Category Archives: EEA Option

Confession: I think the EU referendum was a mistake

I now think that holding a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union was a mistake. I have, I fear, reached this conclusion far too slowly.

I suspect it was the glamour of it all; the honour of working at the heart of a history-making political campaign that clouded my judgement.

I was in the midst of it all a 20-year old that had been given a fantastic first job I was arguably too immature for. That is not to say that it wasn’t anything other than a modest role, but to me it meant the world.

This, combined with occasional television appearances after the result, got to my head a little too much. I should have realised sooner that simply taking part in the referendum would not be enough.

It is a matter of head versus heart. The heart looks back with fondness at the privilege of campaigning and the many friends and contacts made.

But the head is nagging me about our constitutional difficulties, ambiguous Brexit options and unstable, incompetent leadership during such a sensitive period.

I always try my utmost to allow my head to win these battles. And so in this case I must concede that referendums are not the way to exercise ground-breaking political reform.

It has been quietly obvious for a while now that the real winner of the referendum was in fact David Cameron, who was able to use the result to slip out of government in time and avoid the mess we are now in.

He and his advisors probably saw all of this coming. I predicted as the results were coming through on June 23rd that he would step down as Prime Minister, but, rather naively, did not foresee the obstacles that acting on the result has since faced.

The main problem with last year’s plebiscite was that it did not provide clarity for those like Richard North who supported both Brexit and membership of the single market.

I wish I had taken notice of researchers like him (and indeed his blog eureferendum.com) much earlier than I did. He and his son Pete, bizarrely inept at social interaction, have yielded answers to complex questions for longer than our media has been able to keep up.

Referenda are binary, usually offered to appease the electorate and are and deliberately oversimplified. The options given lack nuance, ensuring they provide exactly the fertile soil for disruption and chaos. This is why governments tend to support the status quo option. 

Our EU referendum created the inevitable problem that, in the event of a Leave vote, which became predictable weeks before polling day, ambiguity over what kind of Brexit its voters would prefer caused poisonous hostility. 

Now, a simple way of getting round this would have been to alter ballots in New Zealand-style fashion and ask those voting for Brexit a second question: “Do you think the UK should remain a member of the single market?”

Of course, we know what the answer would be if folk were well-informed. Since immigration was the largest single issue aroused by our camp, most would have opted for a single market exit too.

But that is not the point. My point is that a referendum over such a huge issue created a mandate for a policy without a policy. We were left directionless in an uphill battle.

And what made it worse was the fact that we had a government responsible for addressing the policy that did not agree with its premise in the first place. 

Despite being an exercise in direct democracy, our referendum exposed a sharp disconnect between public opinion and the preferences of those in the Westminster bubble. 

Referenda are, as I now appreciate more fully, renowned moreso for the constitutional upheaval they generate. Crimea in 2014 is perhaps a more extreme example. 

Since signalling for EU departure is the most profound democratic decision made by the British electorate arguably in history, it is no surprise that our politicians can barely organise themselves to adhere to it. 

In hindsight, a much more durable alternative to a national poll would have been a clear manifesto commitment, from either of the two major parties, to leaving.

Both Labour and the Tories have more than their fair share of voters wanting out, and any party claiming to be government material must be able to embrace the possibilities that come with legislative repatriation.

Yes, upon election, there would still have been the grave difficulties of negotiation, but at least direction and mandates would be more clearly established.

The only reason why neither party dared to do this was because they were (and still largely are) afflicted by the lingering Blairism that for so long prevented them from carrying out policies supported by faithless voters.

David Cameron certainly wouldn’t accept such an inclusion in a Tory manifesto. He is as supportive of the European project as they come.

A mutual friend of Dan Hannan and I, and notable Flexcit supporter, once told me that during his years at university, Mr Cameron donned prized cufflinks sporting the EU flag.

And the party’s current stock of leadership contenders aren’t much different, I might add. A referendum may therefore seem like an escape from this problem, but in reality caused many new ones of its own.

Had there been no referendum, significant pressure from Tory party members would have spurned their politicians into action, I am sure of it. 

I sometimes wonder what the European Commission and fellow member states think of all this. They cannot possibly consider Mrs May to be tough negotiating material.

She made far too humiliating a mess of last week’s General Election to be considered so, and only remains in Number 10 thanks to a cynical, gentleman’s agreement from the DUP (who themselves favour what we call ‘soft’ Brexit).

I must also point out here that in no way do I regret my vote or campaigning last year. I am as fervent a supporter of our secession as one can be. I just think that our means of securing that exit were profoundly flawed.

And since elections are now heavily influenced by last year’s result, as was expected given how divided we are, it may as well have been a party decision to take us out after all.

 


In the end it was the Brexit election, but not the one I expected

Well, I was wrong about two things at this election. I think a lot of us were. The first was the absence of a Tory majority, the second the absence of a Lib Dem fight back, which I wrongly predicted a couple of months ago at this blog. But yesterday morning told a fascinating tale nonetheless.

On April 19th, upon hearing Theresa May’s decision to hold a snap General Election, I wrote the following:

“This decision was fundamentally, and shrewdly, party political. But it could turn into a whole lot more than that. Since Brexit is now the hallmark of British politics, I expect the upcoming campaign to be a proxy; a second referendum of sorts.”

I think have been proved more or less correct by this statement, though not in the way that I expected. Before Thursday, and like most in the country, I predicted the securing of a comfortable Tory majority. I felt that Mrs May, hopeless as she is, had done just enough to remind Leave voters of what they voted for on June 23rd last year.

I thought that in appealing to the sensibilities of Brexit voters, especially with phrases like ‘respect the will of the British people’, the Conservative Party would enhance its electoral stronghold in Westminster and would win yet another General Election. How wrong and naive I was to the consequences of a poorly-organised political campaign.

It is true that the Tories managed 43 percent of the vote share, but voters ‘returning home’ made gaining a majority more difficult. After the shock of last summer, when support for parties was vastly more dispersed, voters thought it was safe to return to their traditional red and blue corners.

I thought that UKIP voters would rally behind Theresa May as she led the campaign for a so-called ‘hard Brexit’. This proved not to be the case, as I should have anticipated. I remember when I was a member of UKIP how many former Labour voters sat in local and regional party meetings. I knew that for UKIP, a Leave vote in the EU referendum was their self-destruct button, but I underestimated the ensuing flow of voters who returned to Labour. Perhaps many of them now have an understandable and instinctive mistrust of the Tory Party.

But this election did espouse many undertones of the referendum, which I now feel was a mistake (more on this soon). As results emerged, it became clear that many of the Remain-supporting pockets of the country had used the Labour Party as a means of diluting Brexit. In this sense, I would exercise caution over the notion that Corbynism has entirely hollowed Blairism out of Labour or its voter base.

Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise scooping of 262 seats, an increase of 30 on the total that his predecessor managed, reflected a number of different factors, but his desire to prioritise, for instance, membership of the single market over immigration and a Brexit focused on protecting consumer and worker rights will have appealed to many of the country’s supporters of EU membership.

These trends were noticeable mostly in England, where politics seems to be more tribal on the issue of the European Union. In Scotland, I was pleased to see, the Nationalists took the heavy hits I predicted and the colours on the electoral map are mixed once again. Ruth Davison deserves enormous credit for helping to turn nationalistic tides and reinvigorate support for the union. She has also shrewdly positioned herself as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party.

Mrs Sturgeon, on the other hand, whose position as leader of the SNP is becoming increasingly untenable, failed in her efforts to retain seats largely because Scottish voters are tired of her drive for independence, which was always a fake given her support for EU membership and which was rightly rejected in 2014. I also suspect that Scots saw her insistence on keeping Scotland out of Brexit as a constitutional danger and a cause of yet more political instability.

As the election campaign got under way, I had convinced myself (I now realise stupidly) that the Liberal Democrats would prove to be a significant force. But their night was surprisingly underwhelming. Even prominent figures like Nick Clegg lost seats, and in many seats the party failed to garner even 1,000 votes. This is perhaps a good example of a lack of translation between membership surges and votes.

Had the Lib Dems ditched plans to offer a second referendum, which would ransack the population of its faith in and enthusiasm for politics, and instead fought loudly and clearly for an exit centred around keeping Britain in the single market, they would indeed have gained more than 12 seats at this election. All we are missing now is a party that advocates holding a referendum on whether we should have a second referendum. Don’t hold your breath.

Remain voters quite clearly had their say at this election. Most shocking was the Tory-Labour switch in Kensington. I think our departure from the European Union has been compromised and cannot bring myself to trust Theresa May to negotiate our exit. And the price we pay at home? A minority government doomed to failure and backed up by the DUP. There is no other way to see it. This is a national embarrassment.

 


Reflections on railway renationalisation and a Tory Brexit

My apologies, firstly, to readers for the general inactivity at the blog since the middle of April. This has been down to juggling work at a new job and the completion of my journalism dissertation, which I submitted on Thursday evening.

My hope is to achieve the 2.1 that will allow me to continue my studies into Masters level, with my eyes currently set upon an MSc at Royal Holloway in ‘Campaigns, Elections and Democracy’. I should now hope to return here frequently for the foreseeable future.

In my absence, this year’s General Election has gotten under way. A portion of the Labour Party’s manifesto has been leaked, and thanks to pledges to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and energy sector, has been described as taking the UK ‘back to the 1970s’.

It may be worth remembering for a moment that Germany, a modern and well-run country, operates nationalised rail and worker-run energy co-operatives. Northern Ireland, too, (incidentally a part of the UK) retains public control of its rail system.

For the record, I don’t support renationalising Britain’s energy sector, but local, energy co-operatives, similar to those that exist on the continent do not sound like such a bad idea. I do admit to succumbing to the appeal of democratic ownership of utilities and co-operative privatisation (worker control of industry) of Royal Mail may be popular amongst postmen and women.

As far as our railways go, the ongoing debate around public and private ownership would seem to me to be a secondary issue. The primary issue is upgrading infrastructure and investment, and cancelling the vast amounts of money we seem keen to spend on vanity projects like HS2, which stands only to increase London’s workforce and damage the rural environment of the midlands. Any strong government ought to, by now, have scrapped such madness.

Britain’s rail infrastructure is predominantly Victorian and not entirely electrified, much to our national embarrassment. The billions put aside for HS2 should be re-directed towards modernising track and signalling, and towards investing in more medium-speed, medium-distance inter-city railway lines. London is too often used as a connecting city for long-distance travellers making their way across the country (and often finding themselves paying extortionate amounts).

The question of who owns rail services is made less important still by the fact that there need not be one single system of ownership, as demonstrated by the state operating of the East Coast mainline until March 2015. Britain’s rail system is not only franchised, it is regionalised, which means that, with very few exceptions, services are all co-ordinated independently of one another. The state can retain ownership of some lines whilst allowing for others to be run privately, depending on factors like performance and quality of service.

Immediate renationalisation would not make the running of rail services particularly cheap. As I have said, it is the cost of maintaining infrastructure, due to its age, that sets the cost of British rail travel above that of the rest of the continent. Upgrades to infrastructure ought to be at the centre of any debate about Britain’s railways and present a far more pressing concern than discussions over ownership.

I will not vote for the Labour Party on June 8th, but the aforementioned leaked manifesto content doesn’t look to me as if it will take us back forty years. This is merely dishonest Tory propaganda, no doubt aided by the incompetence of figures like Diane Abbott, who do nothing but discredit the Left and its labour movement.

Meanwhile, the Tories sit firmly in the driver’s seat of this election. They are rightly standing on a platform of seeing out the Brexit process, but of course, they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Many of them do not support out withdrawal from the European Union and thoroughly resent last summer’s referendum result. My vote for them in June (if I bother or indeed remember) will be more out of obligation than anything else.

I am at least glad that the Liberal Democrat leader this time around is Tim Farron, and not a young and fresh Nick Clegg, who managed to sweet talk the country into voting for him seven years ago. Thanks to Farron’s confusing position as leader of a party with which he has profound moral disagreements, the Lib Dems are not quite the force they could be.

Knowing that I was an adamant leaver, some readers might think that I am relieved the Tories are in poll position to win this General Election. This is not quite so. Something about the party’s (and indeed the Prime Minister’s) track record over the European question is cause for concern in my mind.

A couple of days ago, David Cameron made a comment that sparked some degree of doubt in my mind. He said that Mrs May needs a big majority so that she can “stand up to the people who want an extreme Brexit, either here or in Brussels.” It is a shame that UKIP can no longer muster the strength that it did back in 2014.

UKIP formed the ideal barricade against sentiments of this kind within the Conservative Party. There are many who call themselves conservatives, despite their continued existence that Britain should not govern itself and control its own affairs, who are fanatically supportive of the European project and of ceding parliamentary sovereignty.

When these people (Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and George Osborne to name a few others) use the expression ‘extreme Brexit’, they demonise the reasonable belief held by large sects of the country, including especially much of the Tory grassroots, that the United Kingdom should control its own trade, borders, lawmaking and judicial process, no matter the difficulties which undoubtedly lie ahead.

Mr Cameron’s comments reminded me that placing complete trust in the Tories and giving them a free hand over such an important issue might not be advisable after all. We’ve heard ‘Theresa May’s hard Brexit’ quite a lot in recent months, but increasingly my fear is that when it is all said and done, Britain will no longer be halfway in the EU. Instead, she may find herself perching halfway out in what will look like an especially embarrassing position.


What the BBC misses about Leave voters and immigrants 

One of the most overrated and overblown reasons for folk voting out of the European Union last summer was immigration. There existed within the Leave vote a substantial contingent that advocated retaining membership of the single market and pursuing what is called the ‘EEA option’. There was a large rural vote for Brexit based on the recovery of national sovereignty that came from areas not hugely impacted by mass immigration. There was also, believe it or not, a youth vote – much of it libertarian – that saw leaving the EU as an opportunity for profound democratisation. I am very much in the latter category.

I do not deny that immigration was a huge factor in the referendum. It was the most notorious and penetrable of each individual issue, and almost all polling placed it in the top one or two of concerns held by the British public (on both sides of the vote, no less). Nor do I deny that racists played their part in voting for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. No doubt almost every self-professed or blatantly racist individual was on our side – doubtless the most useful contribution they have made to our country.

What annoys me is not the very valid association between Brexit and immigration, but the immediacy of the implications made that Leave voters based their decision primarily, or even solely, on this issue. Especially when these hints are left by mainstream media outlets seeking to lash out at certain sections of the public for voting the way that they did or for thinking the thoughts that they think. A BBC video package and news story published two days ago left exactly this sour taste in my mouth. Please take a moment to view it, here, as you will need to check it out to grasp my analysis:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38999575

The headline ‘The Leaver reaching out to immigrants’ is extremely effective, it isn’t hard to see why the editor chose it. The trouble is that, once again, it inappropriately paints Brexit supporters with a particular brush. And there are two problems caused by this article.

The first is that, as the BBC is an extremely authoritative journalistic source (despite its many critics, I still have a lot of respect for the organisation), anybody who comes across this story will assume that ordinary Leave voters are not doing the same, or that they do not care about immigrants. The very running of this story highlights the very real disconnect that lingers between the mainstream media and ordinary Brexit voters. It falsely and presumptuously implies that Julian Thomson, the subject of the package, is an outstanding and unusual Leaver. In the video, he mentions the importance of integration and cohesion; an argument that has been perpetuated by countless commentators and politicians in Britain for the past decade. Even his reasoning for ‘reaching out’ isn’t new or interesting. He is merely offering common argumentation against large scale migratory influxes.

Secondly, where did this notion come from that those who support Brexit must be coerced into or encouraged to feel sorry for their actions? Why should Leavers be made to feel apologetic for their (very reasonable) political persuasion? There is no objective evidence that yet exists that June’s Brexit vote has made Britain a more divisive and racist society. This was an entirely media-driven agenda designed to demonise the 52% and help to construct a dialogue that will encourage dilution or a delaying of the Brexit process. In other words: make us feel bad about our choice and create an atmosphere in which we may have to reconsider. Of course, I do not deny the existence of racism in society, but I do reject continued reactionary associations between Brexit and xenophobia, even if immigration was the main issue for those who voted to leave.

The Labour Party, as was later admitted by Blair’s former speechwriter Andrew Neather, deliberately imposed on the country mass immigration from Europe without giving individuals a say or acknowledging the problems that the policy caused. Brexit, therefore, was the only viable avenue through which members of the public could express understandable dissatisfaction. And since limiting net migration could quite quickly suppress any anti-migrant sentiment across the country, a good argument can be made that Leave voters actually did immigrants living in the UK a favour. Any decrease in the frustration of British people will be welcome news for potential targets, and so by confronting the elephant in the room, Leavers may actually have helped to ease the concerns of foreign-born citizens living in Britain. I have discussed previously at this blog the ways in which limiting immigration will be of considerable benefit to migrants already here. Other examples, besides stemming the tide of resentment, could include easing the demands placed on housing and other public service systems that immigrants in Britain use and pay for. It is therefore worth looking at the bigger picture. Friday’s BBC package ignores the long-term advantages presented to Britain’s foreign-born by Brexit supporters.

The news story is also extremely condescending. Much of the UK’s post-referendum debate has been characterised by hyper-sensitivity. The BBC, in its awe-inspiring wisdom and care for the community, seems to think that migrants in Britain are either entirely unsupportive of an EU withdrawal – which they are not – or that they are incapable of dealing with upcoming political changes and continued integration into society. This proposition would seem to me to be mistaken. Immigrants are, if we remember, among the more brave and resilient members of any society, almost by definition. Certainly the BBC would do well to remember that.