Last Friday, many of us in the UK woke up to discover that our world had changed. Despite every poll indication to the contrary, the country had voted to leave the EU. There’s an irony in that vote – Tory ministers repeatedly berate our education system for not putting enough emphasis on Shakespeare. The result showed that they have no room to talk, for as Coriolanus would have told them, the people have resoundingly spoken with the yea and no of general ignorance.
The question is, what now? It has been a particularly nasty campaign, devoid of facts and based on the basest of emotions as rhetoric sank to the lowest common denominator, dividing friends and family in a manner which I have never seen before. Truth has been a casualty, as has Jo Cox. There is no question that many, assured by the polls that the result would be a vote to remain, took the opportunity to vote against the Government, attempting to bloody the eye of what is almost universally seen as a disconnected posh elite. They were shocked to find that rather than pecking the eagles, the crows had ripped out their own eyes on Friday morning.
So what now?
One of the least discussed aspects of the campaign is that there has been no coordinated plan about leaving, the Leave campaign being an alliance of convenience of a number of disparate parties. Now the result is in, neither side has any idea of what to do next. It’s as if everyone had been urged to get behind a campaign to boycott Tesco, only to discover on winning that one faction wanted us to shop in Lidl, another in Waitrose and a third were militant vegans campaigning for us all to have our own allotments and burn down the supermarkets. Already, the machinations are beginning to influence the decision and sadly, the only people who are likely to profit will be the lawyers. (For those who are short on Shakespearean references, let’s kill all the lawyers).
There is pressure from some in the EU to start the process quickly. That is probably a desire to sweep it under the table before the ramifications start to fracture the status quo. However, it appears to ignore that fact that civil servants will be involved and the word quickly is not in their dictionary. The process of leaving is triggered by article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, and about the only thing we know about that is that it is a two year long negotiation. As nobody has ever invoked it before, it’s probable that it will take longer. The important word here is negotiation. Everything that has been put in place over the last forty years needs to be unraveled. There may even be exit penalties which no-one’s spotted. As it is a negotiation, it makes sense for the UK to work out its negotiating position before it starts, but the fact that nobody believed this result could have happened means that’s not been done. So it’s likely that we’ll need two years to do the groundwork before it makes any sense to press the button. Otherwise we’re likely to get a raw deal, as we don’t know what we’re asking for.
During that process, where the treasury and other departments are going to have to look hard at numbers, we’re likely to see some interesting figures come out which challenge many of the “facts” dreamt up during the campaign. The Leave coalition has made much of the fact that the NHS will benefit from leaving, but I’m sceptical. The immigrants we’ve accepted in the UK are generally young, working, pay taxes and have minimal call on the NHS, which means they’re a positive contribution to its funding. On the other hand, the two million or so UK residents who have retired to sunnier parts of Europe might find they need to come back home for treatment. They generally pay no tax, yet are part of the age demographic which are responsible for around 80% of the NHS’ costs. I doubt that will turn out to be a positive benefit, it’s more likely to add 10% to the NHS bill. The only realistic way to cope with it is for the Leave campaign to consider euthanasia, which I don’t recall reading in any of their pre-election propaganda. I’m pretty sure that as the treasury starts produce real evidence rather than PR, we’ll discover that the pap we were fed as facts to vote on become exposed as nothing more than innumerate spin. Which might change people’s views about the merits of staying in or leaving.
But before that, we need a Government that can make a decision. David Cameron has assured himself of a position as the worst Prime Minister in British history, exceeding even Lord North’s catastrophic loss of the American colonies. I wonder what the Queen thought of the 90th birthday present he gave her? I’d image that her good riddance thoughts probably borrowed some of her husband’s vocabulary. But until Cameron is replaced with a pro-Brexit leader, nothing is likely to happen. However, that’s unlikely to occur much before the party conference in the Autumn, and even then, whoever succeeds him will need to concentrate on attempting to repair a seriously fractured party.
After that, allow the treasury a couple of years to work out what our negotiating position will be and we’ll probably be ready to press the button at the start of 2019, which means we might get to leave sometime in 2021. Which give us lots of time for other political mischief to get in the way.
Mischief maker number one is Nicola Sturgeon, heading the Sottish Nationalists. She’s already saying that the Scottish parliament will refuse the ratify the decision, prompting another referendum which would derail the process. Nicola likes referenda, despite having lost the Scottish independence one last year. Her first act last Friday was to state that a second Scottish referendum is on the table. That could be interesting. If that happens, and Scotland votes to leave the UK, then there is a strong possibility of a legal challenge to the current Brexit vote, as we voted on the UK leaving, not just England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland are already getting cold feet about the process, as it has begun to dawn on their electorate that leaving the EU would probably mean the restoration of border controls with Eire, raising the possibility of a resurgence of terrorist violence. Put all those together and at the point Scotland leaves the UK, a second Brexit vote could reverse the current decision, with England, Wales and Northern Ireland deciding they want to remain in the EU. That might leave Scotland out in the cold, having to renegotiate their membership, which would see them as a non-EU country while England remains a member. The most interesting aspect of that would be Scotland’s currency. England would probably refuse to allow them to keep the pound, so they’d probably need to invent a new currency. They could always reinstate the bawbee, bodle, plack and doyt to try and invigorate ancestral tourism, because if oil nosedives again tourism could be their only source of income. As fairy tales were meant to teach children, before Disney did us the disservice of bowdlerising them, you need to be careful about what you wish for.
Most of this sorry saga is down to the incompetence of our MPs. Quite why the whole of this process seems to be orchestrated by Nigel Farrage and Nicola Sturgeon, who are not even British MPs is beyond me, but such is the perverse way that democracy seems to work these days. They at least have gained the public trust, even if one is a buffoon and the other part of an ongoing line of fishy Scots politicians. The real problem is that we have a political elite who know nothing of the real world. In an era where an understanding of data and evidence are increasingly important for decision making, we are represented by the technically and numerically illiterate. Today we suffer under the curse of PPE – a university course which seems designed to produce a steady stream of incompetent morons to fill the halls of Westminster.
In Sweden, a court recently ordered that Malardalen University refund a student her tuition fees as the course was deemed “almost worthless”. I wonder whether that might set a precedent for the UK electorate to sue Oxford University, given the damage that has been caused by the alumni of their PPE course, amongst them Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, William Hague and David Cameron. Studying Philosophy and PE may be a stepping stone for posh boys, but it seems to be a route to disaster for any country which lets them into positions of power. The real tragedy of the Brexit campaign is that it led to the death of Jo Cox. She exemplified the type of person we desperately need in Parliament – someone who cares and who spent a large proportion of her life out in the world helping to change it for the better. The divisions caused by the Brexit campaign have polarised the country in a way I’ve never seen before. If you ever meet those responsible for that, men like David Cameron, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove, please greet them with the remark that “weren’t you one of the people responsible for Jo Cox being killed”. Politicians need reminding that their acts have consequences outside the cosy confines of Westminster. They benefit from comfortable lives and pensions beyond Parliament however much damage they do. Others suffer as a result of their incompetence.
In another irony, a Brexit campaigner started a Parliamentary email petition a few weeks before the vote to request that any decision should have at least a 60% majority on a turnout of 75%. At that point he thought that the country would vote to remain and he was trying to force a second vote. Four days after the result was announced, almost four million people have signed that petition, much to his annoyance. If that number could reach 17 million, then I would hope it would trigger a reassessment. If not, then we may be headed for a year of civil disobedience. I would urge everyone to sign the petition, regardless of whether you voted to leave or remain, as we were provided with no evidence to make that decision from either side. The political rhetoric got no further than trying to persuade us that it was too scary to leave, or that those wanting to leave were inbred rural racists. No vote based on that level of information should be valid. We, as an electorate, should be ashamed of what we have done, regardless of which way we voted. There are probably good arguments for staying or leaving, but it does nobody any merit to make that decision on the pitiful level of evidence that we were given. Hence the petition should be seen as a wider vote against political incompetence. We deserve better leaders.
In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, two Lords discuss the merits of intelligence. “I don’t want to say a word against brains” one of them remarks, “I’ve a great respect for brains. I often wish I had some myself. But with a House of Peers composed exclusively of people of intellect, what’s to become of the House of Commons?” We can now see what consequence their musing engendered, and it is not edifying. We need political reform to give this country MPs capable of governing rather than playing.
This is no longer just an English or a Scottish play. The Brexit vote will give credence to political intrigues across Europe, as other countries realise that nationalist sentiment can be duped to further vested political ends. That may lead to sensible reform within the Brussels bureaucracy, or it may signal the start of decades of European recession. Either way, the British vote is a double edged sword for the future of Europe.
What is perhaps more worrying is the precedent we have set. Britain probably voted the way it did predominantly because we were fed up with an incompetent political elite. If common sense prevails, we may yet have the chance to readdress that decision. The same forces are apparent in the US election. But if Trump is elected it is not just scary, it is terrifying. Two centuries after David Cameron’s predecessor lost Britain her American colonies, I cannot think of a more horrendous precedent to be sending back to those who are now so equally at odds with their own political parties.