Category Archives: Flexcit

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.

 


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.


Brexit: where the hell are we?

So much Brexit-related news has been whirring around in recent weeks that I’ve barely had the chance to take it all in, let alone write thoughtfully about it. Maybe this is a deliberate policy: confuse and mystify the population into lethargy so as to calm down the waves of anger which bubbled to the surface after last year’s referendum result. First we had the government’s initial and expected defeat at the Supreme Court concerning the extent to which parliament should be consulted before the Brexit process was fully underway. Then we had Theresa May’s outline in broad terms of what the government’s negotiating plan was upon the invoking of Article 50. I still think we shall miss the proposed deadline of March 31st.

Amongst all this we have a Labour Party trying to figure out what its policy will be on Britain’s access to the single market and a campaign of attrition being fought by senior Remain figures in an attempt to delay and frustrate the Brexit process. Earlier today, the government’s unsuccessful appeal in the Supreme Court was lauded by those who for 40 years simply ignored the diminished role of Westminster’s parliament as a victory for parliamentary sovereignty.

Their newfound insistence that parliament must be at the front and centre of decision making is a mere smokescreen; a fake designed to give off the impression that they are providing our EU withdrawal with ‘scrutiny’, while they conveniently ignore the fact that in 2015, parliament itself voted to sanction a national referendum, thus circumventing the decision and passing responsibility onto the electorate. Despite the constitutional problems we are currently weathering, the decision to hold a referendum was, I think, the best possible way to address the issue, given its magnitude and relevance to an increasing proportion of British public policy.

So here we are. Somewhere between a rock and a hard place, trying to figure out when and how best to orchestrate our way out of four decades of intricate political and economic integration. The distractions certainly aren’t helping anybody, but at least both the House of Commons and Peers look set to approve invoking Article 50, even if they can’t stand its implications. As for the public? Confusion and anger so effortlessly stirred up by the mass media have taken their toll on a country sitting in a uniquely perplexing situation. Nobody knows or understands anything; the perfect setting for a government about to embark upon a mission it doesn’t look remotely prepared for.

I am no exception. I have more holes in my knowledge than I would care to admit, and like almost everybody I am susceptible to falling into the traps of fake news and misleading information. Where and when I can I try to consult experts – who, I notice, are always politically independent and left depressingly adrift from the mainstream narrative – like Pete North, whose blog (which can be read here) has proved a useful tool for strengthening my understanding of the current political climate. Likewise, the ‘Independent Britain’ and ‘EUReferendum’ blogs are invaluable if facts, and not tribal spin, are your cup of tea.

For the last year I tried to be an independent and reliable source of information, but there were a few obstacles that prevented me from being so. I was, of course, closely attached to Vote Leave, and so owing to the PR industry’s stronghold on political discourse, I too frequently confused what made for effective campaigning with what represented either a credible plan for a British EU withdrawal or with what was undisputable fact. On top of this, I need time to delve more extensively into the subject matter at hand. I do not have any real expertise in areas like European law or trade, so remain committed to following only those who do. If only more ‘professional Brexiteers’ owned up to the glaring craters in their knowledge, the public might more aptly be able to distinguish between those who know their content and those who do not.

If playing a privileged part in an historic referendum taught me one thing, it is that researchers are indeed the experts, and not those who pose as authoritative figures whilst away from the cameras lacking any real grasp of their subject matter – and yes, I’m looking at you, Dan Hannan. I have deliberately avoided writing about the kind of Brexit I’d want for Britain so as not to flood the information swamp with yet more swampland. I cite the aforementioned websites as a gesture of gratitude more so than an inauguration into the infamous Flexcit club; a group of people unfairly demonised by fellow Leavers, including myself in the past, for not adequately prioritising issues like sovereignty and immigration. If only I and others had known that it wasn’t as simple as this.

I would much rather go away and find out about the ins and outs of leaving the single market before I begin bellowing into the winds about trade, controlling immigration, leaving the ECJ and what a Customs Union exit would mean for imports. I say this not to belittle myself (I pride myself on my ability to learn quickly), but to ensure that I don’t become part of the circus of ill-informed puppeteers dominating the Brexit agenda and spreading unhelpful fantasies. If I am not well informed on an issue or have nothing fresh to contribute, I will avoid it.

We need clarity. Clarity that wasn’t provided by the Prime Minister’s vague, recycled speech last week. By far the most worrying part of her speech came, rather ironically, in the section concerning certainty. It said:

“And when it comes to Parliament, there is one other way in which I would like to provide certainty. I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”[1]

It was at this point that the pound regained some of its lost value against major currencies. This is hardly surprising when one considers what it means for the process of leaving. Since common sense and the UK’s budgetary contributions to the European Union both suggest that EU leaders will try as hard as they can to make an example out of Britain so as to dissuade other member states (particularly France, as an election looms) from leaving, a deal reached by the UK and European Council is likely to be arched in favour of the latter, increasing the probability that parliament will vote to reject an agreement that the UK’s negotiating team come back with. Remember, May wants to take Britain out of the single market. This means that pursuing what is known as the EEA option (the blogs I provided links to above have great material on this theme) and thus arranging a simpler, more orderly exit is out of the question.

So when you read the following excerpt from the EU’s briefing on state withdrawal:

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”[2]

…you begin to see why that particular paragraph in the government’s plan creates exactly the kind of complication and uncertainty that we do not need. In trying to provide clarity, the Prime Minister played right into the hands of the European Union’s negotiating team. As a time limit of two years sits firmly in place (an agreed extension seems unlikely with other pressing issues on the EU’s plate), Britain’s chances of making a success of withdrawal get ever slimmer. And only an idiot would believe that leaving with no deal would be better than our current relationship.

So where the hell are we with Brexit? Will we ever get what more than 17 million of us voted for? I’m starting to think that Peter Hitchens was right about this whole thing: we may be able to check out, but we may never leave.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/577971/EPRS_BRI(2016)577971_EN.pdf