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Historic Failure

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There hasn’t been much rejoicing on the winning side of the EU referendum. How many of them must have spent the weekend thinking: ‘Fuck, what have we done?’ As the pound plummets, Cameron falls on his sword, a clown is set to take over, Corbyn (the only one who put a rational case for the EU, if only the press had bothered reporting it) is stabbed by the Brutuses in his own party, the UK breaks up, region turns against region and generation against generation. I’m embarrassed meeting young people now; I ought to get a badge: ‘I may be an old fart, but I voted Remain.’

Trump and Putin are rubbing their hands in glee, racists and neo-fascists have been encouraged all over Europe, and the rest of the EU looks about to disintegrate. (It won’t give an ‘independent’ UK an easy ride in trade talks, whatever Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson may be saying now.) Brexit leaders are back-pedalling on their most popular claims: no, immigration won’t fall, we’ll just be able (in theory) to ‘control’ it; no, the money we save won’t go to the NHS – we never said it would (they did; it was on the side of their battle bus). None of the leading Brexiters had the least idea what they wanted to succeed Britain-in-Europe, apart from some woolly abstractions – ‘control’, ‘freedom’, ‘greatness’, ‘the good old days’ – and some totally inappropriate models: Canada, Norway, Switzerland. Apparently no thought at all had been put into what would happen next – almost as if they’d never really believed they could win.

Perhaps they never really wanted to win, either. Europhobia was a terrific cause, so long as it remained just that: a one-size-fits-all scapegoat for everything that went wrong, a way to bond people together, giving them a warm feeling of collective injustice, and a means of getting at the toffs and ‘experts’ at the top – without any danger that their wild alternative might be tested. Now it is about to be. And it has come to look far more complicated and difficult than they had assumed – or had fooled their followers that it would be.

Who would have thought that such a small stone flung into the water by a saloon-bar bore like Nigel Farage could cause such giant waves? But the water, however smooth it seemed on the surface, was seething underneath. British society is a reactionary, undemocratic, divisive mess. It has been for some time, but recent Tory cuts exacerbated the problem. The scale of the distrust of and hostility to the ‘establishment’ was – is – unprecedented since the time of the Chartists. Cameron – smooth, superficial, privileged, sheltered and trained in deception (‘public relations’) – couldn’t see that. Hence his richly deserved fate: one of the great historic failures among British prime ministers, following Chamberlain and Eden. And hence also the appalling, scary mess we’re in now: Britain certainly, Europe probably, and possibly the wider world – as Michael Gove’s derided ‘experts’ had predicted all along. Even for the winners, this is hardly a time to rejoice.

I’ve never before heard of a popular referendum, especially one as close and as confused as this, deciding the fate of a country and a continent without further consideration. And perhaps this one won’t either. Cameron has left the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to his successor, who won’t take power till the autumn. A lot can happen between now and then. Doesn’t the ultimate power to withdraw from the EU rest with Parliament? Couldn’t the elected government override the ‘will of the people’ – at least until another referendum can be held, once Farage’s ‘decent people’ have been faced, as they are now, with the reality of an out vote? The government has been all too willing to disregard the popular will in the case of ‘austerity’. Perhaps Cameron doesn’t want to appear a bad loser, though you can be sure the Brexiters would have had no such qualms if the vote had gone the other way.

Comments on “Historic Failure”

  1. streetsj says:

    So many things to disagree about, apart from the “encouragement for racists and fascists”, which is appalling. I don’t think there are any more of them than there were and hopefully they will be squashed by the vast bulk of society which opposes them.
    What the Remainers can’t avoid is that they had so little to say in favour of the EU. The response from the Commission is a reminder why the EU is a rotten institution: they are keener to keep their failing project alive than worry about the impact on their members. Being harsh with the UK will hurt the EU badly too when it can’t afford it and will only fuel further resentment among the other sceptical members.
    It was a weird non-election because the Brexit camp never had any power or authority to carry through with their proposals. Absurd untruths were told on both sides (as they are in every election) – do you trust the electorate to see through them? If you believe in popular democracy you have to (or at least believe, as I do, that the ignorance/misunderstandings roughly cancels otu on either side).
    Bearing all this in mind, it seems to me that the Remain camp should stop wringing its hands, and repeating catastrophic prophesies and start being practical.
    The Brexit vote has no legal standing but Parliament must respond to the vote of the majority. This is a negotiation. Whatever happens it seems unlikely that we will exit the EU within two years. Nothing therefore has changed to impact immigration (except possibly to encourage more people to come here before things do change) and nor will it for some time.
    There is, on the other hand, an immediate impact on the economy as people and businesses plan for the future. I don’t follow the arguments that say we should have a “Norwegian” model or a Swiss or an Albanian – we should have our own model – we are nothing like those other countries. We were already semi-detached from Europe operating outside the Euro in particular. For want of a metaphor I see us moving from our current higher orbit to an even higher one: still part of the same system but less influenced by it.
    There is nothing to stop us retaining all that is good about EU law and no doubt we will start by retaining most of it because it is too big a job to unpick it all. I would like to see, over time, all the law reviewed and largely discarded: so much of it is unnecessary, over complicated and only beneficial to lawyers and big companies.

    In practice I guess we will end up with EEA status (including free movement of labour) – and everyone will be unhappy but it actually won’t be much different from before. (Will Remainers complain that the Brexiters haven’t fulfilled their promises?)

    One last thought – I would like to see our “influence” on the world stage and in Europe driven by other countries wanting to replicate what we do because it is good/successful and not because our diplomats are so clever (are they?) at these international boondoggles.

    • I don’t usually reply to pseudonymous comments, but I feel I need to defend myself against the ‘appalling’ charge here. As is obvious from the context, I wasn’t characterising British Brexiters as ‘racists and fascists’, only pointing out – which is obvious to anyone in touch with Continental politics – that their success, for whatever reason, HAS encouraged ‘racists and fascists’ abroad. There can be no doubt about that.

      • Joe Morison says:

        Not just abroad. This is from today’s Independent:

        The Polish Embassy in London has said it is “shocked and deeply concerned” by reports of xenophobic abuse directed against the Polish community following the Brexit vote.
        Multiple incidents of alleged hate crimes have reported since the Brexit result last week, with claims that immigrants and their descendents are being stopped in the street and “ordered to leave Britain”.

        The Remain campaign has sowed the seeds of hate. What I find really frightening is where these people are going to go when immigration doesn’t fall they realize that they’ve been lied to.

      • streetsj says:

        Sorry my post was not clear – I was agreeing with your complaint about the racists and fascists and calling them appalling not you or your comment.

        My name, not that it means anything, is Jason Streets. Streetsj has been my login for any number of websites. I am in no way trying to hide.

  2. Alan Benfield says:

    “Doesn’t the ultimate power to withdraw from the EU rest with Parliament?”

    My thought exactly.

    And a big note to Messrs Juncker, Schulz, et al., agitating for a quick Art. 50 declaration: this referendum was not binding and any invocation of Art. 50 surely cannot be done without putting a vote to Parliament – if all the bollocks about parliamentary sovereignty spouted by the Brexiteers is actually more than just cant, of course. As a large part of the PLP, half the Tories, a large number of NI pols* and all of the SNP seem to be for remain, I can’t see the Brexiteers winning in parliament… But excuse me for being a constitutionalist…

    A.

    *Most of NI having voted, sensibly enough (as they get shedloads of EU structural cash each year which is unlikely to be replaced by the UK government), to remain.

  3. Joe Morison says:

    Only 37.5% of the total electorate voted Leave. That’s fine for a general election which can be undone in a few years; but that so many of the young, who overwhelmingly supported Remain, should have their futures fucked on such a weak mandate seems absurd.

    Nothing is settled until Article 50 is invoked. If only Alan Johnson would do what duty demands, we could have a stonking Labour majority before the year is out, and a government with the will and mandate to undo this disaster.

  4. rm1 says:

    One is reminded of Brecht on the 1953 uprising in East Germany :
    “Would it not be easier…for the government to dissolve the people and elect another”
    Yes; but if you want that you are not a democrat and if you reject democracy to stay in the EU you are in error because they are not under any analysis of equal value.

  5. “Couldn’t the elected government override the ‘will of the people’?” Yes, it could because our constitution is based on parliamentary rather than popular sovereignty.

    As streetsj notes, “The Brexit vote has no legal standing but Parliament must respond to the vote of the majority”. This is true, but what Parliament giveth it can also taketh away. It cannot be constrained by previous statue.

    The political problem is that by conceding the demand for a referendum, Parliament effectively abdicated responsibility. Undoing this will entail a form of “coup”, in the sense that our recently asserted popular sovereignty must be rejected and parliamentary sovereignty reasserted.

    What Cameron, as much as Johnson and Gove, has done is open a constitutional can of worms. Ironically, the progressive cause (defend popular sovereignty, declare a republic and abolish the House of Lords as inconsistent with it) requires an insistence on the legitimacy of the referendum.

    PS: My real name is Fr. Omar Setoelbow

  6. ianbrowne says:

    It seems extremely unlikely to me that Parliament can simply ignore the result of the vote. Whatever people may think about parliamentary sovereignty and ability of parliament to ignore the results of the referendum, I suspect the consequences of ignoring the vote would be far worse than accepting it applying to leave the EU.

    Not everyone lives in London, and not everyone is an LRB reader. One of the reasons for the out vote seems to have been the sense of exclusion and alienation felt by sections of the population north of Watford. I suspect the degree of alienation felt if Parliament decided that a vote for out actually meant a vote for in, would be incalculable. If Cameron thought he inherited ‘Broken Britain’, we would see something much more ugly surface – a crude anti-establishment, anti-southern populism that was wholly destructive in intent.

    It hasn’t been forgotten that Eddie George said that lost jobs in the North were an “acceptable price to pay to curb inflation in the South”. Many people in the north think this is the prevailing mentality in the south. And ignoring the result of a referendum which obtained a majority in favour of out because people in the south didn’t like it would simply confirm this view. No healthy democracy can afford to ignore the expressed wishes of the majority. Why would anyone ever vote in a referendum again? And please don’t tell me this was “only advisory”. If the intention was to ignore it if it didn’t produce the ‘right’ outcome, what validity did it have in the first place. Why would anyone at all bother to vote under those terms. Indeed people would have to ask themselves why bother to vote in any election, since as Burke pointed out, MPs are free to ignore the wishes of their constituents and vote as they please.

    Here in Europe it is taken as a given that Britain is on its way out. Although I am often reminded that “perfidious” is the adjective most frequently associated with “Albion” in European minds. It would be a profound betrayal of the majority to refuse to trigger Article 50.

    • Joe Morison says:

      ‘Why would anyone ever vote in a referendum again?’ If one effect was to banish referendums from British political life, good; when Churchill suggested a referendum to Attlee about extending the wartime coalition, Attlee replied “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.”

      No one is suggesting sneaking a change undemocratically. We are hoping that by the autumn, enough people have realized what a terrible mistake they have made and that, say, something like 60% in opinion polls are demanding a chance to vote again.

      • Joe Morison says:

        By the way, you say ‘Here in Europe it is taken as a given that Britain is on its way out’. Well, here in Europe, it’s not.

        • ianbrowne says:

          Indeed it is taken as given that Britain is on its way out of Europe, although it has had, in Bernard Ingham’s phrase, a “semi-detached” status since the time of the Bruges speech. The idea that you can hold a referendum, obtain a clear result and then ignore it is hard to understand.
          If I can introduce a historical element, it seems to me that there was no English political enlightenment. I’m sure Bernard Porter is far more knowledgeable than me on this matter, but here in Europe, at some level we have a conception of popular sovereignty, of the Rousseauian idea that sovereignty rests with the people, and is inalienable. As Rousseau said, the English (meaning the British) are free for one day every five years – the day they have an election. For the next four years and 364 days they are slaves. They hand over to Parliament, not simply the ability to exercise the practicalities of political power, but sovereignty. They willingly make themselves slaves. However loosely understood this idea is “in Europe”, of an inalienable sovereignty residing with the people, it is not an idea that seems to have any purchase in the UK. It was Hailsham who described Parliament as an elective dictatorship.
          To obfuscate in the hope of denying to the others the victory they won, to try to overturn that result or to ignore it on the grounds that parliament and not the people are sovereign in Britain would, from my European perspective, simply confirm the views of Rousseau and Hailsham that Britain is an elective dictatorship, and as such unfitted for the 21st century and indeed unfitted to be a member of the EU.
          A few weeks ago Colin Kidd wrote an interesting Diary piece in the LRB about the need for constitutional reform in the UK. He identified some of those elements which hinder Britain’s progress towards becoming an inclusive democratic state, but I don’t think it crossed his mind that Parliament would consider ignoring the results of the referendum if it wasn’t to its liking. In the unlikely event that the out result is ignored, the case for constitutional reform is, it seems to me, unanswerable. And the whole idea of Parliamentary rather than popular sovereignty needs to be thrown away, and left in the eighteenth century, where it belongs, along with the House of Lords, and the whole panoply of rigmarole that makes the House of Commons such a public school boys playground.

          • Alan Benfield says:

            “here in Europe, at some level we have a conception of popular sovereignty, of the Rousseauian idea that sovereignty rests with the people, and is inalienable. ”

            I fear you know little about EU law:

            Lisbon Treaty “Article 10 (1) The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy. (2) Citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament.”

            No Rousseauian direct sovereignty of the people there, I’m afraid.

            • Alan, I fear you have misinterpreted Ian Browne. Popular sovereignty is common within individual EU states (the UK being an exception), hence the various referendums to ratify Maastricht and Lisbon, but the EU itself makes no claim to popular sovereignty. It could in theory move towards this, by fully empowering the EU Parliament, but that is currently blocked by the states (via the Council of Ministers) and has few real supporters among the Commission.

              Up until now, the EU has dealt with external sovereignty (the mutual obligations of states to allow free movement of goods and labour etc), and it has assumed that these are technocratic matters for an informed elite to negotiate, hence the tendency to treat referendum results as inconveniences.

              The fear of continental eurosceptics is that it may encroach on internal sovereignty, which is what is feeding the populist right. This came to a head earlier in the UK because we have no separation of powers that allows for a distinction between the two types of sovereignty: both are vested in the legislature (i.e. parliamentary sovereignty). Every minor trade regulation was treated as an affront to internal sovereignty.

              Basically, some of our oligarchs feared losing power outwards to other oligarchs (while others saw a career opportunity), but in seeking to stymie this, they have created a dynamic that may see them lose power inwards through the institutionalisation of popular sovereignty (so finally advancing the process halted in 1688). We are approaching a revolutionary moment.

            • ianbrowne says:

              I’m not an expert on Rousseau. Indeed I don’t claim to an expert on anything. However, as I understand it, Rousseau is fairly clear in differentiating between sovereignty and representative democracy. He thought that representative democracy was essential for the day to day running of a state. Not even Rousseau thought that the people could be permanently “in session”. So he didn’t see the delegation of power of the day to day business of the state to representatives as being incompatible with a conception of sovereign power lying with the people.

              There is sometimes a tendency amongst people who read Rousseau to conflate sovereignty with representation, but, as I read Rousseau, he was quite clear about the difference.

              You are absolutely right in that I do indeed know very little about European law. However the article you cite:

              Lisbon Treaty “Article 10 (1) The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy. (2) Citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament.”
              is not incompatible with a Rousseauian view that sovereignty always rests with the people, at least on my reading of Rousseau.
              However, I’m pretty sure that rejecting the result of the Brexit referendum would be incompatible with Rousseau’s conception of sovereign power being an inalienable right of the people. If sovereign power in Rousseau’s sense lies with the people, and they have expressed their opinion, no group of representatives has a right to override that, except at the cost of taking power from the people and thereby, in Rousseau’s phrase “making the people slaves”.
              This conception of the relationship between representation and sovereignty is, I think, to be found in Europe, although I can’t claim to know much about many of the member states of the EU. But it is part of the Enlightenment political heritage of Europe. Britain unfortunately never took on board the ideas of Rousseau, or indeed of the political enlightenment generally. I don’t know how many European states still have hereditary peers sitting in the second chamber of has the established church represented in the second chamber but not non-established churches. Britain went its own way after 1790, and the doctrine of Parliamentary rather than popular sovereignty is, I suspect, a legacy of that.

          • “The idea that you can hold a referendum, obtain a clear result and then ignore it is hard to understand.”

            The idea that you can call a narrow victory obtained on the basis of outright lies (e.g. the 350m/week) and with no clarity about what terms of Brexit might be possible (see Boris’s pie in the sky article in today’s Telegraph) a clear result is hard to understand.

            • ianbrowne says:

              It doesn’t sound much different from any other election to be honest. The Tory manifesto of 1979 was a masterpiece of evasion, as Denis Healey pointed out at the time, but the Tories won, and the rest is history.

              It was a simple question – in or out, and the answer is quite unequivocal. If you don’t like the result, that’s fine, but don’t pretend that somehow it isn’t clear what the result was.

              • Joe Morison says:

                What makes it different to other elections is that this can’t be undone in a few years. People not old enough to vote are devastated that their futures have been decided in a way they won’t be able undo.

                • ianbrowne says:

                  The present only happens once. Nothing can ever be undone. When Thatcher let the pound rise in 1980 and the result was the devastation of manufacturing, it couldn’t be undone. In fact it may well have caused more devastation that leaving the EU will. People not old enough to vote had their futures decided. The past can’t be brought back. “People not old enough to vote are devastated that their futures have been decided in a way they won’t be able undo.” Unless you have perfected the art of time travel, this happens every time there’s an election.
                  I appreciate that people feel the consequences of this particular vote may be very significant, but let’s not pretend that there is something unique about the fact that people not old enough to vote have had their futures have been decided in a way they won’t be able undo.

              • Joe Morison says:

                Further, I’ve never known an election in this country that led to a surge in racist attacks. I spoke to a women that it had just happened to yesterday. This is not what the country wants!

                • ianbrowne says:

                  The vote was 52% to 48%. By my reckoning it is what the country wants.
                  Not liking a result and not accepting a result are two different things. The first is part of the democratic process. The second can be dangerously close to rejecting democracy.
                  I won’t patronize you Joe, but maybe it’s time you dug out an old copy of Isaiah Berlin’s Two Conceptions of Liberty and read the section on positive liberty, and its dangers.

                  • Alan Benfield says:

                    It’s not not liking the result, Ian, it’s not liking the process. Referenda are not a part of our polity and this one, in particular, was very poorly framed. It is not clear now whether:

                    (a) the government can invoke Art. 50 Lisbon without an act in parliament;
                    (b) whether what was, in effect, a minority vote (37% of the electorate, much less of the population) can be considered as ‘what the country wants’.

                    Referenda are not democracy. In referenda, what normally prevails is simply the will of those who are energised by the question. In this case, a question horribly manipulated by the press and self-interested pols.

                    Is that really democracy?

                    Parliamentary (that is to say, representative) democracy may be the worst form of government, pace Churchill, but, also pace Churchill, it’s better than all the others.

                    • streetsj says:

                      I didn’t read any complaints about the process before the result.
                      I also think this increasing use of the percentage of the electorate rather than of the number of voters is worrying. There are all sorts of reasons people don’t vote – including abstentions, pairing, dementia – and there is no way of knowing which way they would have voted if they wanted to but couldn’t. The percentage of votes is the best metric to analyse.

  7. michael bosley says:

    If Parliament somehow contrived to avoid triggering Article 50, things would become really ugly.

    It would renew the sense of marginalisation in those areas of the country that voted “Leave” (even if they were by then having second thoughts). And the nationalist Right would seize on the excuse to mobilise violent demonstrations against the “metropolitan elite”, “immigrants” and minorities.

    In this situation, populist opportunists like Johnson would be only to happy to ride the tiger in order to garner whatever personal advantage they could.

    The best we can hope for is a General Election won by a landslide by a Labour Party unequivocally committed to overturning the Leave decision. How likely is that?

    • Joe Morison says:

      It’s not that I’m a huge fan of Alan Johnson (I’m not), but I think he might be able to pull off a Labour landslide. He’s one of the very few MPs who give the impression of both being sane and a grown-up. He could connect with Labour heartlands without scaring off the middle classes and business. Add that to a Conservative party tearing itself apart and a country fearing Brexit, and anything is possible. Also, he really doesn’t want to be PM, having described it as ‘a God awful job’; that in itself is a massive reccommendation.

      As for the backlash. Yes, it would be vicious; but if the large non-racist majority of Leave voters see what it is they have unleashed, they might grudgingly accept it. That would leave the hardcore nasties, and they are going to have to be faced at some point now that they have become so emboldened by Leave.

  8. Graucho says:

    There were always two conflicting and irreconcilable lines of argument in this debate. The financial one. Stay in the cartel, enjoy the fruits of the economic muscle and economies of scale it gives you. The political one. People are not governed, people consent to be governed. Government by unelected commisioners is government without consent and anti-democratic. In the event, the financial argument cut little ice with those at the bottom of the economic pile who felt they had little to lose and when the result came out a number of the remainers set about trying to find ways to reverse or nullify the decision, lending weight to the accusations of being anti-democratic levelled at their cause. At the same time, the reactions of the markets have lent weight to the financial case for remain. How this will all turn out is anybody’s guess. One can’t help remembering that Scotland gave up its independence in return for England digging it out of a financial hole. How ironic if some years down the line from now an independent England has to do the same with the EU.

  9. jiro harumi says:

    Am I wrong, watching the mess from outside of not just Britain but also Europe, to accuse Cameron about calling the referendum not just because the subject is something impossible for people in the street to decide with even reasonable confidence but also (more importantly) because the result would have given such a big impact on the life of the continent people?

    I would have had no problem if this had been a Yes-or-No vote about Britain’s joining EU (or any international institution) because the final decision about your joining would be made by the institution, not Britain.

    I sincerely hope (or pray rather) that the EU will keep going as usual. It is the last hope for human kind to prove that different peoples can live together with no war among themselves. We need EU with or without Britain. Do we need Britain without EU?

    One more thing. I told my English friends, who were arguing about “sovereignty” at the early stage of the campaign, not to waste their time about trivial issue like that. You don’t die just because you have lost your sovereignty. I still believe that I gave a proper education to them…

    Jiro Harumi (Japan)

  10. guanchonazo says:

    Well, this is certainly not the end of the world, even if it is the end of the world as we know it. If it is still too early to judge if the French Revolution is a success, then, of course, we should be careful to project our prejudices onto the market reactions lookig for confirmations. But the vote is clear and the arguments that won the day, too.And they are ugly and nasty.

    Britain is out and little will change in the next coupe of years, but on the long run the consequences will be dire: Less investment and long-term growth. I mean, access to the common market will be granted, or not, probably depending on the sector.

    I can imagine the British car industry being granted access, if only because volume carmakers are foreign-owned and the supply-chain is so integrated. On the long-run Britain is now in a rat race with Eastern European and Turkish competitors, in which costs are the single factor.

    I can also imagine EU food being granted free access to Britain, as I cannot see a practicable alternative to it. I wonder if the British Government will subsidize farmers and food processors, so they can compete with their European rivals.

    As for the banks, they are doomed, clearly. Norway and Switzerland have restricted passporting rights, and why should Frankfurt, Dublin or Paris agree to leave that business to London as a concession to an English Government? What does an English Government has to offer in exchange? I mean, passporting itself was a huge concession, an example of appeasement that obviously didin’t work.

    It seems to me that Britain or England has now a pretty weak hand at this poker table, no matter what Brexiters claim about continental companies needing the British market so dearly as to force their governments to cave in instantly in front of a triumphant England. But then, I am talking about long-term consequences and in 20 years time, who is going to prove that economic decline is self-inflicted and not a EU punishment that reinforces this decission?

    By the way, if Brexiters need inspiration, they could look at Singapore. Maybe that is the example to follow. I mean, successful, deregulated banking sector, council housing for everyone and so many shopping malls as to make you dizzy.

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