Brexit – Sailing into a Storm with No-one at the Wheel

July 8, 2016

I’ve read quite a bit over the past few days over this Brexit result. Trying to get my head around what has happened. Nearly all of my expatriate UK and European colleagues here in Dubai are wandering around with shell-shocked faces – and that was even before Iceland beat England in Euro 2016.

So here are some of the musings from an Australian looking on with no skin in the game:

  1. Does the Brexit vote mean exit? It’s always hard for politicians to refuse to heed the will of the people. But there have been all sorts of false claims made up to the polling date about NHS funding and whether the vote will stop immigration or deport people. Yet most politicians actually don’t want to leave and think it is not a good choice. What will they decide to do?
  2. It’s an unconvincing majority that voted to leave (about 52%) with a majority in Scotland and Northern Ireland wishing to remain. Scotland have since been quite firm in their resolve as pro-Europe to the extent that they would leave the UK. It’s Scottish referendum all over again. Over the last 30 years or so, polls have moved with regards to whether a majority wishes to stay in or out of Europe. A decision to leave would be one of the most important decisions made by the UK. Do the majority of the UK population wish to disunite the UK, cause all sorts of problems economically to as we are seeing with the depreciation of the pound, as well as flow on effects in Europe and the world, and make a long-term decision to that effect? Is the break-up of the UK a price worth paying for the prize of sovereignty?
  3. Legally, it seems that any move to leave the EU needs to be done by an act of Parliament. Will the politicians stand by their own conviction in what is best for the UK (to remain) and to bypass the view of the majority of the people?
  4. Europe, quite rightly, don’t want to negotiate until the UK are 100% sure that they wish to exit. As far as they are concerned, all that’s happened is a non-binding advisory referendum calling to leave. It seems fair enough that Europe should call the bluff of the UK and make sure that they are serious about exiting before entering into negotiations. That’s what the two year period is for after Article 50 is invoked anyway.
  5. Much of the write-up has been about the differences in voting habits of different segments of the population. England and Wales to leave; Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain. Young people overwhelmingly remain, older people leave. London remain, manufacturing heartland to leave, more educated to remain while less educated to leave, elites remain while those marginalized voted to leave. What seems to have happened is a mix of nationalist and anti-immigration fervour along with a backlash against neoliberal globalization and its accompanying austerity measures that fuelled the Leave vote.
  6. There’s no doubt that there was an underlying racism behind the vote, partly encouraged through the campaign run by the Murdoch press. It’s akin to the views of the Trump popular movement in the US, of pandering to the latent fears of the other borne by the local population.
  7. The failure of the leaders of the Leave movement, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, has been described as like rats leaving the sinking ship. They did it with no plan, as clueless about the post-Brexit future as Blair was for a post-invasion Iraq.
  8. Despite the efforts of the remain camp to note that a Leave vote would have severe economic and political consequences, there were retorts of “I think this country have had enough of experts”. Obviously, the expert opinions were not recognized, somewhat like how views of climate change experts are not heeded.
  9. One of the key findings from this whole episode is the poor judgement exercised by David Cameron. He foolishly made a short term decision which has had long-term consequences and did not conceive of the potential for the Leave vote to be successful. An interesting article from a psychotherapist has pointed the finger towards political leaders that attended British boarding schools as it leaves them ill-prepared for adult relationships and perpetuates a culture of elitism, bullying and misogyny. These people tend to lack emotional intelligence, focusing on survival rather than empathy with the result of poor political judgements.
  10. There’s further complications with Brexit in relation to free movement of people across the UK / European borders. Many people are claiming that you can’t have access to the European market unless you have movement of people across borders. Free trade equals free movement of people. What happens then with the Irish / Northern Ireland border? This was a key outcome of the peace negotiations with the IRA to have free movement of people across the border. Another reason for northern Ireland to secede from the UK?


So what’s next?

The Brexit Referendum became a contest between technicians in favour of the status quo and populists promising a return of a Little England narrative. But now that the populists won the popular vote, which Brexit is going to be considered?

It could be argued that it is better in the long term for the UK to exit Europe: the common currency is a disaster, immigrants are taking advantage of UK’s welfare state, the EU does not appear to be democratic. There is a potential for the UK to exit and negotiate more advantageous trade policies with other countries independently. It’s actually an opportunity as George Monbiot has outlined, an opportunity to counter some of the less satisfactory regulations and excesses of the EU and create a better environment that is more environmentally sustainable and innovative.

I tell people that this is still very early days. Either of two potential scenarios; a negotiated Brexit that will be protracted and messy or a political exit from Brexit with either MPs refusing to follow the popular will and/or another vote on a more detailed Brexit plan that fails to get a majority.