Why Brexit cannot and must not take place on the 29th of March, 2019
Breaking News – Theresa May’s ‘deal’ has just been defeated in the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202!!!
However you voted in the referendum, whatever you think about the merits or failings of the EU, everyone please just stop and think. As the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy says of the instant, when learning to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing, you first find yourself in mid-air, supported by nothing, this is a moment for superb and delicate concentration. It is of vital importance to all of the peoples of the UK that we do not proceed with Brexit on the current timetable. To do so would be disastrous. A complete fiasco¹. Or as Angela Merkel might say, einen groβen Shitstorm. There are two obvious ways this can be avoided – the government can simply withdraw its Article 50 notification (an EU court recently ruled this can be done unilaterally, in other words without the agreement of the other EU members), or they could request an extension of the negotiation process and a postponement of the exit date. This would likely require the agreement of the other leaders however, and that cannot be assumed. But they need to do one of those things, and they need to do it soon. I will explain exactly why, but it will take a little while, and we’ll have to delve some way into the past in order to uncover the roots of our current predicament, so bear with me.
This is not intended to be a partisan pro or anti-EU piece. There have been enough of those. Since the referendum I have (mostly) kept my own council on the subject. I haven’t published a blog on it anyway. But the time has come for a proper Babel Fish examination of where we are now, and how we got here. There are many reasons why I am calling for this to stop now, the majority of which are neither philosophical nor political. Of course I had a position in 2016, and it would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge that. I was never a supporter of the idea of leaving the EU. I never thought it was a good idea, but like (I’m betting) the vast majority of you, on both sides of that debate, I had no idea then exactly how bad, how ill-conceived, how completely and utterly unplanned it actually was. I mean, we’d got to the point of actually voting in a referendum. You’d imagine the side proposing the change would have some idea of what they were going to do if they won, wouldn’t you? Of how the process of extrication might be achieved? Well, you’d be completely wrong! That has become clearer by the day since then. How did this happen? Let’s take a little time to look at the reasons, and think about how they impact the situation today as we do.
But first, the most important bit: why am I racing to get this rather lengthy piece out before today’s Commons vote, and why am I saying that we must stop now?
The UK is not remotely ready to go ahead with Brexit
This government is woefully and hopelessly unprepared. As last year neared its end it became apparent that if they were to go ahead, it would be a ‘No Deal’ or ‘Cliff Edge’ Brexit, as there is no deal available that could possibly hope to attract majority support in the House of Commons. I think we can all agree on that, can’t we? The government itself is hopelessly divided on the issue, they can’t agree on a single position even within the one party. The opposition, and by that I mean pretty much all of it, not just the Labour Party, are opposed to the deal on offer too, although for a variety of reasons. Labour is not really that much less divided than the Tories, due to the influence of a concept known as ‘Lexit’ – a left wing vision of Brexit. I will look at this in more detail later, but for now I’ll simply note that this is not the form of Brexit we’re going to get, especially if we stick to the present timetable. We’re going to get what I’ll call an ‘Oxbrixit’ – an Brexit designed by, and for, the Oxbridge elite who currently hold power in the UK. We’ll be looking at that later too. But first I want to talk about something else entirely: the scale of the practical undertaking, or exactly what it would take to pull this off successfully. I can’t help thinking of this:
How do things get done? On an individual level, things get done when you want to get them done, when you know how to get them done, and when you are prepared or able to put in the necessary effort to get them done. On a larger scale the same rules still apply, however because we are all far more used to our own individual tasks and goals, we tend to underestimate the task. The greater it is, the more we underestimate it. We’ll take what seems like an extreme example. If I were to ask you to estimate how long it would take to get down to the shops, you’d probably know exactly because you do it all the time. You might even tell me it would be different depending on the time of day, and by how much. If I asked you how long it would take to get to London or Paris, you’d probably still have a pretty good idea. Even if I asked you how long it would take to go half way round the world, to come and visit me in Melbourne say, you might have a rough idea of how long the flight would take, although the bit from the airport to my place would be a bit of a guess. But what if I asked you how long it would take without taking any flights, overland? I’d struggle with that one, even though I’ve actually done most of it (Glasgow to Hong Kong).
And what if I were to ask you how long it would take to get to the Sirius star system? Using the fastest spacecraft made by humans so far? Now you’re struggling, aren’t you? Unless you’re an astronomer anyway. Okay, I’ll give you some of the basic info. It’s not that far, in cosmic terms, in fact it’s in the ‘local area’ – a mere 8.6 light years away (a light year being the distance light travels in a year, at 186,000 miles per second). The Earth is 8.3 light minutes from the sun, so we see the sun as it was 8.3 minutes ago. The fastest spacecraft yet made is the Parker Solar Probe. As the name suggests, its mission is to take a close look at the sun. It was launched on the 12th of August last year, and became the closest man-made object to the sun on the 29th of October. It also reached its maximum speed at around the same time, 430,000mph. That’s pretty fast, right? Well, it would be if you were going down the shops. It’s 119.44444445 miles a second. Even to get to me it would take less than two minutes. Now that is more than enough information to work it out. I won’t give it away yet, but it’s probably longer than you think.
Now that is, as I said, an extreme example. But let’s just think for a moment about one of those, the trip to Australia. Working out how long it would take is just the start of it. What if you actually had to do it? Not just buy a ticket, but work out how long you’re going for, how you’re going to get the time off, where you’re going to stay, if you have pets who’s going to look after them, what you’ll need to pack, etc., etc. That’s before you even start to think about what you want to do while you’re here. Now imagine you have to organise this trip not just for yourself, but for 60-odd million people. Are you beginning to get the idea now? Just for something as simple as a holiday? You couldn’t do it, could you? You’d need, conservatively, thousands of people working full time to help you to work it all out. This is why people always underestimate what it takes to organise something really complicated. How long, how many people, how much money, etc. But there are some people who do have an idea of the scale of such enterprises. We call them bureaucrats, and I used to be one. Twice in fact. I worked for the Australian Public Service, once in Tax and once in Social Security.
So let me tell you a story. A long time ago, in a previous life, on a planet called the 90s, I was working for the Dept. of Social Security in Melbourne. In order to get a promotion I took a position at a non-existent office called the TSC, or Teleservice Centre. It was the first large scale call centre in Melbourne, that’s how long ago it was. Before that every office took their own calls, I was one of the people taking them, but this was the next new thing. So I became part of the set up crew for this thing, and it took what was in those days a pretty well-organised and near-adequately staffed department six months to get it up and running. Six months to acquire premises, kit them out, recruit staff, train staff, run research in the local offices to try and get an idea of how many calls to expect, etc., etc. And it was another six months before you could say it was running smoothly. Less than a month in we had the telecommunications back doubling the number of lines. This is for an enterprise that had about 110-120 people working in it when it opened. The set up probably involved 200. It served approximately a quarter of the state of Victoria. It’s just one thing, one little organisational re-jig. Six months seems to be about how long it takes to do anything remotely complicated.
Now, consider Brexit. The people who are actually responsible for organising the practical side of Brexit, the civil service, weren’t allowed to start planning for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit until after the ill-fated Chequers Agreement (12 July). The apocalyptic stuff, the warnings of shortages, queues of days or even weeks at ports, rationing – that’s coming from them! They were given nine months! Up to that point, what had been done? Dropping out of the Customs Union means putting Customs and Immigration posts in every external port. That will mean thousands and thousands of staff recruited and trained, buildings built or acquired, roadworks on altering traffic flows, all sorts of things. So far I haven’t heard that they have actually done any of this, and even as I write this parliament has voted to further restrict their planning (in the last day or two since I wrote that they have announced plans to draft thousands of existing civil servants). I have no confidence that anyone in the government has truly grasped the implications of what they are recklessly doing. But apparently an important principle of democracy is at stake. It is vital that the will of the people be respected, no matter how stupid the idea.
Not only does the current government not have a clue what it’s doing, nobody has a clue. They never did. At no stage was there any kind of plan as to how this complicated extrication would be achieved. It’s blindingly obvious that there will be major economic consequences, but there was nothing, not so much as a post-it note of a plan. I could never have brought myself to support such an ill-conceived, hare-brained scheme. Scottish readers – remember the White Paper? I had it on my phone. Somebody gave me a hard copy as a souvenir to bring back with me to Australia, but I couldn’t afford the excess baggage! The thing weighed a ton. Now, I know many of us disagreed with parts of it, but that’s not the point. Can you imagine how we of the ‘Yes’ campaign would have been mocked and pilloried if our case had been as lightweight as ‘Leave’s?’
Of course they said that about us anyway, even though it was patently untrue, and that points to one of the major problems faced by the ‘Remain’ campaign – Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’ syndrome. Many things they dishonestly claimed during the Indyref campaign were actually true during the Brexit campaign, but nobody believed them, because Remain was perceived to be no more than a re-run of Project Fear. Which it was. People notice when you trot out the same arguments twice in a row, and are a lot less likely to believe you when you swear there really is a wolf this time. But ‘Leave’ really had nothing, and they did get away with it. Why do you think that might be though? Why would you go into a campaign with absolutely nothing prepared? I’ve wondered about that ever since, and I’ve arrived at a conclusion. There’s only one possible explanation.
This referendum was never meant to succeed
It seems counter-intuitive to say that. After all, voices on the ‘Leave’ side had been calling for it for years, hadn’t they? Certainly they had, but those voices represented a particular faction on the political right, much of it, but not all, within the Conservative Party. Not, shall we say, an intellectual faction. They are an odd mix, the political right. Now I’m an old lefty, but I’m not chauvinistic enough to believe everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. Some of them are of course, that can’t have escaped the notice of anyone who regularly uses social media, but there are some idiots on the left too, and some genuinely smart people who choose the right for a wide variety of reasons. I don’t want to get into those reasons too deeply here, as that is not the point of this article, but I do want to take a quick look at some of them in order to contrast them with the Brexiteers.
What is a conservative? I don’t mean a Tory, I mean a philosophical, small ‘c’ conservative. To put it as simply as possible, they are the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ people. Of course people like me would argue that it is very much broke and urgently needs fixing, but these small ‘c’ conservatives tend to come from places and backgrounds that largely prevent them from seeing much of that brokenness. For them, life is okay. Things aren’t that bad, they’ll say. Again, that’s an argument for another day. We don’t, for the purposes of this analysis, need to agree with them, just to understand them. They are cautious by nature, and that is essentially why they support the status quo, but when change comes, as it inevitably does sometimes, they eventually come around to the new reality. A conservative does not continue to agitate for the status quo ante, what went before, decades after the change has happened. That does not make you a conservative, that makes you a reactionary.
It is these reactionaries who formed the core of what we used to, before terms like ‘Leavers’ and ‘Brexiteers’ etc. entered the language, refer to as the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory Party. They’ve been around for ages. They yearn for a ‘golden age’ they think they remember from their youth, but which never really was. And the ways in which things were better in, say, the 1960s aren’t the ways they think, or for the reasons they think. But again, another time. They are essentially a variant of the ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ people, specifically the ‘grass used to be greener before all these bloody foreigners came and started walking all over it’ people. Now it’s a bit of a cliché (but clichés are clichés for a reason) to say that there is a natural human tendency to view the past through rose-tinted glasses. You know, the summers of your childhood were always sunnier and Christmas was always white, that sort of thing?
Only it’s not true, is it? We know it isn’t. I could show you the weather records to prove it. Most of the hottest summers on record have been in the last decade or so, and it hardly ever snows at Christmas. Statistically it’s more likely to snow at Easter. It’s a function of memory I think we’re all familiar with. We remember the good times, and the really bad ones, but the boring, uneventful, grey days? They all tend to merge into one over time. There’s no reason to remember them. Why would you? Nothing happened. Life is not a movie, it’s a series of snapshots. But some people will never understand this, and insist their memories of an idyllic past are real. It’s these people we are dealing with here, because that’s what makes them reactionaries. I’m old enough to remember the late 60s, just, and things did seem pretty good then I suppose. I remember the 70s, when we joined the EU, and I remember the 80s, when everything really did start going to shit. That’s when the change many ordinary people are angry about really happened (the change from Keynesian to neo-liberal economic management brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s government), joining the EU made very little difference at the time. No, not even decimalisation, we’d already done that in 1971. Of course there were some very real problems in the 70s, the oil crisis, power cuts, the three day week, and that economists’ nightmare, stagflation² among other things, but none of that had anything to do with the EU.
Anyway, as I said, these Euro-sceptics have been around for years in the Conservative Party. Probably ever since we joined the then EEC in 1973. Margaret Thatcher, another non-conservative, but of a very different stripe, was highly skilled at manipulating them, so she kept these useful idiots around. Used them to bolster her position in the party by playing them off against the actual conservatives/Tory establishment, and leveraged them to get concessions in negotiations with the EU. But she was never in any danger of allowing them to actually get their way. David Cameron was far less adept at managing them. Now at the risk of him suing me if he were ever to read this, not that I expect he will, David Cameron had a gambling problem. Not a predilection for the geegees or the dishlickers, nothing so mundane. He gambled with the future of the country he was elected to lead. He did it in many ways, but the most obvious were in the two referenda he oversaw. Let’s have a quick look at the Scottish independence referendum first.
When the SNP won an improbable outright majority in the Scottish parliament in 2011 it triggered a then little-known policy time bomb. Years before it had been written in to party policy that if they ever did secure such a majority they’d hold a referendum in an attempt to win Scotland’s independence. But the Scottish parliament was set up, quite deliberately, to make an outright majority for any party highly unlikely, precisely to avoid such an eventuality. And as you may recall, the pollsters called that election wrongly, and not just by a little bit. The SNP, and their leader Alex Salmond, were fully expecting to lose power. They were as surprised by the result as anyone. Furthermore, Salmond didn’t think the time was yet right for the push for outright independence, and the polls agreed with that too. They said that about 20, 22% were in favour, a similar amount were implacably opposed, but the rest, a comfortable majority, were in favour of more devolution. The term Devo Max was coined to characterise that position. So when Salmond and Cameron began to negotiate the terms of the referendum, they had a decision to make. Would they both give something up, and allow a three option question, or stick to their respective preferred options and make it an all or nothing contest?
Salmond seemed undecided at first. He wasn’t by nature a high risk player, and although his entire political career had been aimed at achieving full independence, it seemed as if Devo Max would be far more likely to win. Cameron, on the other hand, was in no doubt. He gambled that when faced with a stark choice, most of the people saying they would vote for Devo Max if it was on offer would be too scared to vote for outright independence, and would choose nothing. This belief doesn’t seem to have been based on much at all, other than gambler’s instinct. Even so, early polling seemed favourable to him, and he was emboldened to do it again, even before seeing the outcome of the first gamble, in 2013. He decided to appease his restless, Euro-sceptic backbench by taking a leaf out of the SNP’s book and promising them an in/out EU referendum if he won an outright majority at the next General Election in 2015. At the time this one didn’t look like much of a risk. He was not travelling well in the polls (a quick google reveals a 2013 projection that Labour were on course to win by 93 seats) and it looked as though, even if they were not defeated, the Tories could only possibly survive by once again forming a coalition with the pro-European LibDems, who would make not holding such a referendum a condition of their support. And it wasn’t just current polling. There was a very credible theory, based on demographics and the trend of voting patterns since WWII, that the Tories would never win another outright majority at Westminster. Since then each time they’d won it was with a lower percentage of the vote than the previous time, and the same was true each time they’d lost, because their support was steadily retreating to their South Eastern heartland.
Anyway, we all know what happened in that 2014 referendum. Not the result I was hoping for, but certainly not the one Cameron had been anticipating either. He very nearly lost! Remember those last weeks of the campaign? He and the pro-Unionist forces panicked, and announced what at first glance appeared to be a major climbdown, offering the Devo Max option they’d refused to put on the ballot paper but which, on closer examination, was revealed to be nothing of the kind. It was just one more example of the Herculean efforts of media distortion that had formed the true backbone of the ‘No’ campaign. It couldn’t have been anything else when you think about it. The Electoral Commission rules clearly stated that no new policy propositions could be introduced during the ‘purdah’ period in the lead up to the vote. A genuine breach of that rule could have invalidated the entire process and led to the result being declared null and void. Did that happen? No. Was anybody held to account for it? No. Was it even investigated? Never. No doubt some cynical indy supporters would tell you that’s not surprising, because the whole system is corrupt to its core, that it was ‘fixed,’ but that’s not the real reason. The reason is because there was no new policy offer. It was illusory. It wasn’t real. It turned out that ‘The Vow’ we all thought had been made by the three leaders of the London-based parties was a complete fiction. Fake news. There never was a vow, it was entirely an invention of the odious Daily Record.
This came to light shortly afterwards, when journalists and others contacted the three leaders’ offices to ask for a copy of the ‘Vow.’ They were informed that no such document existed, and referred back to the Record for further enquiries. The Record had of course mocked up, and published on a full front page, a document which appeared to be on parchment, and was entitled ‘The Vow.’ It reproduced the actual signatures of Cameron, Milliband and Clegg at the bottom. On closer examination it was evident that it in fact contained no new offer, merely a hastily cobbled together collection of things that had already been announced separately and at different times, by different parties. It was entirely fictitious, and yet strangely not one of the three leaders made the slightest objection to this scandalous forgery at the time, nor did any of them say anything to expose the outrageous fraud afterwards. In fact they even went so far as to set up an entire pantomime Commission to negotiate the details of this non-existent deal, which turned out to be far less significant or useful than anything that might remotely be described as ‘Devo Max,’ or the ‘as close to federalism* as possible’ arrangement promised by Gordon Brown. Why (I ask rhetorically) did we ever listen to that absurd man? He may be a former Prime Minister, but at the time in question he was a mere opposition backbencher, with absolutely no power to promise anything. Yes Gordon, we know who you are. But Harriet Jones would have carried more authority!
Super Gordon checks the timetable and waits for his new powers. And waits. And waits. Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister.
Anyway, despite this narrow escape, like a true gambler David Cameron took it as a sign that he was on a streak. And that his strategy (gamblers often mistake superstition for strategy) was a good one, worth repeating. So after initially gambling on never having to hold an EU referendum, when he won what was, once again (to the pollsters) a surprise majority in 2015, he bet on exactly the same horse he had in 2014 – Project Fear. But repeatedly backing the same horse isn’t a strategy, it’s superstition. Unless it’s Winx (Australian reference, google it). It’s like Roger Federer asking for the same ball he served an ace with on the last point. The balls are as identical as they can make them, he just served better, but sportspeople are highly superstitious. He can’t shake off the nagging suspicion that there was something infinitesimally different about that one. You used to be able to watch Bjorn Borg’s (the only other man to win five in a row) facial hair develop over the course of a Wimbledon, because he wouldn’t shave it while he was winning. Why do you think the majors install racquet stringers at the tournament? Because despite bringing twelve identical racquets to the stadium, players will still have favourite ones, and if they pop a string on that one they want it restrung straight away. When they get it back they’ll save it for a ‘clutch’ game.
So anyway, David Cameron, who so many people, especially in Scotland, tried to convince me was mad keen to leave the EU was in fact, as I told them, always a Remainer. To be honest, that wasn’t even really a thing, being a ‘Remainer,’ until he made it into one with the referendum. There was the Euro-sceptic rabble on the backbench, and there was everybody else, none of whom ever gave it a second thought. Including those who actually controlled the party. After over four decades of integration and increasing interdependence the idea was simply unthinkable. Economically it was just plain potty. Why would you pull out of a free trade agreement with most of your major trading partners? The people on the backbench, the useful idiots, don’t understand economics of course, but they know what they don’t like. And mostly that’s foreigners, whatever they may claim. Now it’s important to draw a distinction here between the Scottish referendum and the EU one, on economics, because this was so often shamelessly misrepresented that it requires its own Babel Fish translation.
What Scotland wanted to do was become independent in the way that other nations are independent. We sought full sovereignty, with powers over things like foreign affairs, defence and macro-economic policy. We weren’t proposing to cut any economic ties with anyone. Everything Project Fear Mark 1 said implied that we were of course, and that England would not trade with us. At all. That if we voted ‘Yes’ they would throw the mother and father of all tantrums, like a spurned lover taking a pair of scissors to all the clothes in your wardrobe, and refuse to have anything more to do with us. That’s extremely silly of course. They’d have been cutting off their nose to spite their face for one reason, but also because we were proposing that bothsuccessor states to the UK would remain members of the EU and as such, they wouldn’t have been allowed to do that! Westminster, which already has all those things that we were seeking in 2014, was proposing pulling out of a trading bloc of half a billion people, with incalculable consequences. But that was okay, or so Dave thought, because as I said, it was never meant to succeed!
What it was meant to do was to allow certain people to let off some steam, get all worked up and have a good shout about it, but ultimately lose the argument and the vote. The two groups this was principally aimed at were those Euro-sceptics on the Tory backbench (maybe about a hundred people), and disaffected working class people, particularly in England (millions of people). Not that there aren’t plenty of disaffected working class people in Scotland too, but in Scotland they had largely come around to the cause of independence. Which suggests, accurately I think, that they had come to see the union as the main problem. The British Union, not the European one. They saw their problems largely emanating from Westminster, not from Brussels. And there is indeed a much better case for that objectively, part of the reason for that being UK government policies over many decades, and part being the infamous ‘democratic deficit’ – Scottish voters only constitute a little less than 8½% of the UK electorate, so even if there is a clear majority for something in Scotland (like a 62% majority for continued membership of the EU for instance), that view can easily be overwhelmed if it differs, as it increasingly does these days, with that of the majority in England. Even a far narrower majority (say 53/47 as it was for ‘Leave’) in England.
*Now in a real federal system, there is usually some mechanism to compensate for this. In the US every state gets two Senators, regardless of its population, and if you want to pass an Amendment to the constitution, your first hurdle is that you need the support of 38 of the 50 states. Some will say that’s a very different situation, a much larger population, and those 50 states, so let’s look at a closer analogue, one regular readers will know I’m very familiar with, Australia. Australia has six states, and two ‘Territories.’ The Territories have smaller populations and less autonomy. Each state gets 12 Senators (2 for Territories), again regardless of population. To change the constitution takes a referendum, and that requires an absolute majority and a majority of voters in a majority of states. Given that there are six states, that means four of them have to agree before the constitution can be changed. It’s quite different to the UK’s version of a referendum, with its simple majority and non-binding outcome. We have a provision to hold those too, they are called plebiscites. But that is a far lower bar, and consequently they don’t change the constitution and don’t tend to get used very often. Outcomes of actual referenda are binding, and all resultant constitutional changes are automatic, requiring no further action by parliament.
Now you might think the differences in size between the states aren’t so great as those in the UK, but let’s have a look at that, because I was wondering myself. I mean, I knew the approximate populations, but I thought I’d look them up and get the exact numbers, for a valid comparison. So, the UK has a population of 65.1 million, of which 54.7 million are in England, and 5.37 are in Scotland. That’s pretty unbalanced, right? England has more than ten times the population of Scotland, and over five times that of the other nations combined. It has 29.5 times the population of the smallest, Northern Ireland. So far more imbalanced than Australia then? Well, yes and no. Australia’s total ticked over 25 million quite recently, in August. The largest state, New South Wales, accounts for 7.3 million of that, so obviously not a majority, let alone five times the others combined. However, the other states vary a lot. Number two is Victoria (mine) which has 5.64 million, just a little more than Scotland (although it is both more sparsely-populated and more urbanised, with Melbourne hitting 5 million just three weeks after Australia hit 25 million).
Now, with Queensland sitting on about 4.6 million, it can be seen that these three Eastern seaboard states make up the vast bulk of the population. Tasmania, the smallest state, has only 511,000, meaning NSW is 14.3 times bigger, a significantly greater difference than that between England and Scotland. And yet it still has the same number of Senators (12) as NSW. That’s the equivalent of Scotland and England having equal representation in the House of Lords. Except that all the Lords are elected by a multi-member, STV, proportional representation system. Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but you see what I mean? And because of those referendum requirements I mentioned, the three smallest states (Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia), despite representing less than a fifth of the total population (just like Scotland, Wales and N.I. do in the UK), can veto any constitutional change even if it is overwhelmingly supported by the three largest states. If the UK had the Australian federal system, Leave would have been defeated. Just sayin’.
Anyway, I digress. Cameron and the Tory leadership thought most people were actually okay with the EU, that they’d got used to it, or at least that they would be sufficiently conservative (small ‘c’) to be wary of the change. There’s a problem with that however. Well, that’s obvious now, but of course hindsight is 20/20 and it wasn’t obvious at the time. The problem is that the subject matter of what it would actually mean to leave the EU is massively complicated and intricate. When I said ‘incalculable’ that wasn’t an exaggeration, literally nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, it cannot be calculated, but politicians think you are stupid! I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know here, am I? At the time of the 2015 election I wrote of how parties used to put out detailed manifestos of what they intended to do, all of it, before elections. How over the years this had been reduced to a few key policies, and how by 2015 it had been reduced to one vague, general feeling each. In the Tories’ case that was ‘we’re the best economic managers, and all this austerity is good for you’ and in Labour’s was ‘we invented the NHS, so we must know how to fix it, right?’
So rather than expect the electorate to come to grips with arcane economic questions most of the pro-Remain leaders barely understood themselves (they barely understood the questions I mean, they didn’t know the answers, still don’t, nobody does), they opted to go with Cameron’s suggested option of a Project Fear Mark 2. Another FUD campaign: Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. Now this is another major difference between the two referenda – in 2014 the ‘Yes’ side ran a political campaign. I was going to say a traditional political campaign, but that’s not strictly true, due to the rise of new media. I myself was spending a lot of my time in front of a keyboard, simply because I could publish material that way. That never used to be possible. But it still had many traditional elements to it. We still chapped on a lot of doors, ran town hall meetings, etc. We still used facts and logic and explanations to persuade people. The ‘No’ side didn’t do any of those things. They didn’t run a political campaign, they ran a marketing campaign. And they didn’t use facts and logic, they used emotion³.
This time however both sides would run marketing rather than political campaigns, and both would appeal to emotion, but the Brexiteers had the home ground advantage here. As I said earlier, they’re not an intellectual faction. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. They are people who respond to emotion rather than facts themselves, so that is automatically how they try to persuade other people, and the people who had to be appealed to were receptive to their message. Marketers will tell you that, for the majority of people, making them feel is far more powerful in changing their minds than making them think. Furthermore, fear of loss is roughly twice as powerful as hope of gain, so those supporters of Scottish independence who keep saying we just have to keep making the arguments and persuade more people of the positive case are probably completely wrong. And yes, I realise the irony of saying this in the middle of a long, detailed analysis, but if you’ve read this far then you are clearly someone who doesn’t mind a long, detailed analysis and this doesn’t apply to you.
So we had a contest of two different fear campaigns. We had Project Fear Mark 2, aka ‘Remain,’ which played on fear of the unknown, of what might happen in the future, what we might lose. But what that actually was was never really spelt out. In the case of ‘Leave’ the fear was more concrete – xenophobia. The loss was one already perceived to have happened – the loss of independence, sovereignty, control and that illusory golden age. And of a monoculture. It was a powerful combination. Cameron and his cronies thought it was a jolly jape, and that the best bit of all was, just in case you didn’t get that the whole ‘Leave’ campaign was a joke, that you weren’t meant to take it seriously, they put two clowns in charge of it! They then spent a year discovering that within the English class system, different social classes clearly have very different senses of humour. Millions and millions of people didn’t get the joke! Apparently there are millions of people out there, people who have the vote and are allowed out on their own, who believe Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are real politicians and not, as I’d have assumed, Monty Python characters! In fact, I’d swear Moggy’s dad was in the ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ sketch.
Who did this to us?
And while we’re on the subject, Cameron’s a bit of an upper class twit himself, isn’t he? Have you ever wondered how these people, the idiot sons of the aristocracy, are able to end up running (using the term loosely) the country? I have. It bothered me for years. When I finally came up with the solution it was so obvious that most people would probably say, “Nah, it can’t possibly be that simple. Can it?” Yes. Yes, it can. They just… buy it. Because their becoming politicians isn’t the problem. That’s the easy bit. It’s just about the only job for which there are no formal selection criteria whatsoever, other than getting people to allow you to do it. There is no minimum IQ. You can be as dumb as a rock. But that doesn’t explain it, because the above-mentioned people are the products of Oxbridge (for non-UK readers, Oxford and Cambridge, two elite, world-renowned universities). How is that possible? How do they 1) get in, and 2) earn degrees? The most popular theory seems to be that people like Boris Johnson are not really stupid, they’re just eccentric. They play the fool to lull us all into a false sense of security, but in fact they are smart, ruthless, devious and Machiavellian. Let me state with absolute conviction, I do not buy that.
So what then? Well, on the first question, getting in, that was something I wondered about ever since several teachers and a careers advisor in first year at high school told me I ought to be considering Oxbridge myself. It wasn’t the sort of thing you heard much in Clydebank, but I did hear it, so I enquired. When I started high school I was telling adults I wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t really. I had no idea what I wanted to be, indeed I think it’s a ridiculous question to ask a 12 year old, but in my case they did ask it, and that answer seemed to keep them happy. I’d looked into the entrance requirements for medicine. Five ‘A’s in my ‘Highers’ including two science subjects would be enough to get me into Glasgow or Edinburgh, both of which medical schools had a better reputation than either Oxford or Cambridge anyway. But then it was explained to me, by whom I can’t recall but I suspect it was the careers advisor, that it’s not really about academic standards, it’s about social standing. The ‘prestige’ of the university. So what, I enquired, would I need to get into Oxbridge? Five ‘A’s in my Highers, I was told, then stay on for SYS (Sixth Year Studies) and get three ‘A’s in those too, then I might get an interview.
And that is all true, if you come from a comprehensive in a working class town on Clydeside like I did. And yet, as I read in an interview with him the following year, Prince Charles went to Cambridge despite getting straight ‘C’s in his ‘A’ Levels. No, don’t bother arguing with me (because people will), that’s by his own admission. So clearly perfect results aren’t essential for everyone. Furthermore private schools (I refuse to use the archaic term ‘public schools’ because it’s a terrible description and because my Australian readers use that term to refer to actual public schools – government run, open to anyone) spoon feed their pupils and coach them through examinations and interviews. Those pupils also have a couple of other major advantages not enjoyed by working class kids – private tuition and a ‘born to rule’ attitude. As I mentioned, I was encouraged to consider Oxbridge, but that was extremely rare where I came from, whereas pretty much all upper class kids, especially the boys, are encouraged to believe the are ‘Oxbridge material,’ regardless of any actual ability or talent, because they are from the ‘right’ background.
So that takes care of the first question, but what about the second? How do they get decent results? Well, the answer to that is breathtakingly simple. They simply pay someone else to do the work. The thing is, most people who haven’t been to university imagine it being largely exam-based, but in Arts subjects that’s just not true. They are mainly about essays, which you write privately, to a deadline. Yes, it’s an ‘honour’ system, and remember we are speaking of Tories here. People entirely without honour! So if you’re a young Cameron or Johnson, it’s only a short step from private tuition to having the ‘tutor’ do the work for you. Just pick a struggling, working class student with proven ability and make them an offer they can’t refuse, because let’s face it, why wouldn’t you? Plagiarism is often detected, increasingly so since the development of software for that purpose, but this isn’t plagiarism. You merely find a good student who is struggling to finish their (usually post-grad) degree because of lack of funds, and pay them to do original work for you. But what if they were to have a change of heart later, and admit what they had done? Well they just wouldn’t, because to do so would mean being stripped of their own degrees, and the loss of any career they might have built for themselves. It’s not a conspiracy, just a series of one off arrangements between pairs of individuals, both of whom have utterly compelling reasons for not revealing those arrangements. And of course this leaves the posh boys plenty of time for dining, drinking and general hell-raising. Like this lot:
“Let’s face facts: the rich have been buying their children places at top universities for decades. They do this by buying into the private school system, paying thousands to send Leo and Jemima to feeder colleges that pride themselves on Oxbridge entrance, on making sure everyone passes the exams, on buffing even the dullest sixth-former to parade gloss for Oxbridge interviews.
In my final year at a British private school, over 30 kids were handheld through the application process for Oxford or Cambridge, whereas in most state schools a maximum of one or two begin the gruelling process, usually without the considerable staff support that we enjoyed.
Of those 30, about half were successful, and at least four or five of those were — excuse my French — thick as congealed slurry on the bridle path. They were dull, unimaginative posh kids who had no real interest in learning, who were just good at passing exams with the right training. What they had was the confidence to shine at interviews, and most importantly, the right kind of swagger to fit in. They had grown up being told they belonged at Oxford or Cambridge. As a consequence, they were deemed Oxbridge material, whereas thousands of state school pupils were not.
Of course, for every posh dunce who makes it into Oxford or Cambridge, there’s a successful state school applicant who worked their butt off because they wanted to study the subject of their dreams at one of the world’s top universities. Nonetheless, merit is already far from the only criterion for entry into Oxbridge.” – (Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman in 2011)
Yes, that sounds about right. One posh dunce for every successful, highly motivated, Mensa-qualifying state school candidate. But that is not an equivalence anyone should be prepared to accept! These privileged people of whom we speak don’t even represent the 1%. The 0.1%, maybe! There will be thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of smarter, better-qualified working class students who are more deserving of these opportunities than any of the foppish, aristocratic dilettantes in the above photograph, which is emblematic of the all but total lack of social mobility that still characterises UK society. You won’t find that in any other European country. You won’t find it in the New World. In fact you won’t find it in any other industrialised country I can think of, only in the absurdly archaic, forelock-tugging, class-ridden UK. And do not expect that to get any better outside of the EU, because I can assure you, that is never going to happen. Power is never given, only taken. Which is how we know, when you think about it, that the EU doesn’t really have any – if it did, leaving it would be a hell of a lot harder!
Which brings me, in a very roundabout way, to some of the objections people have to the EU, including those of the Lexit supporters. The Labour Party are confusing this issue, because they’ve decided their main tactical objective is to secure a general election. While it’s obvious why they would want that, I’d say it’s equally obvious why they’re unlikely to get it. A considerable number of Tories, 101 of the 317 in fact, would have to vote for it. Which would be, for them, throwing up their hands and saying, “Okay, we’re out! We admit we have no idea how to finish this thing we’ve started.” Which, yes, is what they should say, but does anyone seriously think they will? No, they have a much simpler plan than that, one they arrived at shortly after the referendum – leave Theresa May is charge until the shit has well and truly hit the fan, put the blame on her and ditch her with maybe enough time left till the election for the worst of it to be over. That’s all they’ve got. That’s all they ever had. Apart from the knowledge that nobody else knows what to do either. That may be their greatest political asset.
Because obviously the Labour Party would like an election, and would like to win it. They are a political party, it’s their raison d’être. But deep down a lot of them must be thinking this isn’t the time for it. Ever since that referendum result the office of Prime Minister has been a poison chalice, everyone knows it. Labour’s best opportunity will surely come after Brexit, when the Tories will look like the bunch of complete incompetents they are. The big question is, will that two years between March the 29th and the next scheduled election will be enough for one of the circling posh boys, Boris perhaps, to persuade people he really does know what he’s doing? And in the meantime, assuming they don’t get an election, what about a second referendum?
This is obviously one for me too. I’ve been avoiding it, haven’t I? If I’m calling for Brexit to be halted, how do I see the problem being resolved? I feel obliged to say something about that, although at this point I really don’t care. I suppose the second referendum is going to be the unavoidable outcome of the present state of paralysis. Parliament has been offered a ‘take it or leave it’ deal, but can’t find a majority to either take or leave it. But if that’s going to happen, it has to be done with some honesty. No phantom ‘deals’ that were never on the table this time, eh? I can’t see an obvious way of avoiding it though, despite the ill feeling it will inevitably generate. The government cannot simply cancel Brexit and say, “Nothing to see here! Move along!” I’m not sure there’s still time to organise a referendum before March the 29th though. That would be really pushing it. So it might be necessary to stop or delay it first, consult the people second. Then we might examine the realistic options – ‘No Deal’ chaos, May’s deal that’s not so much a deal as a statement of intent to have a deal at some point in the future, when all the unresolvable problems have been resolved, or abandon the whole misconceived enterprise.
Speaking of which, what is Theresa May’s deal? Not the deal, her deal. We haven’t talked about her. I once described her as having ‘Bradburyed‘ her way into the job, which is an Australian expression, although it’s spreading more widely now, named for Australian short track speed skater Stephen Bradbury who won Australia’s first ever Winter Olympic gold medal in 2002 despite coming last going into the final corner, when everyone in front of him fell over. Only they didn’t really fall over, the people thought to be the likely contenders, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg, ran a mile. Didn’t stand. Why? Because they had no idea what to do next! They had no clue how to control the chaos they’d unleashed. But this says everything about how these people bluff and bluster their way through life. They realised it would be much easier to install a leader, a sacrificial lamb, whose heart wasn’t really in it, so they could carp and moan from the sidelines and tell everyone how they’d have been much better at it, then bring her down and take over once the dust had settled. There is a fair-sized chunk of the Labour Party who think they have the right idea.
And so it was that we came to find ourselves hostage to a process in which the EU had a year to search the length and breadth of Europe to find the best negotiators, while the UK government spent that time squabbling amongst themselves and we ended up with a negotiating team led by the cast of The Wizard of Oz – Theresa the Scarecrow, Boris the Cowardly Lion and David the Tin Man. Now I was expressing sentiments like the above to a Scottish, Lexit-supporting comrade some time ago, and he said something along the lines of,
“I accept that this Tory Government doesn’t appear to have a clue what it is doing when it comes to negotiating a Brexit settlement, and I recognise that a big part of the Brexit vote was motivated by a wilful longing for a golden past that never was, and by a strong undercurrent of Little Englander xenophobia.”
Well yes. And those were just two of the many major problems with the whole undertaking, any of which would have been deal-breakers for me as far as supporting ‘Leave’ was concerned. Let’s look at them in order.
Now, as for the “…strong undercurrent of Little Englander xenophobia.” I think it’s an understatement to call it an undercurrent. It was the dominant theme of the campaign, and the dominant reason for its success. And let’s call it by its true name. Even if I was to accept the contention ‘… that the EU is inherently unreformable…’ (which I’ll come to later), I still could not have voted ‘Leave’ as I will never, ever, EVER be found making common cause with fascists. Not if it would help the space program! Not if they were promising free beer for all the workers! They may try to hang on to our (the left’s) coattails occasionally, and there’s nothing much we can do about that, but I’ll never hang on to theirs!
Having said all that, I haven’t even come to the principal reason I could not vote ‘Leave.’ Which is that I believe, no, I insist upon, the sovereignty of the Scottish people. Accordingly I do not recognise the competence of the UK parliament, or the UK electorate, to make important decisions on our behalf. Even if it was a decision I thought desirable (as some on the left obviously do in this case), I would not accept it until and unless the Scottish people had debated it for ourselves, by ourselves, and decided it independently. And there are some very practical reasons for that, as well as the obvious principle.
But he went on to say, “…but on the other hand the real progressive left wing case for NOT being a member of the elitist, bureaucratic and undemocratic capitalist institution that is the EU was rarely heard in the debate.”
I couldn’t disagree with that. It was rarely heard indeed. And do you know why that was? Because we were having the debate as part of the UK! We could have had that debate, we could still have that debate. In Scotland. And on this he and I agreed – I support Scotland having its own debate, and its own referendum, at a time of ourchoosing, post-independence. That’s the only way I can see of our having the debate we want to have. The more subtle and nuanced debate. The debate on political, economic and practical issues, untainted by a xenophobia I believe we, as a nation, do not share. I believe the Scottish electorate is mature enough to have that debate. The English electorate, I’m afraid to say, has clearly demonstrated that it is not.
The most sickening part of the whole distasteful affair came, for me, when Farage declared we’d won our independence (wrong word, I’ll come back to that too), “…without a shot being fired.” Utterly shameless, as only days before shots had indeed been fired, and a pro-Remain MP had been brutally murdered by a typical Brexiteer…okay, no, that’s hyperbole. By the sort of extremist nutter enabled by the campaign and the xenophobic rhetoric of Farage and his bonkers buddy Boris. And as for David Cameron, well, somewhere a village is missing an idiot. If he’d been a decent PM, if he’d been a leader, if he’d been a leader’s bootlace, he’d have cancelled the referendum the day of Jo Cox’s murder, and told the English electorate the truth – that they simply hadn’t shown sufficient maturity to have that debate. But he couldn’t do that, not when he and his fellow travellers have spent so many years deliberately dumbing down that electorate so it would swallow their lies.
But let’s have another, closer look at that sentence. “…the elitist, bureaucratic and undemocratic capitalist institution that is the EU…” I made a note of it, because it rather neatly sums up the pro-Lexit argument. And yeh, okay, but that glosses over the central conflict at the heart of the EU, and another issue that simply didn’t feature in the campaign. Now Lexiteers would claim, like other Brexiteers, that the EU takes sovereignty from its member states, and that’s one of the problems. But that’s one of the things member states have always been afraid of. They don’t want to cede any sovereignty, and that’s why it’s undemocratic. The more democratic you make it, the more its democratic institutions can claim a mandate, an EU-wide one, to overrule the will of any individual member state. That’s why those member states have fought to keep it undemocratic, and why all major decisions have to be by way of international treaties. To call for it to be at once more democratic and less sovereign, well sorry, but that’s basically an oxymoronic argument.
As for the other accusations, elitist? Certainly. Bureaucratic? I don’t see that as a pejorative term. As someone who has been a minor bureaucrat for a living (see above), you just try getting anything done without a bureaucracy. You can’t! And of course one of the reasons it has a large bureaucracy is that it has taken on quite a few of the things that used to be the responsibility of members. Like trade negotiations. You might think that it’s overly bureaucratic, and it might well be time for a thorough, root and branch review, but to say that it’s bureaucratic is not in itself a criticism. Capitalist? Well yeh, what isn’t? He could have said (but didn’t) that it’s a ‘neoliberal club.’ I’ve heard that one a lot. Some truth to it, sure, but neoliberalism is a contagion the EU caught from the UK. I was there. I remember. Most of the EU rules they’re talking about are things Margaret Thatcher insisted on. And the most extreme neolibs are the hard line Brexiteers, who wanted to peel Britain off from the herd, the better to bring it down and strip its carcase. When they’ve finished, and the place is an ungovernable dystopia, they’ll hop on their private jets and zoom off to some other tax haven. Maybe in the sun this time.
Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long, so briefly, is the EU unreformable? I’m yet to be convinced. However, there’s no getting away from it, we in Scotland face two very different scenarios, depending on when Indyref2 is held. Continuing membership of the EU, as a successor state to the UK prior to Brexit, with all the UK’s exemptions and sweetheart deals, or having to reapply as a new member. And the truth is my position would be different depending on which of those scenarios we are presented with. The loss of the currency exemption alone would be a deal-breaker for me. We have a hell of a lot of economic adjustments to make, and we will badly need control of our own currency. This is one reason why I’ve been reticent about getting too involved until now. I don’t know what’s going to happen (although I’ll make a few predictions in a minute), and I can’t help but look from my direction, a Scottish point of view. I’d like to stay in and at least try to reform the EU, but I incline to the Yanis Varoufakis position, which is that if you were in, you wouldn’t leave, but if you were out, you wouldn’t join.
Finally, I have to address the idea I’ve heard from so many Lexiteers – to again paraphrase – “the idea that we should win our independence from the UK only then to cede sovereignty to the EU seems self defeating and daft.” That is, how can I put this politely, a mis-characterisation. For a couple of reasons. First the practical one. There are, by definition, no matters that are controlled by both the EU and the UK. As of today, we in Scotland are members of both. If we became independent of the UK tomorrow, no powers we repatriated from London would then pass to the EU. Why would they? There is no overlap. So we would actually gain all those powers, and they include all the really important ones, like macro-economic policy, foreign affairs and defence. We’re not talking about how much pork has to be in a sausage before you can call it a pork sausage here, we’re talking the real powers of a sovereign state. If, on the other hand, the UK leaves the EU with us in tow, all matters currently controlled by the EU are supposed to revert to Holyrood, but as we now know Westminster has grabbed a couple of dozen for themselves. Unless they graciously decide to offer us a few crumbs from the rich man’s table and devolve stuff to us, we are left begging. And I’m done begging.
The other, slightly more esoteric reason it’s a mis-characterisation is that sovereignty is not ceded to the EU. By anyone! This was even conceded in the wording of the Article 50 bill, which said something like, “Although sovereignty has at all times resided with this parliament, at times it hasn’t felt that way.” Yes, you read that right, we’re doing this not because of any actual loss of sovereignty, but because of a feeling! Genius! And the member states have been very careful to ensure that this non-surrender of sovereignty remains the case, and is the major reason (as alluded to earlier) they have blocked further democratisation. The union, on the other hand, represents a total and complete loss of sovereignty (even though I recognise that some of us have never, and will never, accept this to be valid), and its end will return all sovereignty to the Scottish people, regardless of whether we are members of the EU when it happens or not.
So what is going to happen next? As I finish this parliament is already sitting to vote on Theresa May’s deal-that-is-not-a-deal. The reason it’s not a deal is that it basically puts off a bunch of the most difficult and problematic issues indefinitely. So in that sense the Brexiteers are right, because some of the problems are unresolvable, particularly the Irish border question. It’s a Kabayashi Maru, a no-win scenario. If the UK is to leave the customs union there has to be a hard border. There are only two places it can be, and it can’t be in either of them. Not, in the case of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, without unravelling the Good Friday Agreement. That was predicated on the assumption, which looked like a safe one at the time, that both Ireland and the UK would remain members of the EU. It doesn’t really work if that’s not the case, and great swathes of it would have to be renegotiated. And not, in the case of the Irish Sea, without effectively giving NI a unique and different status within the UK that they do not want!
So in light of all this, here are my predictions. Not my wish list, what I think is going to happen; the Commons will vote against the May ‘deal.’ The Commons will vote against ‘no deal.’ Brussels will refuse any further concessions. The Commons will vote against the no confidence motion, or at least fail to get the required two thirds majority to pass it. May will eventually ‘reluctantly’ accept the fact that, the Commons having voted against the deal that’s on the table, and against no deal, she can’t proceed with Brexit. Commons will eventually accept that this is what they have, albeit accidentally, decided and be forced to approve another referendum, when all other options have been exhausted. And we can all have the next couple of years to understand that our politicians have stumbled into a position that they cannot agree on any way forward from, but that they are just going to brazen it out and pretend nothing is wrong, while the rest of us feel collectively the embarrassment and shame that ought by rights to be theirs, as we become the laughing stock of the world once again. Seriously, just stop. Now!
Breaking News – Theresa May’s ‘deal’ has just been defeated in the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202!!!
¹A fiasco is a kind of Italian wine bottle. If you find yourself in a fiasco, you might as well make a spectacle of yourself, then at least you’ll have some glasses to drink the wine from.
²Staglation is the phenomenon of stagnation (low or negative economic growth) combined with high inflation. The classical/liberal economic model said that couldn’t happen. Until it did. The UK suffered from it to an extent in the early 1970s, but there have been far worse examples, notably Weimar Germany, which is probably as good an answer as you’ll get to the question ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’
³“The assumption that facts alone work to persuade people is wrong. Sometimes the opposite is true – climate change advocacy is an example of this. Rather, messaging must invoke emotion in order to motivate.” (Dee Madigan – Campaign Edge, an Australian left political ad agency)
PS – The time it would take to reach Sirius at the given speed is roughly 7500 years