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An attempt at an utterly unbiased FAQ about the Brexit result
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
By James Mackle
Just about the only thing I have learned from the works of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, once dubbed by the French as the ‘’Mr. Bean of Renaissance philosophy”, is that when a seismic event occurs, one must not descend into the binary depths of happiness or sadness. One must look past this and seek to understand.
I don’t think these words of advice would be particularly useful for David Cameron right now. After all, he understands fully well what went wrong. They will be even less comforting to the United Kingdom representatives in Brussels. They’ll be swelling the ranks of lobbyist positions to give up the insider information, in what is known as the revolving door policy in the corridors of Berlaymont. Only this time, for them, the door will stop revolving and jam to a deafening halt.
Nevertheless, a quick glance at the Facebook feed always makes the inner know-it-all of the journalist actually make use of his curiosity. While most of my entourage were pro-Remain and maybe even knew more about the effects of a Brexit than the average Brit, some of the cringe worthy posts ignore the domestic reasons for why we voted out.
Why did we have this referendum in the first place? Simply put, the party currently in power, the Conservative Party, has a Eurosceptic base. Because of three terms in opposition to Blairite Labour, this base was silent on the European issue that has historically divided their party, roughly among “moderates” (of which David Cameron is a member) and more radical elements of the Tory party. In 2010, for example, they agreed to shut up about Europe in order to form a coalition with the Europhiles called the Liberal Democrats.
In 2015, the Conservative Party put a referendum as one of their manifesto pledges. The moderates accepted this believing, as most people did, that another Lib Dem coalition would save them from implementing it. Instead, the Lib Dem vote vanished, the Labour opposition underperformed, but Cameron only had a 10-seat majority, enough for the fringe to demand the referendum.
Is it all the Conservative’s fault then? It usually is in the eyes of many a deluded folk. But the idea that the Tory party along with the far right has single-handedly voted the United Kingdom out is a fallacy. For a start, there is a sizeable chunk of Labour voters who voted out, as well as people who never voted before (turnout was higher than most elections). Add to that Wales, who have very few Tory Members of Parliament, voting in favor of leave, and that this is a one-man, one-vote system. Not constituency based.
Is it all Labour’s fault then? This has been said by most of the Labour parliamentary members, the Conservative Party Remainers, and the LibDems, saying Labour, and in particularly Leader Jeremy Corbyn, didn’t do enough to change the mood amongst their voters in depressed former industrial zones that ultimately swung the referendum. Early polls actually suggest that the Labour vote on the issue changed little as to what was expected (something like 60-40 for Remain). Corbyn is just grossly unpopular with his colleagues off the back of a surprise victory for the radical leftist, who called himself a reluctant supporter of the EU during the campaign, and probably doesn’t care much for the EU as a whole. Most of the policies he was elected on would also be illegal under EU state aid law.
Who is to blame then? If you need someone to blame, you have to look geographically rather than the outdated party system, so probably provincial England. But in a 1-man, 1-vote system, the blame game is just not just ignorant but inadequate: the mentality of who or what are relative winners or losers in our society is precisely the mentality that makes the poorest in society vote out, despite absolute gains. Thus, many Scots voted in, to reaffirm their identity over some of the provincial Englanders who wanted to stick two fingers up to the London elite. These kind of reductionist proposals are what in turn feeds such a divisive, tribalistic campaign in a 1-man, 1 vote referendum. As Spinoza would say, do not look for someone to blame, dust yourself down and understand.
I see no reason to vote Out of Europe. Are the majority of Brits seeing something I am not? No short-term, rational, cost-benefit economic or political analysis actually looked favorable to a Leave campaign. This sentence was what Remain effectively campaigned on. Remainers secretly told the political correspondents that the polls they had conducted showed that this was the only issue that could possibly get enough people out to vote Remain, rather than some glorified pro-EU stance. Cameron was not being negative when he campaigned against Brexit rather than for Bremain. He was just being realistic.
This is because of how widespread the British fear of any kind of federal Europe is. More precisely, the idea of a political superstate. It was voted for a free-trade agreement back in the 1970s. But the Brits have never been culturally and politically affiliated with the European Union; its flag, its anthem, or even its supposed values. Its state institutions and actions have always been viewed negatively, and comments from ex-Commission President José Manuel Barroso saying the EU was the first “Non-Imperial Empire” in an Orwellian example of Eurospeak, simply does not help.
While the immigration issue undoubtedly managed to push some (working-class) voters over the line into voting Leave, the vast majority of the Englanders who tend to be election-winners for political parties are small-c conservative-liberals who don’t like government the same way the Americans don’t and the French do. I reckon about 60-70% of those went eurosceptic after the Maastricht Treaty, which established the foundations for political union. Once Europe crossed this line, they were never going to support the European project in a referendum again.
But there were no economic benefits for leaving, right? Britain is screwed. In the short run, it seems like another recession is coming. A source in an economics consultancy department for the City of London told me he had seen nine scenarios for Brexit. Eight of them had Britain entering recession. The one that didn’t assume that a free-trade deal with the EU is similar to that of Norway’s, who negotiated theirs having not stuck two fingers up to the Commission. It also only made British households 80 pounds better off per week in the long run.
All the other scenarios make Britain worse off. Most of the others relate to uncertainty for investors both foreign and domestically. Subsequently, there is also the potential crash of the British housing market due to lower prices and interest rates fluctuating from very low to compensate for Brexit, to sky high because of uncertainty. The economist Steve Keen once proclaimed the British private credit bubble to be “The biggest Ponzi scheme on the planet”. Without stable interest rates and inflation, this should soon be put to the test.
In the long run, though, most accept the former fifth largest economy in the world (now taken over by France it seems) will survive, but worse off in absolute terms. Remember that voters, and people in general, think in relative terms though. One scenario is borderline apocalyptic, and it includes the breakup of the Union…
Does Scotland voting Remain mean they will call another referendum? I believe voter fatigue, uncertainty over the Euro as a potential currency and the low price of oil mean that the Scots will wait two years for the renegotiation process to end before considering their options. Because the Scottish economy is still heavily reliant on England as an export destination, it does not want a shut border. If the Conservative leader negotiates a free-trade deal with the EU with favorable terms, then they may actually consider staying. If they ball it up and another right-wing Conservative government is still re-elected, then the Scots will vote out and apply for Union membership status.
Who will be this Conservative leader you speak of? Boris Johnson is the obvious candidate, as he appears to have solely come out against the EU to try to lead his country after the referendum, having supported Cameron’s stance up until then. Unfortunately, he would be the most likely to be received as a populist, self-serving clown by the Commission and Council leaders in Europe.
Theresa May, who voted Bremain but is eurosceptic (don’t ask me how that works), will undoubtedly be up there as a compromise candidate who could be better received in Brussels. While the country may prefer a consensus candidate, ultimately the Tory membership decides, and their membership (not their voters) are likely to back Johnson.
What about Northern Ireland voting Remain? Could they opt to be united with Ireland? Northern Ireland is a different political animal altogether due to its history and divided communities. Generally speaking the Nationalists (those who wish to unite with Ireland) had the most to lose from Brexit due to the closed border and cross-member-state co-operation, so they will have campaigned more for Remain along with some moderate Unionists, explaining the result. Nevertheless, the DUP, Ulster’s largest party and fiercely pro-Unionist, came out for Leave, and they have enough power to block Nationalist demands in the context of a consensus-based government between the two communities in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Feinn, the main nationalist actor, has called for a border poll, but they have had that stance for years and a major, divisive political event like this results in them calling for a border poll. They know that they would probably lose it due to the small Unionist majority, and jeopardize the now fragile peace process.
There is no way that this referendum is an indication of Northern Ireland’s leanings towards secession in the same way Scotland’s are.
What will happen in the next General Election? There is little chance Labour will win with Corbyn in power and Scotland being generally pissed off, so it will probably be to determine whether the Conservatives have a majority or minority government, the LibDems recover due to EU nostalgia, and whether UKIP or its natural successor becomes the first established right-wing populist party in the UK.
What will happen to the rest of Europe? I have no idea, and the degree in European Studies has not helped in that regard. They are such a pluralistic, incoherent, irresponsible mess right now it’s hard to see what will emerge. Some have touted the UK’s departure as a stepping stone to deeper integration. This would require a major Treaty revision requiring consensus from 27 – not 15 as in Maastricht 1992 – Member-states. So they are stuck with their outdated Treaty and ad hoc legal modification designed by European Law students too clever for their own good (you know who you are).
Electoral forecasts show this is as much a failure of the Union as a failure of the UK to find its place within Europe. Spain will vote on Sunday substituting its centre-left pro-EU bore fest for the Eurocritical Podemos. If the PVV win in 2017 Dutch General Election, then there could be another referendum. They currently lead the polls but have a plurality, not a majority. France is fools gold for Eurosceptics: the Le Pen family and the national Front will always be too toxic for most voters. As for Germany, they cannot hold a referendum on an issue like this as it is constitutionally illegal to hold referenda after Hitler declared four to reaffirm his power in the 1930s.
So will everything be OK, like the UCMers say? Interesting slogan for an academic environment, but not as ‘interesting’ as the media frenzy we are being led in. I was looking forward to writing about the end of a savage war in Colombia but instead, I write about Brexit. This is why Spinoza’s assertion is so true: ultimately, if you look enough, you will find dark in the light and light in the dark. To let emotion take over in times like this is not a matter of perspective, but of irrational choice.