Further thoughts on Brexit

June 25, 2016

Two days after the results of the Brexit referendum, and a shell-shocked Britain tries to come to terms with what it’s done. While team Remain are understandably dumbfounded at the result, anecdotal evidence suggests some Leave voters are also surprised and dismayed at the extent of the devastation they’ve triggered (without, in many cases, much real understanding of what they were doing).

So, what next?

Things look pretty dire, admittedly, and dark forces of racism and xenophobia have been unleashed that might be hard to muzzle. But I believe there are grounds for optimism. Granted, they involve donning a pair of fairly heavily rose-tinted spectacles, making some sweeping assumptions about the way the worlds of business and politics mesh, and hoping for the best. But I do not believe they can be entirely discounted.

Yesterday evening (the day of the result) I marshalled my thoughts a little and came up with the following line of reasoning:

Everyone is shocked by this, including a number of Leave voters. There are factions within the EU who want us out now but Cameron is evidently not willing to start the process, believing it to be a matter for his successor. However, it will be several months before he is replaced, in which time there will be uncertainty and economic damage. Maybe some companies will announce plans to move out of the UK (or maybe to Scotland…) resulting in job losses.

All this chaos and uncertainty may cause some soul-searching amongst those who voted for it; it wasn’t what they were expecting, or promised – buyers’ remorse may set in. The age group which voted most strongly for “leave” was the oldest, who will have to spend the least time living with the aftermath, whereas 16 and 17-year olds (the age group who will be most affected) didn’t get the vote; the unfairness of this may become increasingly acknowledged. People will also be discovering that EU grants on which their region was relying may now not be forthcoming; subsidies for farmers will be affected, and the economic carnage will cause consternation for those whose pension funds are caught up in it.

Thus we may find that, as long as formal leaving procedures are not triggered, the appetite for triggering them will diminish until the point at which a face-saving statement confirming that the British government will not be applying to leave the EU after all would be treated with sighs of relief.

The political blogger Jack of Kent made much the same point today – his view was that since the leaving process (triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty) wasn’t triggered immediately, it will get less and less likely that it will actually happen.

Today, I have been reflecting further on the issue, and I can offer the following additional observations:

I am not privy to the workings of government or big business, so this is conjecture on my part, but since none of what is happening now is good for business I would be very surprised if business leaders were not intensively lobbying the government to bring some clarity to the situation i.e. “shit or get off the pot”. Publicly, they’re saying the process should not be rushed – I bet privately they’re urging the saner members of the Government to try to find a way to get out of it.

The problem that the Government has is that they can’t definitely commit to triggering Article 50. It’s not enough just to say “this will be triggered at some point” because that doesn’t end the uncertainty. They’d have to specify a date, but this can’t be before Cameron actually goes (because he’s said he won’t do it and I think it’s very unlikely he’d start something he can’t finish), and it can’t be after he goes (because no-one knows who will follow him, and it’s obviously unfair to tie the hands of his successor with something as delicate and irreversible as this). Therefore I don’t think they could actually give a date for this. But without a date, uncertainty and economic damage will continue. The only course of action that seems to make any kind of sense would be for the government to commit to not triggering Article 50.

Another reason why I think Article 50 will not be triggered is simpler – they’re all frit. Given the way in which the whole situation has gone south in the past 48 hours and the potential for a significant shift in public opinion over the coming weeks, as we get a foretaste of the likely consequences without actually leaving, by the time anyone is in a position to do anything about it, the more foolhardy it will seem. I’m sure someone like Farage would do it in a trice, because he’s a buffoon and this is his life’s work, but he’s never going to be in a position to make it happen. So it would have to be Johnson, or May, or whoever is the next Tory leader. I’d guess that most of them knew that the Leave propaganda they were pushing was essentially bullshit; force them to affirm the truth of it by actually pulling the trigger and they’ll bottle it.

To be sure, we’re not going to get out of this lightly. The vote has wrought significant economic carnage and, worse than that, has liberated racist and xenophobic sentiments that we liked to hope (or kid ourselves) had faded away. It may be that many Leavers will renounce their decision now that they’ve learned that some of Vote Leave’s key talking points (e.g. “£350m / week more for NHS”) were essentially lies, but that will leave behind the hard-core of Vote Leave supporters who will react quite badly to the idea that they’ve been betrayed. The politician who sticks their neck out and declares that we’re not going to leave after all will require round-the-clock security for a considerable time.

But, as they say about substance addiction, sometimes you’ve got to hit rock bottom before you’ll make the effort to change. The events of recent days have shown the UK hitting rock bottom – in our behaviour, in our politics, in our relationship with the world. Whatever happens, we’re going to come out of this damaged, the only question is by how much, with the “minimal damage” option being “commit to never invoking Article 50”. But some good may still come of it. It is just possible that the triumvirate of Mail, Express and Sun, the main populist cheerleaders for Brexit, may have pushed their luck too far. They advised their readers to vote for leaving, their readers voted, chaos ensued and Vote Leave pledges were rowed back, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some of their readers might have got the feeling they’ve been cheated. If it becomes generally accepted that we came close to committing economic suicide on the basis of people believing fantasies peddled in the press, it might prompt some healthy evaluation of whether they actually play a useful role in a modern democracy.