Brexit – how on earth did we get to here?
Like all liberals and progressives in Britain today I am devastated by the country’s decision to vote to leave the European Union. I feared this outcome, having had many encounters with people over the years who believed even the most risible claims about the EU. Couple decades of negative stories about Europe with our political age of social media spreading of myths and a lowering of the reputations of political leaders and you have the ground prepared for a combustion of anger against the establishment.
Much will be written in the coming days and in future history books about this momentous decision. Here are my thoughts, written in sadness and after no sleep. These are the factors that occur to me now and no doubt I’ll think of more when my mind is rested and with more time to be reflective.
1 The referendum is a self inflicted wound by David Cameron. There was no pressing national need to vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. He held the referendum to honour a manifesto pledge he never thought he would have to carry out. I’ve painful scars of such pledges myself and the fact that coalition government ended a year ago meant that Cameron became a prisoner of his own eurosceptic backbenchers. The referendum was held because of the long running Euro psychodrama in the Conservative Party and too much of the coverage of the campaign was about the jousting between the two old Etonians who want the Tory crown.
2 The near annihilation of the Liberal Democrats as a Parliamentary force has robbed Britain of its most distinctive and authentic pro European voice just when it was needed the most. The pro Remain arguments from Conservative ministers relied heavily on fear and hyperbole. The Lib Dems wanted to make a positive case for Britain in the EU but were largely ignored by the broadcasters.
3 The biggest political failure was by the Labour Party leadership. Corbyn’s political history is strongly eurosceptic and his campaigning in the referendum was half hearted and mealie mouthed. Some of the biggest votes for Leave came from strong Labour areas. Places like Sunderland, Nottingham and Blackburn are one party states where only Labour MPs and councillors are in positions to give their communities leadership based on facts. Yet Labour MPs seem to have been scared of their own grassroots and for too long failed to answer their real concerns about immigration. The warnings about economic contraction from the government should have been amplified by Labour in their heartlands. In an economic downturn it’s the poor who suffer first and longest. Voting against the EU may be a kick in the shins for the London elite but it’s really an act of self harm. The positive impact of the EU on poorer communities with lower prices on everything from food to Easyjet flights barely featured in the campaign.
4 We are living in an age where it is easy for myth to triumph over reason. Humnanity may have largely discarded belief in omens and the words of soothsayers. But the thundering cascade of information in our internet and social media age has robbed people of the time to sift through the waters and separate the nuggets of fact from the pile of mythical sludge. Financial literacy is too boring for many people to see that Vote Leave’s claim that £350m a week could be spent on the NHS was both wrong and only a small proportion of government spending. Apparently most of our laws come from Brussels (I somehow failed to notice this when making laws for ten years as an MP) and are made by unelected bureaucrats in the EU Commission. Vote Leave got away with dismissing from minds the elected MEPs (like Farrage and Hannan) or the elected Council of Ministers, which include Gove and Grayling. Oh, in this country we usually call unelected bureaucrats who write laws “civil servants”. MPs and ministers who like me had voted on the accession agreements for Bulgaria, Romanian and Croatia told us that they had no say on Turkey joining.
5 Politicians blaming the media is like sailors moaning about the sea. But newspapers have deluged the public with lies about the EU for decades. Their owners (mainly foreign) have their own agendas. But the BBC failed us all by not acting as an arbiter of facts or showing clearly where the balance of opinion lay. Far too often the lies from Vote Leave were reported with a counterpoint from Remain, showing balance but leaving voters none the wiser and wondering who to believe. Remain was backed by huge numbers of business leaders, economists and other financial experts. But balanced reporting giving equal time to Leave’s tiny number of business backers (a vacuum cleaner designer, tractor maker and pub landlord) made it look evens.
So Britain has voted to dislocate itself from the world’s largest single market. We will now bob about between the U.S., China and the EU. We will have a smaller, quieter voice on the world stage. Decades of successful diplomacy building a Europe of 28 free democracies, most of which were fascist or communist dictatorships at our joining the EEC in 1973, has now been cast aside. The Leavers said that our isolation would be splendid. They now have to show us just how we can prosper in safety in a globalising world.
The most prominent Conservative arguing for a “no” vote in the 1975 referendum was Enoch Powell. I quoted him in my concession speech when I lost Bristol West, saying that all political carreers end in failure. David Cameron gambled the future of the country in order to placate his party. He’s lost his bet and will now lose his job. In coalition his government did much good and I think history will judge that period kindly. David is two days older than me. His premiership of a Conservative government will be remembered for making the biggest foreign policy mistake of our lifetimes.