Bitter arguments over the UK’s membership of the EU have disfigured British politics for decades. The referendum held on 23 June was supposed to settle the matter once and for all. Brits voted to leave and that’s that. But is it?
No. This was not a cathartic moment of resolution. A hurricane has struck British politics. Instead of clarity, the Brexit vote produced confusion, uncertainty, paralysis and a political vacuum. The UK’s allies are bewildered. The Far Right parties in Europe are delighted. And British society and politics will be plagued by the consequences of the referendum decision for years, if not decades, to come.
Not unexpectedly, within hours of the result being declared, prime minister David Cameron announced his resignation. Although he remains in post until his Party chooses a new leader in September, power is leeching from him and the government is rudderless. Before the vote he said that, if the country voted to leave, he would immediately trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets in motion the 2-year process for a country to exit the EU. But he has now left this to his successor.
However, the British prime minister has no power to trigger article 50 without the prior approval of parliament. The legal and political issues of doing this are so great, the process of extraction from the EU may take many years to come about. A significant majority of MPs supported remaining in the EU, and while they are unlikely to reject the referendum result—though they could, since the result is only advisory—they may delay a parliamentary decision for some considerable time. And while most EU leaders may impatiently demand that Britain get on with it, only the exiting state can fire the gun. This is bound to sour even further the interim relationship with the EU and poison the atmosphere for the coming negotiations.
The leavers have yearned for this outcome for so long, you might think they would have anticipated these complications and drawn up a plan for the UK’s new relationship with the EU and how to get there. But when the two main Brexit leaders, the Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, gave their victory press conference on the morning after the vote, it was crystal clear: there was no plan.
Addressing the world’s media they were curiously subdued, diffident and emollient. One well-argued theory trending on social media is that “they may have won the referendum, but they cannot use the mandate they have been given because if they do so they will be seen to be knowingly condemning the UK to breakup and years of pain.” Together with some other Leave leaders, they have indeed rapidly retreated from demands and promises they made. Suddenly, Boris sees leaving the single market and ending free movement of people as negotiable. Cutting EU immigration? They only promise “control” not “reduction” of numbers. A pledge to spend on the National Health Service the £350 million no longer paid to Brussels each week? Disowned by Farage. Johnson was the favourite to succeed Cameron as prime minister and lead the exit negotiations in Brussels. But could a man as mendacious as this have been trusted with such responsibility?
While, scandalously, there is still no plan, in Parliament on Monday Cameron announced a plan to set up a civil service unit to make a plan. And we already know that the scale of the administrative and legal changes required is huge. Take just two aspects. UK and EU law have been aligned for so many decades, disentangling the two will be an enormous undertaking and immensely complicated, possibly occupying many years of parliamentary time. Second, leaving the EU will automatically terminate all UK trade agreements with countries outside of Europe. Far from being “easy and quick”, negotiating new bilateral trade agreements with upwards of 60-70 countries will be complex, time-consuming and beyond the civil service’s capacity to handle more than one or two at a time.
Meanwhile, the capacity of the UK’s political system to scrutinise the entire multifaceted Brexit process has been seriously compromised. The Labour Party is fighting a civil war over the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Three-quarters of all Labour MPs have passed a vote of no confidence in their leader on the grounds that his role in getting Labour supporters to vote Remain was lacklustre and half-hearted, and they have called on him to step down. He has refused and a leadership election is likely. But whether he stays or goes, Corbyn’s ability to hold the government to account during this period of unprecedented uncertainty has been badly damaged.
If Brexiters feel short-changed, UKIP may pull Euroscpetic MPs away from the Tories, raising the prospect that both major parties could split. It’s even more likely that the new Tory prime minister will call a snap general election to win a new mandate for securing Britain’s post-Brexit future. This may further delay formally informing the EU that Britain is leaving.
And what if the Tories fail to win such an election. Who governs could by then be linked to the question of what is left to govern? Scottish voters chose overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, as did those in Norther Ireland. Determined that Scotland not be forced out of the EU against the will of its people, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party leader and first minister, is prepared to call another referendum on Scottish independence if it’s the only route to remaining in or joining the EU. Last time, the majority of Scots voted “no”. Polls now show that most Scots favour independence. This is not an option for Northern Ireland, but loss of substantial EU regional grants and the institution of more complicated, formal border arrangements with the Republic of Ireland could lead to the province becoming increasingly alienated from Westminster. If Brexit produces a dis-United Kingdom, that’s losing, not “taking back”, control.
A week on, Brexit looks increasingly like an act of supreme, narrow national selfishness, inspired by a grumbling, raw English nationalism personified by the demagogic bigotry of Nigel Farage. Not only has the Brexiters’ insouciance plunged the country into chaos and crisis, it shows disdain for the fallout for other countries, such as increased economic uncertainty and a strengthened Far Right. Aggressive nationalism licensed Boris’s attack on President Obama for being “half-Kenyan”. It justified comparing pro-Remain scientists to “Nazi propagandists”. And when Farage produced a poster of Syrian refugees in Slovenia with the slogan “Breaking Point” to scare people that floods of immigrants were arriving on British shores, nationalism permits that racism too. The end justifies the means.
Since 23 June racist incidents have increased by 57%. “When are you going home!” racists have shouted. The Polish centre in London was daubed with graffiti saying “Go home”. Children have been taunting others that they will have to go.
Perhaps this is the true meaning of Brexit.
This piece was published first in German on the website of tachles late on 30 June.