The UK Referendum on Leaving the EU

I want to record my thoughts on the UK referendum, so that in the future I can refer to them, and remember my feelings in the immediate aftermath.

I was going to the Glastonbury festival on Friday 24th June. Normally I go on the Wednesday, but this time I’d just come back from Montreal the week before, so I left it until later. On the Thursday evening, I started watching the results, but ended up watching all night, in some disbelief. At Glastonbury, the mood was sombre amongst my friends and the people we met, and amongst the performers who spoke out.

I think my overwhelming feeling was one of loss: I thought we were all in this together, we being Europe, and then the world. This felt like a step backwards, splitting apart instead of coming together to work out our problems. I wanted our borders, a purely human divisive contrivance, to become less important, not more. Of course, in this day and age of increasingly easy mass communication, this is not really going to happen unless civilization takes a severely different turn, which I hope is unlikely.

My perception is that people voted to leave the EU for a variety of reasons, not all of which are compatible. In the process of leaving, some of those who voted to leave will be dissatisfied. For those on far enough left of the political spectrum, the EU is too right-wing; for those far enough on the right, the EU is too left-wing. I think those on the left disapprove of TTIP, and the effects of global capitalism. I’m not sure what those on the right exactly disapprove of. I did entertain the idea that some were still hoping for the return of the British Empire, then dismissed that thought as insulting. To my astonishment through the referendum campaign, I realized that there really are some in that camp.

Undoubtedly one of the key reasons people voted to leave is immigration. David Cameron promised in 2010 to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands per year, a policy with which I broadly don’t agree. The promise was reiterated in 2015. The failure to do this was blamed on the EU. Yet we have more immigration from outside of the EU – only slightly more, but still more. Even the immigration over which we already have control has not been reduced to the “tens of thousands” per year. Why not? That is just abject failure and dishonesty on the part of the government – making a promise on which they know they can’t deliver. Then it was used as a stick with which to beat the EU.

Another reason was to vote leave was to save the money contributed to the EU. This rough figure is easy enough to estimate, event if the Leave campaign got it wrong by “forgetting” to subtract the money we get back. Even then the figure doesn’t take into account the benefit to us of being within the single market, the growth in the economy that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Of course, we don’t really know how big that the effect was, we can only speculate. Then the question is, is it worth contributing £160 million per week? If we leave, will we actually save that amount, or will it be eaten away by other costs and expenses?

Perhaps the biggest message was “taking back control”, “loss of sovereignty”, which included immigration. As noted, we couldn’t even reduce the immigration over which we already did have control. In my life in Britain, I’ve never lived in a place where my vote in a general election had any effect. Growing up in South Wales, Labour would always win. Since I started work, I’ve only lived in constituencies where the Conservatives always win. Under the first past the post system, I vote, but it has no effect. Conversely, my MEP is elected by proportional representation. We are largely governed by the privately educated; the head of state inherits his or her position, and the second chamber of parliament is full of appointees. I don’t want to give more power to this leadership – the EU is more democratic.

I subscribe to the Economist. One article referred to a report written by the Open Europe, which I downloaded and read significant parts of. It seemed to be the most balanced analysis of the impact of the UK leaving the EU. It also contains what I feel to be a key statement:

“If the UK puts as much effort into reforming the EU as it would have to in order to make a success of Brexit, the UK and the EU would both be far better off.”

To make the most “success” out of leaving, we would have to abolish or reduce regulations on subjects like environmental and employment protections and climate change mitigation. Those are not topics on which I wish to see less regulation. Over many important aspects of decision making, we already had control – it was our own government not the EU that dictated our position. The EU was just a scapegoat.

Instead of making a concerted effort to make a better EU, years of effort will now be put into unnecessary legal process and trade negotiations. This could take the best part of a decade, the only winners out of which will be the lawyers, politicians, trade negotiators and accountants. Maybe some company board members will accrue a few more millions as a result of reduced employment and environmental legislation. It looks like we’ll get a watered down version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which British representatives helped to draft. According to this entry at the British Library, “British representatives were frustrated that it had moral but no legal obligation” at the time of the original drafting. It sounds suspiciously like we think it’s good enough for everyone but us.

One of the biggest frustrations for me is that no leading campaigner had any specific plans for leaving. There are innumerable options, with various pros and cons, some of which outlined in the Open Europe report. People voted to leave on the expectation that some or other promises would be delivered. In reality, none of them may be: if we end up with a Norway type deal for instance.

Continually, throughout the campaign, I saw people repeating the myths and legends about the EU. The cabbage regulations, the lack of democracy, the £350 million a week we would save. I did think that at least leaving would mean people would stop blaming the EU for everything, but in the aftermath of the vote I realize that even this hope will probably be in vain.

You might have noticed that I haven’t used the term “Brexit”. I can’t bring myself to regularly use that word, because to me it trivializes the whole issue, reduces the impact of the decision to an easily digested soundbite. It’s symptomatic of the whole simplistic leave rhetoric.

Right now, it is quite common to see pro-leave opinion pointing out that the worst predictions of the effects of leaving the EU have not come to pass. This amazes me – not only have we not left; we have not even started the process of leaving; not even decided when to start the process of leaving (by invoking article 50). We could be sitting around in five years time and still wondering if we have actually, really left. I hope we avoid the worst possible outcomes of leaving the EU, but to do so I think we will have to disappoint many who voted leave on the basis of promises impossible to keep.