Brexit: what it should have been and what it has become

Banksy does Brexit by Duncan Hall via Flickr

Although I voted in the referendum I have always been sceptical of the use of referenda. The reason I believe them unconstitutional is the same reason I voted Leave: parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament is not sovereign if it is subordinated by a foreign body just as it is not sovereign if it is at the mercy of a popular vote on any given issue. As Thatcher perceptively observed in 1975, echoing Attlee’s warning thirty years previous, referenda are “a device of dictators and demagogues.” Far better, I say, that our exit should have come about through a genuinely Eurosceptic Conservative Party accountable by an actual a manifesto launched on the back of serious, analytical research into the withdrawal process.

On separate occasions I have asked guest speakers of the Durham Union Society, such as a representative of the Institute of Economic Affairs, whether they regretted our mode of exit. Unanimously, they dismissed my concerns as irrelevant, and yet I cannot help believing that I’m right in thinking that the referendum, as a legislative instrument, is alien to our constitutional process whilst also being distinctly ill-fitted to the job of guiding the government through landmark decisions.

Casting your minds back to the period after the referendum, you’ll remember the initial weeks of shock, economic panic, months of legal debate, and intra-party turmoil which rapidly ate away at the time left to negotiate a deal. I suspect all of this would have been much diminished by a less volatile parliamentary election of a Eurosceptic party in which accountability for their statements reduced the demagoguery and resulting social divisions. A binary vote necessarily splits the electorate along more extreme lines than, say, a manifesto advocating to leave the political and legal jurisdiction of the EU but maintenance of close economic ties through a customs union.

I don’t think I’m alone in growing utterly bored by the ongoing debate over Brexit. I almost instinctively switch off when I hear some political has-been or jolly newcomer enter the fray trying to find something novel in a well-worn rut. Ah, look, it’s another Remain campaigner telling us we should have a second-I-mean-first referendum on the deal. But isn’t that the same one who pointed out the hypocrisy of Leave voters who wanted to uphold parliamentary sovereignty by leaving the EU yet demanded parliament uncritically accept the result? Yes, but in a world of unaccountability, who cares whether they, having championed parliamentary sovereignty in the scrutiny of Brexit, now want to violate parliamentary sovereignty with another referendum, and further embarrass the lofty principle by sacrificing it to the EU?

As it stands, Britain appears to be on the back foot of the negotiations which are increasingly coming to revolve around the border of Northern Ireland and our fundamental economic relationship with the EU. Only from such a weak starting position, and under such a weak government, could we be on the back foot in this negotiation. The EU faces serious challenges in the Eurosceptic coalition in Italy, the unwillingness of Poland and Hungary to press on with closer integration, and the general economic malaise of the Mediterranean, and yet we seem like the weaker party in this negotiation.  I don’t think there would be a chance of us joining the thing if we were currently on the outside, and yet so many are fighting to keep us from leaving now that we are on the inside.

Apart from some unsuccessful Unionist tariff movements in the early twentieth century, free trade has been an accepted principle in British politics since the mid-nineteenth century. It seems balmy that this principle has so effortlessly and quietly been stripped from our politics and replaced by a confusing protectionism covering the European continent. As the ability to trade freely was never the principle aim in leaving, and I don’t consider undue obedience to the market a healthy relationship, I’m not as adamant about leaving every economic entanglement with the EU as others might be. But I think, in principle, Remain voters like Phillip Hammond would agree with a move towards free trade if it weren’t for the obstacle of the EU. It has become an all-too-easy norm we have lazily sunken into like one of those incredibly comfy couches which tempt you into an afternoon snooze.

“Bon voyage” by muffinn via Flickr

Whilst there are some fanatics like Heseltine and Blair who would have us in the Euro and signed up to the whole political project, I don’t think there’d ever be more than a small minority who’d actively advocate fully immersing ourselves in the EU. We’ve common law, constitutional monarchy, the Commonwealth, an unwritten constitution, our own, historic, union of nations, and a long-standing currency coupled with one of the strongest financial service markets in the world; the political and economic aspects of our society are quite distinct from the continent. What many people, I believe, have failed to separate in this debate, is the cultural identification with Europe and the natural instinct to align ourselves in international efforts with Europe, with the economic and political integration of the EU.

It is possible to value the linguistic, geographic, historic, religious, artistic, musical, and ethical links, which bind us together, as well as international efforts like peace and global warming, whilst at the same time holding in contempt the project to incrementally morph each nation state into one, or at least inextricably bind their political and economic systems.

So, what is the point of saying all this? The point is that many of the difficulties we have in the current negotiation is a consequence of our mode of exit which has forced an ill-prepared, hurried, and politically unstable government, unaccountable to the promises of the referendum and unsure as to the details of the public’s demand, into these negotiations. It is also the consequence of fundamental divisions in our society which, I believe, were never necessary and would have been less pronounced within the boundaries of a more moderate, less heated general election. Moreover, these negotiations should not be as one-sided as they appear to be, with Britain seeming to grumble then concede ground whilst a disunified EU manages to be unreasonably stubborn and, with regards to the Northern Ireland border, rather useless.

I recognise it is all very well saying this in hindsight, but I am convinced that electing a Eurosceptic party, on the back of a well-researched manifesto subject to the scrutiny of a general election, would have mitigated extreme social divisions, better prepared ourselves for this process, and would have put us in a more favourable negotiating position due to a stronger political position in parliament. I recognise, however, the major flaws in this argument are how I’ve assumed the Tories would have been able to unite themselves on this historically divisive issue and how I’ve then assumed this would have gotten them elected into government. My inadequate answer is that it would have taken time, that we would not be leaving, if we do at all, in 2019.

It would have taken time for the electorate to become sufficiently disenchanted with the European project to change the political landscape enough to the point where there was a parliamentary majority for some sort of departure. It would have taken time to research and draw up a comprehensive manifesto which adequately presented, to the electorate, a plan to leave. Yet, despite this, the time it would have taken would have made possible an advantageous and constitutional manner by which we could have left the EU.

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