The British people have voted to leave the EU: a ‘Brexit’. They were persuaded to do so by a powerful compound of populism, dishonesty and the arrogance of some politicians. This website has already commented on the first two of these factors. Populism, in the case of Brexit, exploited the deep discontent felt by many in England and Wales who now distrust the political class and, feeling that they have been ignored, wanted change – without properly examining whether that change would be for the better. The dishonesty shown by both sides in the debate was arguably worse on the Leave side, as reported by Nick Cohen in the Guardian for example.
The third factor, arrogance, has been most clearly exhibited by Michael Gove. He has repeatedly derided the views and calculations of experts, preferring instead to trust his own untutored instincts and expecting others to agree with him. He has a vision of a proud and independent Britain, governed by a political system that is totally in the control of its population. His arguments, though, are flawed – as already noted on this website. He seems to have failed to take into account three major issues: globalisation, the nature of agreements with other countries, and the depth of detail required to enable trading in a true single market. He is articulate and persuasive, and he probably influenced Boris Johnson’s decision to join the Leave campaign (the two men dined together the night before Boris declared his position on Brexit). It looked as though the two men were a strong partnership but Boris, in his first column for the Telegraph after the result had been declared, suggested that he understood how close our relationship with Europe needs to be; this did not line up exactly with Michael Gove’s vision of independence, so the latter chose to make a bid for the leadership and Boris withdrew. Going forward from this point, Britain will have to come to terms with the three issues that Michael Gove appears not to have fully understood.
Globalisation affects every country in the world (except, perhaps, North Korea). Many companies are free to set up business wherever they find the most attractive combination of labour costs, technical competencies and regulatory environment. British labour costs are much higher than those in developing countries, but it has demonstrable technical capabilities and it is not stifled by too much regulation. It has therefore attracted inward investment, but some of that has depended upon its access to the European Single Market. Post-Brexit, companies might choose Ireland (or perhaps an independent Scotland) as an alternative English-speaking base in the EU. And Frankfurt would be only too keen to take more of the financial services business, especially trading in euros.
The nature of agreements with other countries is that they involve rules. When one joins a club, or signs a treaty, or reaches an agreement, one is also accepting the relevant rules. One cannot unilaterally change those rules, except by withdrawing. Michael Gove’s vision of a British democracy, which can dismiss its own government, fails to take into account that Britain will never be solely in charge of the rules of any agreement it makes (although Britain’s EU membership at least gave it an equal say in setting those rules). Sovereignty will, therefore, always be partly constrained by the agreements previously reached by British governments. Another problem with Gove’s vision is that separate agreements would be needed for all the countries of the world, so Britain would need a substantial bureaucracy to establish and manage these separate trade agreements – whereas within the EU, the overall bureaucracy is reduced by centralising it in Brussels.
Britain’s treaties with the EU are much deeper in scope than trading agreements with other countries. The EU treaties comprise a complex set of agreements covering trade, the environment and human rights. This website argued for our continued membership of the EU on the grounds of its benefits to Britain and to Europe. Having decided to leave the EU, a different relationship will have to be developed. Boris Johnson appears to have at least partly understood that this will involve complying with many EU requirements, perhaps trying to remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) – although that would entail accepting free movement of labour. Remaining in the EEA might also satisfy some of Scotland’s concerns, thereby avoiding a Scottish secession which would make Britain’s future even more uncertain.
The future of Britain post-Brexit is now in the hands of the contenders for the leadership of the Conservative party, one of whom will become Prime Minister and will be responsible for negotiating Britain’s new place in the world. Michael Gove doesn’t yet seem to see that compromises will have to be made. Theresa May has shown herself to be very adaptable during the referendum campaign, not antagonising either side, so she is well-positioned in the leadership contest. If she were to win, and become our next Prime Minister, perhaps she would be similarly pragmatic in her dealings with an EU that is understandably offended by Britain’s behaviour. It is to be hoped that other Europeans don’t think that all Britons are like Nigel Farage, given his unpardonable rudeness in the European Parliament after the referendum result.
Our next Prime Minister will have to find some way of steering between the requirements of Europe’s single market and Britain’s concerns about immigration. A growing economy needs labour. It is probably better to allow economic immigration than to reduce economic growth to a level which doesn’t require any immigrants, but it could be better managed than at present. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the question of identity cards in Britain, which could be linked to work permits. It is also necessary to make it incumbent upon local authorities to provide adequate accommodation and public services if they want to let employers expand in their areas. Situations like that in Shirebrook, for example, are totally unacceptable. People need a right to appeal against local authority failures in these matters, and without that there is little hope of allaying legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration.
Britain needs a Prime Minister and a government which attends to the concerns of all parts of the United Kingdom, Leavers and Remainers, rich and poor – and which understands the need for partnership with other countries, despite the compromises that are necessary.