It wouldn’t be a total exaggeration to say that Britain has, for the last three days, been embroiled in its biggest crisis of the 21st century. On Friday we saw Britain exit the world’s largest politico-economic bloc, swiftly followed by a collapse in the value of the pound and trillions being wiped off the value of stock markets worldwide. Hours later the Prime Minister announced his resignation, while the Chancellor of the Exchequer simply vanished. By the weekend over three million people had signed a petition calling for a second referendum, and MPs were openly calling for Parliament to simply ignore the referendum.
I voted to remain in the EU. I believed, and continue to believe, in the European project and the creation of the world’s first superstate based on values of humanism and liberalism. Like the vast majority of experts, I think that a British departure from Europe will be have serious economic consequences, ones which will damage the prosperity of the nation for years to come. Perhaps more fundamentally than any of this, though, I feel that this referendum was more than a question of membership of the EU; it turned into a plebiscite on modernity, one in which we seem to have voted against the liberal values that many had presumed we held dear.
Nonetheless, I oppose a second referendum, and I urge you to do so as well. Why? Not because I’m a defeatist, or have simply given up. On the contrary, I think this result should be an impetus for liberal-minded individuals across the political spectrum to make sure their voices are heard louder than ever. This is not a retreat.
However, I don’t feel that a second referendum is at all a productive way of moving the debate forward; indeed, it might easily be seen as a retrograde step. Firstly, a second referendum would be a repeat of the greatest constitutional error in the last few hundred years – a dereliction of duty by Parliament. In Britain, Parliament is sovereign and supreme as a governing body; not the people. Our constitution has historically evolved in the direction of a representative rather than direct democracy, for the very good reason that it provides a vital check upon untrammelled populism. Our representatives are elected on the basis of being the most able to consider what is best for the nation, by virtue of their experience and wisdom. Referendums have no constitutional precedent, and are a dangerous exercise in rabble-rousing. This last one ended with an MP being killed for holding the ‘wrong’ political beliefs.
But aside from the fact that referendums are simply exercises in fear-mongering and pandering to the lowest common denominator (on both sides; Osborne’s ‘punishment budget was hardly better than Farage’s warnings of dusky foreigners attacking English women), there’s a further problem. There’s no guarantee that a second referendum would deliver the result desired, namely a vote to remain. It might – but we don’t know that. 52% of the country voted to leave Europe; some of them might have changed their minds, but surely not enough to change the result? If a second referendum were to reaffirm a Leave vote, we would not only be humiliated but we would be left with no moral high-ground. Put frankly, at this moment we can plausibly argue that the result is not representative of the people, even if we accept it. We would not be able to do this if a second referendum said the same thing.
A second referendum, furthermore, would be exhausting and time-wasting. Campaigning for the first one took months, dominated British public life, and was pretty much universally agreed to be a miserable experience. It was an expensive, tiring mess which poisoned the political culture of Britain, and left most of the publically badly misinformed about both sides of the debate. It was also free publicity for the radicals on the right, particularly Nigel Farage. We do not need this.
Victory for the Remain camp in this second referendum would be equally catastrophic. This country contains millions of people (concentrated in certain areas, admittedly, but to be found everywhere) who despise Europe and the values it stands for. We could run this referendum a hundred times, and each time they would vote to leave. These people tend to be working-class, from marginalised areas of the country, and in many cases feel hard done by neo-liberalism. At present, they are jubilant that ‘they have their country back’, as they so tritely put it. If they were to see their victory snatched from them by a second referendum (or, even worse, by an act of Parliament) then these people would break. The killing of Jo Cox is just the tip of the iceberg; if this subgroup felt cheated, there would be blood on the streets in a way which Britain has never seen. I can foresee right-wing terror on a level which doesn’t bear thinking about, but which would be hugely destructive. Even worse, the strongly Eurosceptic Armed Forces could no longer be fully trusted to maintain order. Britain has never had a coup (though we did come close in the 60s) and I would very much like to keep it that way.
As such, I propose not to annul the referendum but to mitigate it. We must be cognizant of the fact that Parliament is supreme, and utilise this in order to try and minimise the impact of the referendum on day to day life. The anti-Europe fundamentalists will be sated through an official withdrawal from the Union, and a few symbolic gestures; but we should work to make sure that life changes as little as possible for ordinary people.
What would this mitigation entail? Firstly, it would involve the government privately making the proverbial pilgrimage to Canosa. They should inform Brussels that they are utterly penitent, and did not want this to happen, but are bound by the realities of the referendum result. No amount of grovelling is enough – the intent is to soften the hearts of the European leaders, and convince them to offer a good deal. Any deal would ideally preserve access to the free market, border controls at Calais, free movement of people and EU funds. Essentially the EU flag would be taken down, but the reality of EU membership would remain. To placate the Eurosceptic crowd, certain concessions could be made – stronger border controls, deregulation of certain areas, and exemption from EU law in some fields. We will not be able to continue paying as little as £350m for access to the single market, but hopefully the negotiating team will keep the figure as low as possible. These negotiations would take a long time to conclude, but a preliminary document could be agreed upon quickly. Armed with this preliminary document, the government would begin to stabilise the markets and move forward.
I say ‘government’ – a new government is urgently needed. This should be a unifying government, one which encompasses the more level heads from both sides of the political spectrum. The main issue here is to keep Boris and/or Gove from No. 10. Not only are both men despicable traitors for their actions towards the PM, but neither of them are at all figures that the party can unite around. Worse, despite their pretensions to moderation they would enact a strongly Thatcherite and radical agenda as leaders. Much as the referendum can (and should) be mitigated, the resignation of David Cameron should be similarly mitigated by replacing his government with one ideologically similar, and which keeps out his enemies. As Prime Minister I would suggest Theresa May; she has coped admirably with the Home Ministry brief for over five years, and has proven to be a respected and popular figure. Not only is she a moderate pro-Europe figure, she is an efficient and capable administrator with the skills required to hold together an effective government. As such, she is the most viable individual to stand up to Boris and deliver a moderate and viable Brexit.
In voting to leave the EU, Britain has fucked up. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. Let’s not get carried away, as the Leave crowd did, and view this as being anything more than what it is – a question of membership in the EU. It’s not a question of liberalism, or immigration, or anything else. Rather than throwing our toys out of the pram like petulant children, we need to focus on making the best of a bad situation. We need to rebuild our relationship with Europe, mitigating what we’ve done; we need to create a functioning government which won’t be hijacked by right-wing ideologues. Petitioning for a second referendum won’t do that; we need to move forward, and do so at pace.
41 years ago Britain went to the polls to vote on Europe. The result then was a resounding victory for the pro-Europe camp – 67% of British voters chose to remain part of the European Community. How different to today’s results, which show a majority – a small one, admittedly, but a majority nonetheless – of the electorate choosing to leave the European Union. The PM has already announced his resignation, and it seems likely that Article 50 will be triggered within weeks, committing Britain to permanently leave Europe. It’s worth noting now that there will be no coming back, no second chance. Readmission is contingent upon the unanimous consent of all 27 remaining members, and it is virtually impossible that such consent will be obtained. For better or worse, we are out.
This is certainly the most momentous constitutional change of my lifetime, and very likely yours too – as such, I do not propose to consider the full ramifications of it. Without doubt the papers will be doing that ad nauseum over the next few weeks. Therefore, I intend only to offer a few brief thoughts on a variety of aspects of the referendum and its result.
Firstly, this should be the last referendum in a generation. The last few months have decidedly proven that referendums are an absolutely dreadful way of doing government. Both sides, though particularly the Leave campaign, misrepresented the truth in ways which might easily be called lying. In this they were abetted by the tabloid media, which whipped the public into a xenophobic and hysterical frenzy with a constant flow of falsehoods, misrepresentations and exaggerations about Europe. The average voter who cast his/her vote on the 23rd was seriously uninformed about what exactly he was voting for. Britain has no history of direct democracy – referendums are not part of our constitution. They are a new-fangled innovation, and signal weak leadership, as it abdicates the responsibility that we have delegated the government right back to the people. Edmund Burke had it right (as usual) when he wrote that ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
People voted Leave because of nostalgia. In the last few days of the referendum the media conducted numerous vox pops with members of the public, and one theme seemed to keep re-emerging; ‘we want the old Britain back.’ This refrain was particularly prevalent amongst the 60+ group, but it could be detected throughout the electorate. To many in Britain, the last fifty years has not been kind. They have seen the Britain they once knew utterly transformed, and they simply don’t understand it. They don’t feel part of it. Hence a Leave vote became far more to them than merely a decision on membership of the EU. It turned into a vote to ‘take Britain back’ – not just from the EU, but from modernity and ‘the elites.’ The EU became a punching bag for liberalism, with people taking out all their anger and bitterness on it. It’s no coincidence that the largest pro-EU demographic group was the over-60s, those who could still remember a Britain independent of international affiliations like the EU. Sadly, they appear to have voted in vain; regardless of our membership of the EU, we simply can’t restore that world. It’s gone.
UKIP are not necessarily stronger as a result of this vote. For the last twenty years or so, UKIP have successfully used Europe as a scapegoat for pretty much everything. This tactic has been pretty handy for them, as it absolves them of the responsibility of actually providing coherent policies beyond leaving Europe. The risk, however, of such a strategy is obvious; once Britain has actually left the EU, UKIP seems to have no raison d’etre left. UKIP flourished in 2015 by uniting elderly, disaffected Tory voters with working-class Labour supporters who received a raw deal because of neo-liberalism; now that the common cause has been accomplished, the two halves have no reason to stay together. In fact, it was a bizarre union to start with; a wealthy ex-banker from Dulwich like Farage has almost nothing in common with a laid-off steelworker from Port Talbot. Now that UKIP has fallen victim to its own success, its supporters will go their separate ways.
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are two of the most disgraceful men to have graced British politics. David Cameron had no obligation to suspend collective cabinet responsibility for this referendum. He’s leading the government, and he had every right to tell his cabinet to unite or leave. Instead he chose to let individual ministers campaign on either side. The result of this was that Michael Gove – one of Cameron’s closest friends – took charge of the Leave campaign, and turned it into a thinly-veiled bid for political power. Aside from his numerous lies and exaggerations, Gove repeatedly attacked Cameron and Osborne in a most ungentlemanly way. Yet this is nothing compared to what Boris ‘Brutus’ Johnson did throughout the campaign. Johnson makes little secret of his desire to get to No. 10, and his decision to support the Leave campaign was almost entirely a political calculation (he allegedly had prepared a pro-Europe statement before polls suggested he’d be better off backing Leave.) In spite of Cameron’s historical support for him as Mayor, he engaged in the worst kind of demagoguery, repeatedly stabbing Cameron in the back. I don’t see a situation in which he won’t have a position in a new Tory government, and it isn’t unlikely that he will be PM by 2020. As a Tory I will find it exceptionally hard to vote for a traitor like Johnson at the General Election.
David Cameron’s reputation has been (unfairly) ruined. Within hours of the result the Prime Minister had stood down. Realistically speaking there was little else he could do; a vote of no confidence would otherwise have been inevitable, and after watching Iain Duncan Smith’s humiliating fall from power in 2003 Cameron would hardly have had the appetite to endure such an ordeal. Henceforth he will be remembered by Eurosceptics as a coward who was on ‘the wrong side of history’ by campaigning to remain, and by Europhiles as a weak leader who should never have allowed a referendum and who then failed to mobilise his party to vote to Remain. He staked his reputation on Europe and lost. This is a tragedy, as Cameron is surely one of the greatest Conservative leaders since Churchill. Not only did he make a clean break from the uninspiring, reactionary party of Hague and IDS, he successfully rebuilt the economy from the ruins it had been left in by the Labour government. All this, and he also presided over one of the greatest electoral victories in modern history in 2015, one which literally nobody had expected. David Cameron is a good man and did not deserve to leave in these circumstances.
Labour have a long period of introspection ahead of them. This referendum wasn’t lost because of conservative Euroscepticism. It was lost because the working classes plumped for Brexit. Areas like South Wales, Tyneside or the Black Country are solidly Labour, yet they voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU. Why? Because Labour failed to do their part in this referendum. In no small part due to the fact that their new leader is an ideological Eurosceptic himself, there was almost no serious campaigning by the Labour Party until the last week. What little left-wing pro-EU campaigning took place was mainly low-level, at the initiative of individuals. Corbyn himself barely made any serious speeches in favour of the European Union. The Labour Party simply (and rather arrogantly) assumed that their loyalists would turn out dutifully to remain in the EU; as it turned out, many of them simply weren’t convinced enough. The responsibility for this catastrophe lies, to be perfectly honest, with Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for the EU. With a leadership contest apparently imminent, Labour is going to have to consider what direction it wants to take, and how to recover those core working-class votes.
The next Conservative leader (and PM) should be a unifier. At present, the front-runners for the leadership election are Gove and Johnson, and it seems likely that the two men will work out a deal which will enable a joint premiership (Johnson as PM and Gove as Chancellor, for instance.) For the reasons outlined above, I would be deeply disappointed if either were to win, as I regard their conduct as ungentlemanly and disgraceful; the 30-40% of Tories who voted to Remain will likely agree with me. On the other hand, the triumphalist Eurosceptic wing of the party are unlikely to compromise on ‘their’ candidates. But at this critical juncture, the party does not need any more division. The Eurosceptics must not be permitted to take revenge on the moderates if they want the party to unite.
…and Cameron may well be instrumental in deciding his successor. Tory leaders have a habit of not going quietly. Thatcher’s final revenge against the ‘wets’ who engineered her downfall was to carefully scotch their chances of taking the government. She used her near-deified status amongst the Tory right in order to convince them to not vote for Heseltine; instead, she selected her protégé John Major as an heir presumptive, hoping that he would carry on her legacy in a way that Heseltine patently wouldn’t (he didn’t, but nobody expected that in 1990.) Also worth noting is Michael Howard’s manoeuvring after he resigned the leadership in 2005. Howard had long taken an interest in the careers of David Cameron and George Osborne; after he lost the 2005 election, his last act as leader was to promote the two to his cabinet, giving them a position from which to pursue higher office. It would be surprising if Cameron doesn’t try and stymie Gove/Johnson somehow.
We’ll survive. Britain has a wonderful propensity to survive. It takes a lot to shake us, and more still to break us. Let’s not delude ourselves – Brexit is going to be seriously detrimental to our economy, both in the long term and in the short. We’ve already seen the pound collapse as speculators try and offload as much of the currency as they can; the stock markets look similarly grim. The eventual impact upon our economy is yet to be even considered. But Britain has weathered worse. We will be able to muddle through, to cobble together a new settlement defining our relations with the world. It will, frankly, not be as good as what we had – that much is clear from the statement of prominent EU politicians. But hopeless nostalgia is what got us into this mess in the first place. The past is past; we must move forward confidently into the future, and try and figure out what the heck we’re going to do now.