iron guarantee" of an EU-related referendum?

Further, as FI asserts, EU membership has made the British people more internationalist in their outlook—or, at least more Europe-centric. This proved particularly unfortunate after 2008, especially given the timing of the referendum, as both Left and Right deplored the on-going train-wreck of the southern European economies—Italy, Spain, Portugal and, particularly, Greece.

The Progressive media decried the cuts in Greek benefits and pensions demanded by the demons of the "Troika", and the horrendous unemployment rates (particularly amongst the young) in Greece and the other countries. The excitable media of the Right were able to conjure more immigration horror stories about people from the southern economies flooding into the UK, looking for work.

And, for slightly different reasons, both sides became incensed at the possibility that the British taxpayer would have to stump up for the Greek bail-out; this forced George Osborne to deny, categorically, that this would happen: his subsequent humiliating climb-down (originally denied by the Chancellor, and counteracted by the EU), simply provided more ammunition for those who maintained that membership of the EU meant that we were no longer in control of our own destiny.

In many ways, these crises shot down one of the Remainers' key arguments: that membership of the EU meant political stability and economic prosperity. How were people to believe this argument, when the newspapers were full of stories about EU member states where this was obviously not the case? The newspapers did not have to explain "complex" ideas such as "internal devaluation" or "fiscal transfers"—they just had to publish pictures of Greeks rioting against real austerity, and stories about 50% youth unemployment in Spain.

Our politicians and other campaigners rushed to explain that, of course, this economic nightmare couldn't happen here—because, our "Anglo-Saxon" economy and legal system were uniquely conducive to business. This, of course, tapped into the British psyche about our unique brilliance and fitness (a jingoistic reflex that is, in fact, present in most peoples) and thus reinforcing the mindset of "well, why can't we be bigger players on the world stage, rather than a province of the EU"?

In this climate, what might be seen as surprising is that Leave won so narrowly (and I've barely even touched on the migration issue). Rightly or wrongly, the British people is not one that likes to see itself as subordinate—and, yes, one can blame the British for being pig-headed, nostalgia-driven, xenophobes if you wish—but, in the circumstances, a rift was more likely than not. Indeed, given the many exemptions that the UK already has, one could argue that it was inevitable because it was already happening.

Probably the only way to ensure that the UK voted for Remain was simply to wait another thirty-odd years for all those people who viewed themselves as British (as opposed to European) to die. One might argue that holding the referendum in 2016 might be the only way in which Cameron was ahead of his time.

Whatever happens next—and I don't necessarily disagree with FI's assessment of Theresa May—it is likely to be a bumpy ride. I remain optimistic but—in my more cynical moments—largely because May's vast ego won't let her be the Prime Minister who fucked up Brexit.

2 comments:

Rory said...

Politicians and Europhiles remain astonished that British people want to be, er, British, not European. That they want their highest authority in the land to be British law set by British legislators and executed by the British. If we wanted to live in a country where French or German legislators help set the agenda, we'd move to those fucking countries to live with those jolly cunts.

As you say, Remain could've won, if only they could've killed off those dastardly British people who see themselves as belonging to their own country. A healthy dose of immigration and high birth rates among said immigrants could've helped dilute the vote.

Thank fuck we got out before then.

The Stampede said...

Excellent post DK, I've missed these well informed and well thought out 'proper' blog posts.