Hello, it’s been a little while…
So, this is it. Theresa May has signed the letter, and the two years of negotiations to take the UK out of the European Union begin.
The UK is leaving the European Union.
The UK is leaving the EU.
I still can’t quite get my head around that sentence. It just seems weird (as well as catastrophically wrong). We’ve been part of the EEC/EU all my life, it’s just been normal to me that that’s how things have been. It’s not been a bad thing, I can’t think of any time when I’ve thought “damn you, EU” and shook an angry fist in the vague direction of Brussels. To think that in two years’ time that won’t be the case just seems strange.
But leave we will, assuming that the negotiations don’t go pear-shaped and we end up not leaving (well, a man can dream, can’t he?). And if Theresa May and the right wing of the Conservative party get their way, it will be a hard, non-Single Market Brexit.
I actually, genuinely don’t understand it.
I don’t understand why David Cameron called the referendum in the first place. Sure, if you asked people if they wanted a referendum, they answered “yes”. But my understanding is that when people ranked how important EU membership was to them, it never ranked as a particularly important issue. Essentially, then, we’ve been railroaded into this by a few people for whom leaving the EU was an obession. Cameron appears to have been frightened by them and so called the referendum.
Which he lost. And then ran away from. And Mrs May took over. And that’s where things get interesting, and more than a little depressing…
The aftermath of the Referendum
Now we get to the part that makes me even more puzzled and, if I’m honest, slightly sad and angry about: what happened between the referendum result and the triggering of Article 50 that happened today.
The result of the referendum was close: 52-48. This was by no means an overwhelming majority in favour of Brexit; this was a close call.
But somehow, this got taken up by those most in favour of Brexit and labelled “the will of the people”, as if this was a unanimous, or near-unanimous, vote in favour of leaving. It wasn’t; nowhere near it.
But the loudest Brexit voices were the ones that prevailed. Only the bald fact that Leave won the referendum mattered. That 48% who voted against – over 16 million people – didn’t count. The people had spoken, the narrative went, with one voice: we want out.
Now, you might think given the closeness of the vote, that a wise and sensible government would tread cautiously. The outcome of the vote, and the sheer divisiveness of the campaign, showed a country that was deeply split, almost down the middle. Surely, in these circumstances, the best thing to do was for Mrs May and the government to seek consensus, to move slowly, to try and work to bring on board those of us who had voted Remain. There would no doubt be some, perhapd many, who would refuse. But that was no reason not try. If Mrs May was serious about the “Unionist” part of the “Conservative and Unionist” party she boasted she belonged to in her speech on taking up office, surely reaching out to Remain-voters, seeking to include them and their wishes and preferences in what came next would’ve gone a long way to healing some of those deep divisions.
In a similar way, Mrs May could’ve respected the fact that Scotland voted Remain and worked closely with Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government to find a way of dealing with Brexit that could have accommodated them. This was surely especially important, given the fact that the SNP would surely be looking to use the Brexit vote as a trigger for a second referendum (which, of course, they did; and while I fervently hope Scotland stays in the UK, I can’t say I blame them).
And in dealing with the EU post-referendum, surely seeking to maintain the best possible relations with the 27 countries with whom we’ll have to negotiate was the best way forward. The message to Brussels and those 27 countries should surely have been, “While we intend to enact the result of the referendum, we recognise it is vital for the UK and the EU to come to the best possible agreement to allow us both to flourish after Brexit. We therefore intend to work closely with our partners and friends in the EU to ensure that what emerges from the Article 50 negotiations will be as mutually beneficial to us all as possible, allowing us to continue to work closely together post-Brexit”. Or even just, “sorry! It’s not you, it’s us”.
Brexit became “the will of the people”, as noted above. Ardent hard-Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, were appointed to the cabinet in key positions. Theresa May tried to ignore her previous pro-Remain sentiment and made hard Brexit her priority: “Brexit means Brexit”, apparently. She needlessly sidelined and antagonised Scotland and paid little or no attention to Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party conference that autumn at times represented a giant two fingers stuck up at the rest of the EU. No one in the government showed any appreciation of the deep divisions in the country, or the effects that rushing headlong into a hard Brexit would have on Scotland and the rest of the EU.
Surely Labour could be relied on to stop this? I mean, they campaigned in favour of remaining, didn’t they?
No, they didn’t. Jeremy Corbyn wanted to be nuanced and to show himself as anything but an uncritical supporter of the EU (especially given his previous anti-EU stance). But he just came across as lukewarm and not caring. While arguments still rage about how effectively he campaigned (and the point is well made that Labour voters voted largely in favour of Remain – a point we’ll come on to shortly), it has to be said he helped contribute to a sense that the pro-Remain campaign was half-hearted and more interested in poiting out the dangers of leaving the EU, rather than positively making the case for staying in.
Then Corbyn appeared to call for Article 50 to be triggered now, and praised Gisela Stuart for her role in leading the Leave campaign. Really? What kind of message does that send to Labour MPs and members who campaigned for Remain, as they thought their leader was, and who were left devastated by the result?
Then came the Parliamentary bill to trigger Article 50. And we must pause here and consider the supreme irony of Brexiteers who had campaigned for the UK Parliament to be sovereign once more (which it was anyway), opposing one measure that would ensure that sovereignty was a reality.
But back to Labour. They put up all sorts of amendments designed to protect the rights of EU citizens still living here, ensure that Parliament got a say on the final deal etc. They were all rejected. So, having seen these presuambly crucial amendments voted down, did Labour vote against the bill on the grounds that, while they respected the result of the referendum, to support Brexit in this way would go against what the party believed to be important?
They did not. They were whipped into voting in favour of the bill.
I cannot believe the immense stupidity of this decision. Still. Labour was cowed by that “will of the people” line, forgetting that 48% of the vote was for remaining; forgetting that between 60-70% of their own supporters had voted Remain – and were now effectively unrepresented by their own party. Theresa May now had and has a free hand. Corbyn and Labour have said “the fight starts now” (ha!) and of the tests that the eventual deal must pass in order for them to accept it.
But it’s too late. It’s. Too. Late. They’ve given May and the hard Brexiteers a free hand. How can they oppose it now? In voting in favour of Article 50, even without those amendments, they’ve effectively said “go ahead, Theresa, do what you will”. If they raise a squeak of protest, or try to vote against, they’ll be laughed at: “why didn’t you vote against Article 50 in the first place” is the obvious retort, “it’s too late now”.
Corbyn blew it. Big time.
So, effectively, the 48% – 48%, a huge percentage – who support Remain are unrepresented. The Lib Dems, always a pro-EU party, are making a lot of noise and rightly so; the Greens are pro-EU. But aside from them and the SNP’s MPs, that’s still considerably less than 100 MPs giving any voice to the concerns of those who voted Remain. In a democracy (which doesn’t mean “winner takes all”, despite what many Brexiters seem to think), for 48% of those who voted to be effectively told, “sorry, you lost” is unthinkable.
There are two messages that have been directed at Remainers who dare to speak against what’s happening. One is, “You lost, get over it”: as if the fact we lost one vote means we should shut up forever (because when one party loses a general election, they just nod everything the new government does through… oh wait: they don’t!). The other is something along the lines of, “we need to pull together, put aside our differences, and all work together to make Brexit work.”
Well, sorry, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t spend nine months rubbishing 48% of the electorate, telling us we’re “Remoaners”, traitors, unpatriotic, that our votes don’t count… and then suddenly expect us to forget it all and come on board with something we profoundly disagree with. If you’d wanted us to be on board, you should’ve respected us, listened to us, worked to understand why we voted the way we did (48% =/= a “liberal, metropolitan elite”) and try and include our deep, deep concerns in formulating your Brexit plans.
Of course, the bogey-man (or party) in this are UKIP, who have gained a power and influence on Brexit and the British political scene far beyond their support in the country. Until the weekend, they only had one MP. Their figurehead (even if he’s not their leader any more) has never won a UK parliamentary election. And yet the Tories and Labour act as if UKIP have this vast power to destroy them. Every action the two main parties have taken since the referendum has been with at least one eye on UKIP in general and Nigel Farage in particular. It’s been utterly astonishing to see the two parties work in such utter fear of such a small political party, simply because their former leader is good at pretending to speak for the ordinary people of the UK.
And if I say any more about UKIP, I might say something I’ll regret…
So I’ll leave it at that. This isn’t a systematic analysis of why we’ve come to this point, it’s not an unbiased account: I want us to stay in the EU and I hope beyond hope that something will happen in the next 2 years that will make that inevitable. It’s a part-rant, part-expression of utter disbelief at what has happened and the incredible (in the literal sense of that word) decisions, mis-steps and mistakes that have been taken since the referendum.
Thank you for reading it.