Monday, 23 January 2017

A Brexit for all seasons

It is now seven months since the British people voted in a referendum born of the then Prime Minister’s attempt to placate the Eurosceptics in his own party and the perceived electoral threat from UKIP. That referendum asked an apparently simple question: do you want to remain in or leave the European Union?

If the vote had been to remain then it is a reasonable bet that nothing much would be being said about it now. Of course, doctrinaire leavers would be continuing to agitate for exit. Indeed, had the vote been 52-48 to remain then, as Nigel Farage said before the vote it would have been unfinished business (how strange, then, that he and other Brexiters now insist that a 52-48 vote to leave is the incontrovertible will of the people, to which all opposition is treason?). But the vote was 52-48 to leave and that result is now being held up to mean all manner of things.

First and foremost, it is now being held to mandate not just leaving the EU but leaving the single market. In this post-truth era it is crucial to hold on to truth, and before the referendum the ‘leave’ side either refused to say whether voting to leave the EU meant voting to leave the single market or explicitly denied it. That is clear and on the public record for all to see. It is important to keep saying this, because of the dishonest re-writing of history that is now occurring. It is no defence to say that the remain side said that leaving the EU would mean leaving the single market since a) this was a rebuttal of the leave claim to the contrary and b) the Treasury modelling (and that of others) made it clear that leaving the EU could imply at least three scenarios, of which leaving the single market was only one. It is simply untrue to claim that both sides in the campaign said that a vote to leave the EU was a vote to leave the single market.

Beyond that, the leave vote is now being claimed to have meant something way beyond what was on the ballot paper. Thus, today, the government launched its industrial strategy with a preface from the Prime Minister saying that “last summer’s referendum was not simply a vote to leave the European Union, it was an instruction to the Government to change the way our country works – and the people for whom it works – forever”. Really? I’ve got no particular objection to an industrial strategy (and this isn’t the place to discuss this one) but it certainly wasn’t what the referendum was about.

Then again, the Brexit vote is being universally spoken of as if it were the John the Baptist forerunner to Trump’s victory and a harbinger of a far-right European Spring by Marine le Pen, mandating a nationalist anti-globalization agenda. But the vote did not ask for an endorsement of Trump, Le Pen or anyone else, and if it meant a rejection of globalization then how is it that Brexiters like Liam Fox are taking it as an endorsement of global free trade?

In a more diffuse way, too, all roads lead to Brexit. Today’s big news story is about the reliability of the Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons, and those same weapons were invoked by Theresa May as a key aspect of why Britain mattered in the Brexit negotiations. Again, this isn’t the place to discuss the pros and cons of British nuclear weapons policy, but if it is to be made central to what post-Brexit Britain means then it needs to be absolutely clear that it works. But how did we ever get into the position where our main trade relationship needs to be negotiated by reference to our nuclear warfare capacity?

It is certainly true that the Brexit vote has swamped everything else in British politics, probably for decades. But that vote has not given licence to the government to do whatever it wants. There is much talk about the need to respect the vote as a matter of democracy. But democracy does not just occur on one day; it’s not the Cup Final in which one side loses and another wins. It's a process, not an outcome. Its meaning is, and should be, contested.

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