Monday, 27 June 2016
It was hard not to escape the conclusion from the reaction to the shock Brexit vote that this was an internal Conservative leadership contest that had somehow spun out of control.
What sent it out of control was how an unconvincing elite political project of British sovereignty from high Tories became joined with an anti-elite push from working class voters, especially in the north of England. The problem with that anti-elite push is that it seems to have nowhere to go.
The supreme irony of the Brexit vote was that a result that was supposed to be about the sovereignty of the UK Parliament must now be enacted by said Parliament that has no interest in doing so. It is not just that over three-quarters of UK MPs were for staying in the EU, nor that all parties represented were for staying (except the one UKIP MP), but that all the careful political arrangements set up by the UK political class over the last 50 years have now fallen apart. It is especially damaging to the Conservative and Unionist Party (to give its full name) that is currently in government and called the referendum in the first place.
Take Scotland for example. One of the arguments against Scottish independence in 2014 was that an independent Scotland had nowhere to go, since leaving the UK would mean reapplying to join the EU, and at the time the EU’s answer was no. Countries like Spain were already facing regional separatist movements, and allowing Scotland to separate and re-join would potentially have had a knock-on effect elsewhere. This is no longer valid – or at least as much – and there was the potential for Scotland less to have to re-join than simply to stay where it was and let the rest of the UK leave.
Quite how much the EU would still be open to this is debatable, since the separatist movements remain very real elsewhere (although Scotland is now claiming precedence that allowed the departure of Greenland from the EU while Denmark remained). Certainly if the EU was smart it could indulge Scottish hopes as a bargaining chip against the UK, much as it (rather ineptly) indulged Ukraine nationalism against Russia, only to leave it swinging in the breeze after Crimea.
But it may not even come to that. Part of the management of the separatist tendencies in the UK and the weakening grip of Westminster over the last 20 years has been the devolution of powers to regional assemblies. Along with increased autonomy has been increasing integration of regional assemblies into EU legislation, effectively giving them veto powers over any disentangling from the EU. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has now indicated she will use that veto. This would suit her position which appears cautious of heading into another referendum so soon – and if that veto is over-ridden would only add to their cause further down the line.
Less tangible, but even more sensitive, is the situation in Ireland. It was a sign of the desperation of the Remain camp in the closing weeks that former Prime Ministers Blair and Major were willing to highlight that Brexit could undermine the Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland. Built on the back of the military defeat of the IRA, the Agreement of 1998 allowed nominal power sharing of its political wing, Sinn Fein, and nominal Irish unity with an open border. With the exit from the EU, especially on the issue of limiting free movement, now putting that open border in doubt, it has at the very least forced Sinn Fein to respond with a call for a vote on the border – even if approval for such a vote from Westminster is almost impossible. A similar quasi sovereignty compromise was also used to manage claims from the Spanish government over Gibraltar, something that has also revived after the Brexit vote.
On top of those delicate internal arrangements, the result, and the campaign leading up to it, have also destroyed the delicate arrangements Britain has set up to manage its declining global position over the last century. British policy in Europe, nicely summed up here, had always been to prevent a dominant power in continental Europe, arguing for extension of the EU over centralisation (leading Brexiters like Johnson, Hannan and Carswell were lobbyists for Turkey’s entry into the EU) – now made extremely difficult by the UK being locked out of the EU.
Britain’s position in its two other spheres of influence, the Commonwealth and US, were damaged by the Remain side during the campaign. Cameron lined up Commonwealth leaders to argue against Britain leaving, but most damaging was Obama exceeding his brief by telling Britain it would be in the “back of the queue” if it left – leaving British politicians in the uncomfortable position of having to hope for the victory of a Republican candidate it was pompously debating to deny entry to just a few months ago.
It was why, after the result was declared there seemed a striking reluctance for those campaigning for Leave to act on it. Almost immediately the first promise to be broken was to invoke Article 50 that would automatically start the two year clock ticking towards exit. After having promised to invoke it straight away after a Leave win, Cameron has deferred it to whoever succeeds him in a few months. But the leading contender to do so, Boris Johnson, has said there is no hurry either. The irony is that the one who seems most keen to enact the will of the people is the EU, which wants the process to start now, while the UK Parliament is using its real sovereignty to delay it at least, and most likely smother a result it does not want.
To help it do so, some on the left have adopted an increasingly anti-democratic tone to delegitimise the result. One approach was to point out the older age of the Leave voters, as though a vote should be proportional to life expectancy. More common has been to “explain” the Leave vote in working class areas in the north of England, which reached around 60-70%, was solely driven by a vote against immigration on the back of racism, xenophobia etc. etc. or, the more sophisticated version, as “anger” over deindustrialisation.
To argue this it would then be needed to explain why that vote flipped the opposite direction as soon as it went north of the Scottish border, which is presumably no more racially sensitive, and clearly no less deindustrialised. Alternatively it might be that in northern England immigration was seen as a policy highlighting the collusion between Westminster and Brussels elites, whereas in Scotland regional nationalism sees the EU as an alternative to Westminster.
Unsurprisingly this anti-democratic tone has come through in the moves underway in Labour to remove the hapless Jeremy Corbyn. The move is being claimed as a need to be more responsive to north English working voters, with the implication that Labour needs to be more anti-immigrant. But the key charge against Corbyn by the Labour parliamentary party was not that he was out of line with the Leave sentiment of working class voters, but that he didn’t argue against it effectively enough – this position ignoring the Leave wishes of its voters unsurprisingly led by a Remain MP who posted one of the lowest Remain votes in London.
The consequences of the Brexit vote go beyond just the UK. Not just due to it being a major economic power, but from a political influence that goes beyond that. Overnight, a major stabiliser of the global political order has turned into its destabiliser. At the centre of it was a democratic vote that is now likely to be systematically and carefully annulled. It is hard to see right now who has an interest in preventing it.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 27 June 2016.Filed under International relations