Will public opinion destroy the Brexit plans?

Author: Charles Freeman


By now there are the first signs of public impatience with the Brexiteers.

       Two months on from the referendum vote Theresa May and David Davis have both failed to give any clear interpretation of Brexit and, on one issue, the ‘improbability’ of staying in the single market, May has publicly overruled Davis. It is not simply the government’s lack of clarity that concerns, it is the growing feeling that it may not have the competence to be in charge of the complex negotiations to come. There is still the arrogant assumption that what the government eventually decides is the UK’s place alongside the EU will be what is actually achieved.  The noises coming from the EU states and presidents suggest this is unlikely. There are tough times ahead.

        There is much talk by the Brexiteers of ‘the public’ or the ‘British people’, wanting a specific solution, as in ‘the public want a control over migration’ or ‘the British people have demanded that we leave the EU’. This narrow definition of ‘the public’ excludes, of course, the forty-eight per cent of the population who voted to remain, the twenty-eight per cent of those eligible who did not vote at all, all those under eighteen and the vast majority of non-UK EU citizens living here. The forty-eight per cent includes a majority of those voting in Scotland and Northern Ireland and a large majority of the under thirties.  What this ‘public’, even by the narrow definition the Brexiteers have given it, actually wanted is unclear. The important report by the Electoral Reform Society, ‘It’s Good to Talk’, found that very few of the voters felt that they had accurate information on the issues and did not believe very much of what they heard from authority figures. Here populism in the shape of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and, bizarrely, Donald Trump was more influential than reports by ‘the experts’ that were widely derided. Complaints by Leavers that distressed Remainers  branded them as ‘ignorant’ lose impact when it was clear that virtually everyone was ignorant of what they were voting for.

       The glaring deficiency of the referendum was that there was no legal provisions for what to do next. It was a hopelessly muddled campaign that handed all the cards to whoever got more than fifty per cent, even if not by very much. Then the Leave vote was highjacked by the Conservative Party, even though a majority of its MPs had argued to remain. Very soon an alliance of Leavers

and the Conservative party had framed the issue as if there was no alternative to leaving. The forty-eight per cent were pushed aside and seen as irrelevant. EU citizens in the UK were left in confusion as to their futures especially when it appeared that their status might be used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations to come. Racist taunts, and worse than taunts, became commonplace.

         Every day that passes brings new evidence of the hopelessness of incurring Brexit. The whole framework of the negotiating process is set against the UK. In most negotiations either side can walk away if talks break down. It does not look as if this is possible after Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is invoked. The matter is made worse by the catastrophic moment when the two years are ended and the UK will fall into a sort of political and legal limbo. Only then can trade talks begin and even then those with the EU may need to be finalised before other trading nations will start their own. Theresa May faced the hard reality of all this at the G20 summit.

      What little we do know about the government‘s plans appears to involve the worst possible scenario. Control of migration is put first and so there will be no freedom of movement for EU citizens. As the EU has made clear, this means the single market and, probably with it hopes for long term economic stability, have been lost.  As to migration, the Australian points system promised by the Leavers in the campaign has been abandoned. The government is left with having to sort out a migration plan that allows both those at the top and bottom end of the market access to UK jobs when they are needed. It would seem impossible without a cumbersome bureaucracy that will be far worse than any EU regulations. The fruit will have fallen off the trees long before the pickers have reached it.  A ‘bespoke’ agreement over Brexiting (and this implies one with no model such as Norway or Switzerland to follow) means entering unknown territory and will have to be worked out clause by clause as each new issue emerges. It will take years. In all this, there is still little awareness that we may not get what we are negotiating for and, crucially, that any restrictions on movement from the EU into the UK will be met with reciprocal restrictions on UK citizens wishing to move, work or study in the EU. I would not like to be the minister who tells the under 25s what lies in store for them, probably for the rest of their lives (and, of course, none of this is being mentioned by the gung-ho Brexiteers).

     For many who voted in the referendum the question of leaving or staying in the EU was a side issue. Rather it was a protest vote against the establishment by those who had faced increasing deprivation through austerity programmes and the erosion of traditional industries. It seems wrong to use these groups’ votes as the basis for leaving the EU when this is not what they were intended to achieve. The point is made when it is clear that Brexiting will make matters far worse. The EU subsidies will go from Cornwell and Wales. If the UK leaves the single market then many companies will abandon the UK, as the Japanese have bluntly warned. The kind of trade agreements that Dr. Fox likes will result in more globalisation and probably the end of the any remaining British manufacturing. Many workers’ rights will lapse at the end of the two year Article 50 negotiating period and the economy will probably contract, leaving less for social welfare and the NHS. Any government anxious to address the anger of these groups should reject Brexit. It can only make their lives worse off. Goodbye to Theresa May’s fairer society.

     When issues are framed as they have been by the Conservative Party’s hijacking of the Leave vote, it takes time for people to think outside the framework and recognise, what is painfully obvious, that the UK is sleepwalking into a diminished and isolated role in the world economy with no obvious benefits in return. While abstract ideas such as ‘sovereignty’ and ‘control’ sound good, in practice these are not obtainable for a middle-sized country that wishes to be a leading trading nation.  The UK with its relatively low productivity, a seven per cent trade deficit (which relies on inward investment to close) and its position as ninth in world trade is hardly able to impose its will on larger nations. Isolation means isolation. At the G20 summit Theresa May had suddenly to face up to the fact that nations were not falling over themselves to trade with the UK. Much rejoicing was had over a friendly meeting with Australia, which is one of our smaller export markets, when the more important  ones, China, the US and Japan, were much less welcoming. I asked an Australian friend what he thought we might export to Australia. ‘You can always try biscuit tins with Windsor Castle on them’, was the reply.

     The UK will continue to sleepwalk into the Brexit nightmare if ‘the public’ fails to wake up. Perhaps it is not too late. The referendum recedes day by day and its weaknesses as a means of deciding, seemingly irrevocably, such a major issue for the future of the UK become more obvious at time passes. Referendums are meant to give clear answers. Even two months on this one has not and this reminds us that this was never its purpose. The problem it was MEANT to solve, the split within the Conservative party, has simply shifted sideways to become one of a split between Hard and Soft Conservative Brexiteers. Any chance that the referendum might have had moral validity was quickly lost by the antics, reversals and abdications of the Leave leaders. They have only themselves to blame if opinion turns against them. The government’s failure to fill the vacuum is only making things worse and yet it continues to move on as if the 52 to 48 per cent decision is frozen and can never shift the other way as the months pass.

     One should not expect a groundswell of opinion against Brexiting to happen immediately. ‘The public’ at large, and by this I mean that wider public, Remainers and Leavers, young and old, appears locked into the belief that Brexit cannot be opposed. There is even a sense, coming from Downing Street, that it is somehow unpatriotic to raise objections about Brexit. ‘Whatever our original views, we must all work together to make Brexit a success.’ Yet the reasons why many voted for Remain are still as strong as ever and, if anything, have been strengthened by the growing realisation of the difficulties ahead. That forty-eight per cent is likely to grow.

      There is much talk as if refusing to accept the referendum vote is being anti-democratic but democracy depends on informed opinion. The referendum debate was not informed, the debate now and in the coming months can hardly not be informed of the consequences of Brexiting. Opinion based on it will be much more deserving of respect. Parliament needs to make up its mind on what is known in January not was failed to be known in June. That is its constitutional responsibility and it can hardly duck it.  If Theresa May persists in invoking Article 50 on her own prerogative without the consent of Parliament it will be a dark day for representative democracy.

    Historians, such as myself, study change over time. I would not expect public opinion to shift against Brexit until November or December. That is usually how long it takes for reality to break through.  There is no place for a second referendum. Voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ over our membership of the EU when there have been forty-three years of political, legal and social relationships developed within the context of assumed stability was hopelessly misguided. A second go is going to be no better. Nor would a general election work unless one party fought on Brexit and the opposition fought solely on the grounds of opposing it.  

The best way to let Parliament know of the changing mood is through a direct petition. The one below stresses the cost of Brexiting and the lack of certainty that it will provide any benefit for the UK. It highlights the crises such as the funding of the NHS which will certainly suffer with the immense diversion of resources to the Brexit negotiations. The purpose is to provide a coherent and open means of popular protest that is very easy to make. Signing it does not prevent the signing of other petitions or working with out anti-Brexit campaigns. In fact, it should provide an umbrella for them all. It is open until January 20th 2017 and so can take advantage of shifting opinions in the coming months.

The petition can be signed by any UK citizen living in the EU or anywhere else in the world as well as ‘anyone living in this country’ (the words of the petitions staff). Here is a chance for many who had no vote in the referendum to make their voices known as well as those who believed all along in remaining. There are also no age restrictions so that, and this is an arbitrary cut-off point, anyone between the ages of 14 and 18, the group who are most ignored but have most to lose, should be able to sign.

This petition will be up on the Parliamentary Petitions website until January 20th, 2017 and can be signed at any time until then. However, we hope to get the petition moving with a large number of early signatories who agree with its aims and wish to make their voices heard. Make sure that INFORMED democracy has its say.

 

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/159977

This petition is supported by New Europeans.

 

 


Charles Freeman

About the Author

Charles Freeman

Charles Freeman is a freelance academic historian with wide interests in the history of European culture and thought. He holds a Master’s Degree in African History and Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, a Diploma in Education from Cambridge with Distinctions in the Psychology of Education and the Teaching of History and a further Master’s Degree in Applied Research in Education from the University of East Anglia. His volumes on Egypt, Greece and Rome, Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean, (Oxford University Press, now in its third edition) are widely used as an introductory text and have sold over 80,000 copies. He is an elected member of the Editorial Board of the Blue Guides as Historical Consultant and has written the historical introductions to several volumes of the new editions including Rome, Florence, Venice and Mainland Greece and has also been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.He has taught Ancient History for Cambridge University’s Extramural programme and in recent years has developed a study tour programme of the Mediterranean.

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Charles Freeman

About the Author

Charles Freeman

Charles Freeman is a freelance academic historian with wide interests in the history of European culture and thought. He holds a Master’s Degree in African History and Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, a Diploma in Education from Cambridge with Distinctions in the Psychology of Education and the Teaching of History and a further Master’s Degree in Applied Research in Education from the University of East Anglia. His volumes on Egypt, Greece and Rome, Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean, (Oxford University Press, now in its third edition) are widely used as an introductory text and have sold over 80,000 copies. He is an elected member of the Editorial Board of the Blue Guides as Historical Consultant and has written the historical introductions to several volumes of the new editions including Rome, Florence, Venice and Mainland Greece and has also been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.He has taught Ancient History for Cambridge University’s Extramural programme and in recent years has developed a study tour programme of the Mediterranean.

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