On June 23rd 2016 one of the most important political events, certainly in recent British political history, occurred when the best part of 34 million British citizens went to the polls to vote in a referendum. This was no ordinary referendum. It had been promised to the people of Great Britain in the 2015 General Election as part of the Conservative Party manifesto and would give the electorate of the United Kingdom a simple choice – whether to Remain as members of the European Union (EU) or Leave. The UK had joined the EU in 1992 as a result of agreeing the Maastricht Treaty that set out the terms of joining and the referendum of 2016 was to be the first opportunity since 1992 for the British people to voice an opinion on what we thought of that membership, if we thought it was of benefit to us and so, if we wanted to stay or leave. It was to prove to be hugely divisive in British society. Divisions that exist still, four months on. More of that later.
Holding this referendum was conditional upon the Conservatives winning the Election in 2015 which they duly did with a majority of 12 in the House of Commons and true to his word, Prime Minister David Cameron put before Parliament the necessary proposal to enact an Act of Parliament to enable the referendum to take place. This proposal was accepted by the House with a vote of all members recording a 6:1 agreement to pass the European Referendum Act 2015 into statute. In February 2016 Cameron announced that the EU Referendum would be held on June 23rd 2016.
There was an almost immediately tangible political buzz on this announcement as various people, groups and factions began to position themselves as either Leavers or Remainers. UKIP leader Nigel Farage adopted an almost permanent grin on his face as 20 years of effort to bring this referendum to pass had borne fruit. Campaign teams began to assemble and despite Farage’s notable presence in the forefront of this issue in the minds of the British public, he was not invited to join the Leave campaign and so continued on a path he was used to, namely his own lone furrow.
Sketchy outlines of each side’s argument began to emerge but the salient point was that Cameron’s Government position would be a recommendation to Remain but Ministers were allowed to hold the opposing view. Eventually each side assembled its groups for the battle ahead with Cameron and George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, leading the main thrust of the Remain campaign and a formidable team of Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Gisela Stewart and finally Boris Johnson for the Leave campaign. Johnson’s decision to join the Leave side was a setback for the Remain team that for some time they struggled to come to terms with. Johnson is a hugely recognisable figure in British politics and his presence on the campaign stump was always going to draw large crowds.
As the campaign swung into full force, it carried along the electorate that was beginning to take sides and form opinions. This began to pit parents against their adult children, friends in the pub against one another, workmates for and against and inevitably, corporates versus corporates, so called experts versus experts. The language of debate became more and more hostile as the volume of the rhetoric was pumped up and up. Claims and counter claims were made, exaggerations and lies were promulgated, TV audiences participated in vociferous televised debates, the media became fixed in their various positions, Leave or Remain as a number of set positions began to emerge. The Remain campaign focused on a position of frightening the British people with prognostications of economic doom and gloom and advice to the electorate that the UK could not survive economically outside of the EU, drawing on a plethora of ‘experts’ from various fields to back up its argument. Not least of the ‘experts’ embraced by Remain was Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, whose input and doom laden forecasts have been proven to be so manifestly wrong since the referendum but contributed to a lot of potential damage to the UK economy. His position and standing have been called into question on many occasions subsequently and it is questionable as to whether he will survive or even want to. The Leave campaign got itself into a corner by focusing on unwanted and inordinate immigration as a focal point although it tried to turn away from this focus to the cost of membership of the EU, the loss of Parliamentary sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats in the European Courts of Justice and wheeling out its own corporate heads and economic ‘experts’ to counter what was now being dubbed Project Fear from the Remain side. A poster by Farage depicting a never ending trail of migrants was deemed to sum up the Leave side as racists and xenophobes and it took the official Leave campaign some time to extract themselves from Farage’s lone furrow.
The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox a week before the referendum date brought a temporary cessation of hostilities between the two campaigns as Cameron called for a stop to campaigning out of respect for Mrs. Cox and her family. It almost succeeded in shaping a better approach by each side as tributes in the House to Mrs. Cox as a fine constituency MP focused minds on important matters like life and death. This lull was only very temporary though and in the last two days of campaigning on the 21st and 22nd of June both sides ratcheted up the rhetoric to a final crescendo of noise and final pitches to the electorate.
And so came Thursday 23rd June 2016. Referendum Day.
At 10pm that night, the polls closed and counting began. The TV studios were abuzz with comment, opinion, presentations as to winning positions. Pretty well anything to fill the time until the first results were announced. Gibraltar was first with a resounding Remain result. As Spain is literally its hostile next door neighbour, this result was a foregone conclusion – keep in the loving embrace of Blighty but don’t upset the neighbours.
Farage was interviewed and in the only time he has ever been heard to be negative about a possible defeat, he opined that maybe Remain had just won.
Then came the explosion from the North East of England with Sunderland declaring a massive win for Leave and we thought to ourselves, “hello, what’s happening here?” Sunderland was soon followed by another huge win for Leave from Hartlepool in the North East, a narrow win for Remain in Newcastle and so the seesaw sprang into action with sage comment from pundits, professors and politicians of varying hues. Throughout the campaign, the Labour Party had sent mixed and confusing messages to its supporters and Jeremy Corbyn was presented as being luke warm on the issue although he was loosely associated with Remain but was deemed to be a liability to the cause. So it proved, as more and more Labour voting constituencies voted to Leave. The subsequent position of Labour wanting a second referendum was a thorough slap in the face for diehard Labour supporters who clearly favoured Leave. Labour is managing to shoot itself in the foot in many ways in the UK but this lack of identification with its own grass roots might prove to be adefining moment in the long term demise of the Party.
Throughout the night the results came in and a common factor in them all was the sheer number of votes cast. The British had taken this referendum very seriously.
London went almost totally to Remain, Wales almost totally to Leave. The North West to Remain, the Midlands to Leave. Scotland to Remain, Northern Ireland to Remain and still the pendulum ticked inexorably back and forth until it started to emerge that Remain didn’t have enough strongholds left to win and eventually at about 5am, David Dimbleby announced in sonorous tones on the BBC that ‘the United Kingdom has voted to Leave the EU’.
Quick camera shots of the devastation at Remain HQ, jubilation at Leave HQ and Farage announcing June 23rd 2016 as the UK’s Independence Day with a huge beaming smile on his face.
Leave had won by 51.9% of the vote to 48.1% of the vote on a turnout of about 72% and numbers of 17.4m Leave to 16.1m Remain.
You might have been forgiven for thinking that was that. In General Elections, a winning party is announced, you have a moment’s disappointment if you have lost but know that in five years time you can redress the situation. Maybe because everyone was given to understand that this was a once in a lifetime decision and that the result would be carried forward by the Government as final, the whole process and outcome was seen as far more important than even a General Election. A sense of mourning seem to envelop the Remain camp as with a death in the family. The Leave campaign couldn’t understand the problem and the sense of inaction was added to by Cameron’s immediate resignation leaving a vacuum at the heart of Government and a requirement for the Conservative Party to elect a new leader and thus, a new Prime Minister. In the UK a General Election is not called on the resignation of a Prime Minister as our electoral system chooses a party to lead the country, not a person and so having chosen the Conservatives in 2015, all that was required was for the Conservatives to choose a new leader. Relatively easy with the Conservatives but never bloodless as there is a sort of ruthless efficiency with which they do it. A few worthy candidates stood up to the plate for scrutiny and it looked at one time as if it might take until September for a new leader to be chosen. There was blood letting between Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, Osborne didn’t stand and a few of the Leave campaign worthies like Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom did but all were struggling in the wake of Theresa May who eventually won without a fight when the last person standing, Andrea Leadsom, dropped out graciously admitting that May was the better option.
And so by early July, the UK had a new PM who immediately set to work but not before declaring on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street that “Brexit means Brexit” and that the UK would be leaving the EU and we would “make a success of it”.
Well, that’s alright then isn’t it? All over. Arguments made. Decisions taken and the UK will sail serenely on in our ship of state with no trouble. Everyone is now happy, Brussels accepts the will of the British people and all in the garden is rosy.
And here 4 months later we get to the really crucial aspect of post referendum Britain.
Many notable Remain people do not accept the result, consider the referendum an exercise to advise the Government, say that the electorate didn’t understand the issues (the Leave electorate not the Remain electorate that is) and that a second referendum should be held so that the error of the Leave thinking can be explained more fully. In the meantime, the Leave voters have been branded as too old and too uneducated to understand, too racist and xenophobic to grasp how little Englander they all sound and isolationists shutting up shop to the European continent and to the World and retreating into a muddled huddle because they failed to follow the message from the educated elite of the UK. None of this thinking, it would appear, was applied to Remain voters. The pound plunged in value against the dollar and euro although it has since been shown that most of this was due to the over valuation of sterling and clear short selling on currency exchanges by investors who made overnight fortunes. The stock market also dropped considerably and the media purveyors of Project Fear could be heard saying “I told you so” only for sterling to rally somewhat and the FTSE to take off to record levels as the low sterling exchange rate made exports much cheaper – a classic example of devaluation making goods and services more competitive in a free market. On an almost daily basis, sections of the media and so called political commentators have sought to endlessly re-run the referendum campaign. There doesn’t seem to be a piece on the BBC News that is not prefixed or suffixed with terms like ‘post Brexit’ or ‘since the referendum’ endlessly relating anything of a political or economic nature to the referendum. The BBC in a recent piece by Norman Smith, its Assistant Political Editor, had Smith waving The Guardian (the BBC’s newspaper of choice) highlighting an article about Theresa May talking some time before the referendum of the dangers of leaving the EU. Now we also have the unedifying spectacle of a former, discredited PM, Tony Blair not only calling for a second referendum but also the formation of some kind of ‘insurgent’ (Blair’s word) movement to subvert the will of the British people and overturn the result. ‘Subvert’ is a word that conjures up aspects of sedition which in turn means ‘to plot to overturn the lawful government of the day’. Hitherto, this would have been deemed treasonous and at the very least, attempts to incite potentially illegal behaviour should be worthy of some sort of sanction. As with his highly debatable actions over the Iraq war though, it would seem that Mr. Blair has some sort of Teflon coating.
Nowhere has there been a more determined effort to thwart the referendum result than in Scotland. You may recall the SNP view of referenda in the 2014 independence referendum when it was described as a ‘once in a generation’ decision. It would appear that SNP generations don’t last very long because independence from the UK is now back on the table because the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, believes that as Scotland voted by 62% to 38% to Remain in the EU, Scotland is being taken out of the EU against her will. The logic of this position has come in for much comment and none more so than at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House when Theresa May pointed out to Angus Robertson, the Leader of the SNP contingent in the House, that had Scotland succeeded in leaving the UK, she would have had to leave the EU. She asked Mr. Robertson to make up his mind at which juncture he sat down and asked no more questons. Northern Ireland, that also voted to Remain, has been far more sensible. Having had discussions between the various parties at Stormont they have adopted a rational view to get behind the Westminster Parliament and see leaving the EU as a major opportunity for growth.
The continued debate seems now to centre around whether we should somehow stay in the EU’s fabled single market. To do so would require our acquiescence to the free movement of labour from the EU which runs entirely counter to the proposition that the UK should regain control of its own borders and be the sole arbiter of who should and who should not, come into this country. The only dissenting employee voice of News editorial position at the BBC, Andrew Neill, on his Daily Politics show endlessly asks those that proffer this view to explain to him how we can stay in the single market without agreeing to free movement. Neill is nothing but dogged and often asks the question several times of his guests before eventually giving up when no plausible answer is forthcoming. Just after the referendum result one of Neil’s acolytes on the show, Isabel Oakeshott, recounted to Andrew being sent by her paper to Remain HQ prior to June 23rd to ask the simple, but somewhat fundamental question of them “can you give me 5 good reasons why the UK should remain in the EU?” She was as shocked as Neill was when she told him that they could not. You would have thought that this would ave been a well rehearsed message of some clarity, but apparently not.
The continued rumblings of discontent with the result go unabated in the House and much of this centres around the timetable for our exit. Mrs. May has now said that she will trigger Article 50, the legal mechanism whereby talks begin with Brussels on the terms of our departure before the end of March 2017 with full exit to occur under the terms of Article 50 no later than two years hence. Agitators from both sides of the House have asked for details of what those talks will include but the PM has been resolute in her simple statement that she does not intend to give a running commentary to the House on what the thinking is of the Government’s negotiating position. This has caused sufficient angst among MPs that they are demanding a vote not only on triggering Article 50 but also on the format of the Government’s position. This argument has also gone to the High Court for a ruling on whether the Government can invoke Royal prerogative, I.e making an executive decision without reference to Parliament, and invoke Article 50. This is seen by many as a further attempt by Remain minded MPs to subvert the will of the British people and overturn the referendum result. A decision on that is expected from the Court shortly. It will undoubtedly lead to an appeal to the Supeme Court adding to the discontent mounting in the Leave voter’s minds. As well as a lot of the negative nonsense spoken in the last few months, not least of which by Europhile Conservative MPs who really should be looking at themselves in the context of the opportunity the new administration under Mrs. May affords the country and their party, some bright spots of positive, well informed thinking is beginning to emerge.
In this context, none more so than a brilliant lecture given by the eminent British investor, Jim Mellon, to a group of German investors in October. His speech should be required reading/listening to all those who agitate for another referendum or our continued participation in the EU. Earlier in this piece, you may recall me mentioning Isabel Oakeshott’s shock at the lack of insight displayed by the Remain HQ itself on why we should continue with our place in the EU. None of them could give 5 good reasons to Remain. Mr. Mellon gave plenty in one, 48 minute presentation.
It is not my intention to run counter to my own disquiet at the perpetual re-running of the referendum by disaffected Remain malcontents, but some of the points Mellon made need to be seriously considered because of the short and medium term prospects for not only this country but for Europe and the World as a whole. In simple terms, the main points were: the referendum was not about immigration or sovereignty (laudable as those considerations may have been), it was about economics as ever (the 20th century US remark “it’s about the economy, stupid” springs to mind); the euro is the most ill conceived economic intervention since the dawn of recognised economics; single handedly it has destituted the Southern EU states and caused mass unemployment there particularly for the youth of those states; the one size fits all model of German imposed fiscal rules has only benefited Germany as the other states find themselves, therefore, with an over valued euro when a devalued drachma, peseta, lira, franc or escudo would have enabled them to compete as the UK has found since June 23rd; France and Italy in particular have such a high level of irredeemable debt that they are effectively bankrupt which added to zero growth for both since the 1990s underlines that the protectionist, uncompetitive nature of the EU renders the single market a moribund trading disaster; the euro will last another 1-5 years and after that if nothing is done beforehand, the Eurozone will go into a deep depression with banks having to be nationalised as countries try to rebuild an economic base with a reversion to their old currencies and a need to develop new trade agreements with the rest of the World – all of this from the ashes of the euro. Quite where the EU will be in all this remains to be seen but our departure from it now means that, as Mellon so eloquently puts it, we at least will be in the lifeboat as the EU super liner sinks in the English Channel. We are getting out in the nick of time. We probably won’t be the last but whether others will follow soon enough to save themselves, remains to be seen.
Quite how long it will take the UK to recover from the bitterly devisive EU Referendum is another question. I’m not sure if we can stand another two years of bitter infighting, re-running the arguments for and against the decision to Leave or failing to embrace, collectively, the huge opportunities we now have in front of us. If we can put to one side the insular vested interests of ill considered SNP rhetoric, of calls to insurgency by disreputable former PMs, of Parliamentary challenges to our Conservative Government, of legal semantics played out in the High Court, corporates blaming Brexit for their own failings, social elites denying the existence of large swathes of the country and families once again embracing one another in the bosoms of their parents and children, then we might have a wonderful chance to show the World what a great country this is and that when Great Britain speaks and acts, it may well be worth your while to listen and learn.