For the past few days I have been in a state of shock, like a rabbit in the headlamps of a 27 tonne truck. This referendum result hit even harder than the Tories scraping home a twelve seat majority at the last general election against all the pollsters’ odds. That put me in a state of catatonia for three days.
But this time we don’t get ‘another go’ in five years’ time. ‘Leave is leave,’ as Junkers said, and there will be many in Europe who will feel it’s long overdue. The UK has been wheedling concessions and exclusion clauses out of the EU for more than thirty years. As a proportion of GDP the UK pays less (net) into the EU’s coffers than any other ‘major’ EU economy, much less than France – whose economy is smaller – a little more than the Netherlands whose economy is MUCH smaller.
None of the UK commentators I have read, banging on the UK’s right to invoke Article 50, seem to have acknowledged how much resentment there is in the EU for the UK’s repeated repudiation of European values and solidarity. Whichever road the UK goes down they are not going to play softball.
It’s interesting that Cameron broke his promise of immediately triggering article 50 if the vote went against continued UK membership of the EU. This was one of the lesser dishonesties of the campaign. But it leaves the UK in an awkward position. Either:
· Parliament exerts its sovereignty to announce it doesn’t recognise the validity of the referendum. There are several valid reasons for doing so but in practical terms it would involve thirty or more Tory MPs putting country before party. With the UK’s tribal political system that is unlikely – although some may wake up realising that the Conservative and Unionist Party has just contrived to destroy the Union (though they may not care anymore given SNP representation in the House of Commons).
· The UK goes through a second referendum with stricter policing of the truth in the campaigns and possibly a higher barrier for a mandate for change. The nightmare scenario. I can’t think of anyone who would want to go through the same shit again.
· The UK accepts the (non-legally binding) decision and moves on, adopting the Norwegian or Swiss model if it wants to keep any significant trade with the EU. That for the information of leave voters, involves unequivocally accepting all EU rules, having no say in them, contributing to the budget and imposing no restrictions on freedom of movement. That’s not exactly what those who voted out thought they would get, or what the leave campaign promised them, was it?
In the national short-term economic interest and stability, the first two seem more appealing. But if the UK went down either of these routes it would do nothing to quell the deep divisions in UK society that have emerged so decisively during this referendum – (partly because they have had no other outlet for thirty or so years).
Some say this vote was determined by racism and xenophobia: other by a feeling of exclusion caused by globalization and the ‘London elites’. But for most people ‘up north’ life has not been easy for the past thirty years. They’ve not had an accepted or valid political identity for more than thirty years. Which is why they are so angry. The chance to bite to back was irresistible.
But if the UK went down either of these routes its long term credibility with its EU neighbours would be so tarnished it would be difficult to recover it (either way it’s going to be hard to recover). Greece, Portugal, Spain, and perhaps even France, are all queuing up to leave Europe, though for very different reasons than the UK. Better perhaps to bite the bullet and leave with some short- to medium-term pain and let those who led this campaign of disinformation pick up the pieces.