Moving Beyond the Referendum Coup

Fabian Zuleeg’s piece ‘Exit from Brexit’ cannot go un-answered. I oppose its analysis and recommendations, concerned that a certain narrative has taken over about normalising Brexit that will have profound and dangerous consequences for both the UK and the Union.

I offer this in the spirit of being part of the ‘loyal opposition.’ Many on the Leave side were not in any sense part of a ‘loyal opposition’- their methods, aims and behaviours were entirely contrary to any normative sense of British political debate. Their aim was to destroy the European Union and also to break up the British political system (UKIP) and to use language, xenophobia and outrageous lies to do so. (Gove, Johnson, Leadsom, Patel.)

Normalising risks sanctifying undemocratic methods and mindsets.  Drawing any hard and fast conclusions for policy risks the UK blundering from one populist excess to another.  The people have not ‘spoken’; 17m. Brits have screamed and no one knows what was being said. Meanwhile party politics and representative institutions appear hollow and broken.

Normalising Brexit spells the death of British Democracy

Normalising the Brexit referendum makes acceptable a flaw in our politics and privileges a discourse and behaviours previously deemed out of bounds. Having been on the ground campaigning I witnessed directly the threats and feeling of fear whipped up the by media and some of the Leave rhetoric. Let us not forget the political assassination of Jo Cox—an unparalleled act of violence in a British election.

A depressing conclusion is the realization not merely that party politics is broken (well attested to), but that representative democracy in the UK is close to death. That our way of deciding and thinking about complex political issues has been reduced to a mediatized game;as if serious issues of generational importance are reduced to an X-Factor TV vote. The very fact that Cameron felt that the issue of EU membership could be put to a referendum shows how far we have slipped in our reliance upon tried and tested parliamentary processes to make strategic decisions. As Conservative friends kept reminding me, ‘You must remember, this isn’t about the UK-EU relationship- it’s about internal party management. It’s the only way Cameron can kill off the Eurosceptics and UKIP.’

So the first mistake- the gamble- was an act of gross miscalculation and frankly a contempt of UK political tradition. It was Thatcher who said ‘Referenda were the tools of despots’ and 200 years of British political evolution has carefully avoided using them, for good reason. It is noteworthy that when the first referendum of this kind was introduced into the UK it was when a particularly weak government essentially abdicated its leadership role and succumbed to the demands of internal party politics. Cameron repeated this error. Neither a Leave nor a Remain supporter should ever have had to make such a hideous choice over an issue of such depth and complexity.

It was compounded by Leave leaders such as Johnson and Gove using the campaign as an open leadership challenge to Cameron—a Conservative civil war masquerading as a vital decision on Britain’s future. At least in the 1975 Campaign politicians of all sides maintained some sense of ‘fair play.’ Watching the craven display of political narcississm of the past few weeks can only increase citizens’ sense of disillusionment and disconnection. We are merely playthings in the games of selfish, hollow men and women.

Of all the issues a Parliamentary representative system should address,, it would be the question of membership of the European Union. Before entering the Common Market, Britain undertook over ten years of deep Parliamentary debate on the issue, two failed entry bids and mountains of pamphlets and public debate. There has been no corresponding adult debate in addressing leaving the EU.

The use of referenda—as a response to broken politics and systems—does not solve those problems but amplifies them. Plebiscitary direct democracy is not really democracy as one conceives it; it denudes us of any deliberative elements; it overlooks the need for protection of minority opinions; it removes accountability—who truly will bear the consequences of the Leave voters? (Only a Leave government, but one has not been elected.)

The Referendum only opens up questions, it does not answer them

The second fatal mistake is to draw binding conclusions from such a poorly framed referendum question. The only conclusion is that 17.4m people do not consent to the status quo of their current political situation in the UK. A vote on a Thursday in June revealed that. What more?

Some initial polling already shows that some regret their vote. That about 35% of voters believed controlling or reversing immigration to the UK was the key reason for their vote (an issue only indirectly linked to the EU); that they believed more resources would go to the health service (the Leave lie that £350m per week could be diverted to the NHS) And more.

However, already, this vote is being framed as somehow the settled will of the British people, binding and must be respected. Mr Zuleeg makes a similar argument. And the reason is political—the fear that populists will be emboldened and take more power if the vote is somehow ignored. It is also convenient for the new Conservative government, having perpetrated this referendum obscenity and committed a grave strategic miscalculation, to want to airbrush the whole mistake away and pretend it was nothing to do with them.

However! This is precisely the caving-in the populists want us to make. Because liberal Britain (of all parties- the 16m who voted Remain)- is slowly emerging from its slumber and realizing what a catastrophic mistake has been done. Tens of thousands spontaneously demonstrated in London and across the country after the vote; a huge set of demonstrations are planned for July 30th. We can expect and should encourage a UKIP backlash. So the political calculation of Mrs. May and government will have to change. Particularly when Mrs. May will perceive the choices as between the young, smart and entrepreneurial Britons and the older, less educated and left behind Britons: on whose shoulders will the future wealth and leadership of Britain be borne?

Moreover, Mr. Farage himself has said ’48:52 would not settle the issue.’ So if Farage would have contested this outcome, why should the rightly enraged 16m not also? Or does Farage now enjoy a differential political respect, not accorded other citizens?

Let’s be clear. One should ‘Respect the outcome of the referendum, for what it was.’ What was it? A cunning stunt that went wrong. An advisory referendum. With no clear alternative offered (which in turns makes it an almost impossible vote to understand or to answer). And it was constructed without any thresholds for binding (e.g. turnout, margin, consent of constituent parts e.g. Scotland, Northern Ireland) as is required for example in Canada.

So I do not argue for ignoring the result but in interpreting it. And this will require an elaboration of the Plan B that was so signally lacking in the referendum, the debating and testing of this through parliamentary/party / civil society and the final voting on it either in a decisive General Election or a second referendum. It will require winning the consent of constituent parts, hence May’s initial journey to Scotland to begin the negotiation with the government there. And so it will take time.

So in this sense, the referendum far from settling a question is merely opening up a huge set of issues about what it means to be British (identity and immigration); about how we run our affairs (constitutional settlements) and about how we will interact in the world (the political-economic ‘business model.’)

The Referendum was a British coup

By normalizing the referendum, a certain conception of Britain and its politics will be deemed to have triumphed. Crudely: an authoritarian politics of control, of protectionism and nativism. Libertarian fantasies. Of the politics of fear, media manipulation and open appeals to xenophobia. ‘Facts are for pussies’ as a key Leave campaigner Cummings said. These do not represent the settled will of the British people; but they do represent the views and instincts of many Conservative voters, UKIP and a good number of Labour voters. The biggest single correlator of how one voted in the Referendum is whether one believes in capital punishment. (Leavers- restore capital punishment.) Of course not all Leave voters may be characterized thus; and some may be biddable to the Remain side and must be won over. But the direction of travel is clear.

Moreover, the upheaval extended beyond June 23. What was being pushed beyond the referendum was the capture of the Conservative party outright of such views- hence the emergence of Leadsom as the challenger to May and her being backed by UKIP supporters and money men (such as Arron Banks) as well as leading anti Europeans such as Redwood.

The Leadsom attempt was thwarted by her own incompetence; but it was a ‘damn close run thing.’

Nevertheless, the outcome of the referendum in three short weeks has been:

  • The resignation of a Prime Minister and his Finance Minister
  • The installation of new government with radically different economic and geo-political ambitions
  • The collapse of an effective Opposition
  • A major decline in the currency
  • The halving of expected economic growth forecasts in the near term
  • The re-emergence of the possibility of the break-up of the UK
  • An explosion of racial and xenophobic attacks and hate speech

This is about as near to a coup as Britain gets.

The referendum was not about the detail of European regulations but the destiny of a people. About how it sees itself and the outside world. About identity and values. And credit to the Leave campaign strategists Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliot- they had learned how to run and win identity politics and culture war votes. But the wrong values have been privileged, essentially anti-European values. So it is in the interest of the Union not to support such arguments or lend credence to a mandate for Leave. It’s a delicate manoeuver but essential- respecting the referendum for what is was- and no more.

Britain needs time, space and a political-psychological ‘intervention’

What happens now?

First, what is the intention or policy of the British government? In short, no one truly knows. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means nothing. One line of argument is that by placing Leave leaders in key negotiating portfolios, Prime Minister May is making them responsible for delivery – and failure. Thus if Brexit goes slow- or wrong- she can scapegoat them.

However, this overlooks the fact that ultimately May is in charge and that collective government responsibility holds. Moreover, such wishful thinking is sometimes made in the soft hearts of liberal Conservatives who have been making similar (mis) calculations about the right within their party for decades. At what point do they stand and fight? Or do they dribble away?

A more likely inference is indifference. Mrs. May was dubbed a ‘RINO” by colleagues on the campaign (Remain In Name Only.) She, like Cameron, conceives of Europe in purely transactional terms. She neither understands the deep political drivers of the project nor is motivated by them. Thus the speed with which a largely Remain party in Parliament can shift to being behind Brexit with staggering nonchalance. If Mrs. May’s Brexit team can pull off the exit- fine. If not, fine- she will make another calculation.

Secondly, it will take time. Prime Minister May is signaling that she will be unable to trigger Article 50 until 2017 and a recent High Court plea on behalf of the government confirms this. This is understandable, as she will be struggling to construct a grand strategy for the UK starting from demagogic slogans splashed on the sides of campaign buses. There is no Leave plan, there never was one. Mrs. May will also need time to understand the constitutional implications and positions of the devolved parliaments, assemblies and London. She has held early talks with the Scots and Welsh devolved leaders in her first week.

A sensible solution- as the Irish would suggest- is a constitutional conference to sit down and address the crisis. This is something European friends might usefully suggest to the UK government.

Thirdly, the deeper flaws in the UK’s political system and thinking will have to be addressed- and with the Brits customary dilatoriness over these matters, one cannot expect quick action. An appropriate response from European colleagues is

  • To accept that many of the problems facing the British are common to all EU states (populism, dislike of elites, feeling of powerlessness, globalization losers etc…) and therefore working with the Brits to find solutions and arguments for continued openness are in the self interest of the other Europeans and
  • To offer a sophisticated form of ‘political-psychological intervention’ to the Brits as negotiations unfold: reminding them of the realities of the world/ EU system, firmly and fairly; whilst encouraging them that their membership on current terms is actually in the Brits’ best interests.

Paraphrasing Prime Minister Rutte, the British have lost their minds. It’s in the interests of her friends to rally round and offer support. Of course many are angry with the Brits (16m Brits are angry with the Brits!); and the long term lukewarm commitments and actions of British leaders can rightly be criticized; but now is not the time.

Finding a common solution to common problems and offering tough love to the UK does not imply throwing away the four freedoms or sanctioning an a la carte Europe. The detailed options can come later. This is more to offer the negotiating spirit for the Union.

Britain is experimenting with dangerous political-economic models

Most important for all is the new political-economic model for the UK. This will be part of the Leave plan but goes beyond the modalities of exit. Two competing models are emerging: a nominally open, massively deregulated model (Buccaneer); and a protectionist autarkic model (Fortress). However, both models will attempt to restrict migration heavily and that will be their fatal flaws. Both are in essence mercantilist in spirit. Both are animated by the narrow passions of nationalism and will tend to lead to non-cooperative behaviours.

If any of these models succeed, that will pose a direct threat to the EU, as it will offer a competing model to membership. Equally, and more likely, they will fail- with damaging spill over effects to the Union and exceedingly grim long term effects on British citizens. Depending on the speed of correction/ reality effects, it may paradoxically bring the UK back into the Union, after suffering a humiliating exit. Perhaps the outcome will be neither a revived Britain nor a reversed Britain but a ‘trundling along Britain.’ A Britain that is a marginal player internationally, inward looking and divided; that suffers a slow immiseration, which when compounded over 30 years yields a very much diminished society and economy.

The Buccaneer model attempts to be an optimistic view of Britain, appealing to the tolerant, liberal 16m voters. It would like Britons to be internationalist and open to the world. Douglas Carswell of UKIP shares this view; and a motley crew of younger Conservatives too (see ‘Britannia Unchained’ written by Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss.) Daniel Hannan would also share such a point of view. A more anarchic-techno vision is elaborated by Dominic Cummings (Leave campaign leader) and Steve Hilton, a former adviser to Cameron, now plying his trade in Northern California in the pay of Silicon Valley 1%ers.[1]

However, the intellectual bases for such a prospectus, is to put it mildly, weak. There has been no clear or detailed explanation of how such a model would work. Despite attempting to appeal to the young entrepreneurs and the positive brains of Britain, it appears to lack any understanding of how modern firms or networks operate. In Britannia Unchained, for example, it cites the example of a private taxi firm as being the exemplar of how Britain should compete- self reliant, customer focused, independent. Fine as far as it goes.

But isn’t the question- not how do I replace black cabs with independent ones, but how do we create the next Uber? The Buccaneers lack any appreciation of how important and vital free movement and international competition is to our success as a nation and to stimulating creativity. The UK needs deep and wide markets and competition to spur innovation and productivity gains. (Membership of the EU has spurred massive positive changes in this, as evidenced by the CASE economists at Warwick University.) Free movement is integral to this. Can a fast moving IT company wait months for an Indian professional to pass an endless points based system controls etc.? No. They bring them in from Finland today. Can the UK learn from and emulate competition if is out of a market as opposed to in it? It’s like turning up to a match to ‘wing it’ whilst your opponents have been practising and training for years. Despite all the desperate attempts to convince folks that the ‘British spirit’ or ‘Muddling on through’ will do it, the world just doesn’t work like that. It’s a game of small margins and by definition leaving the EU imposes a margin on UK firms and talent- it makes it harder for knowledge and talent to grow and flow, for firms to move and invest and for competition to be optimized.

There is also a muddled conception of free trade with the world that must be exposed. The UK via the EU already has very favourable terms of trade with the world and excellent market opportunities. It is inconceivable that it can negotiate better terms- over its whole economy- outside the EU, than within it, that’s just pure realpolitik. Moreover, there is a pernicious canard that somehow the EU prevents the UK having immigration from the rest of the world. Nothing prevents the UK today from inviting 24 million Australians to enjoy free movement within its territory. It’s precisely this muddled thinking and ideology that makes the Buccaneer prospectus dangerously illusory.

It is also philosophically flawed: how can one simultaneously turn your back on one of the world’s most sophisticated and successful examples of international cooperation- the EU- whilst claiming to be ‘good international citizens’? If Britain cannot make a go of working within the EU, how can it possibly work more effectively within weaker and more diffuse fora such as the G20, WTO etc. ?

It is also less than reassuring that politicians making such claims of ‘Leading in the world’ appear to be less than capable of being able to lead within the UK, let alone beyond it. One thinks of Mr. Farage’s inability to convince Scots of his position; of Mr. Redwood’s famous failure to find common ground with the Welsh when Secretary of State; of Mr. Davis’ less than spectacular performance when Europe Minister and his recent open display of ignorance about EU trade policies; of Mr. Johnson’s well attested diplomatic imbecilities. The English nationalist tendencies within Leave directly contradict the mindset and open mindedness required to make their project work.

Moreover, buccaneering abroad is bolstered by bust-up at home. This model is underpinned by a strong determination to reduce union power, break up public ownership and in Hannan’s case, replace the NHS which he deems ‘A massive mistake.’ It seeks to deregulate and roll back on climate change. As Patrick Minford observed, it would destroy British manufacturing. It is perhaps the logical unfolding of the Thatcher programme; and it is revealing that the authors of Britannia Unchanged hark back to the late 1970’s and early 80’s as the justification of their prospectus. It’s as if their political mindset and world view is captured in 80’s aspic; they are as disconnected from reality as the establishment elites they claim to oppose. And none of them have had any experience of or exposure to European politics or the realities of our Union. Cummings and Hilton would go even further in promoting a libertarian creative destruction of the State. It is obvious that such a destruction of public services and state functions would run directly counter to the expectations and desires of many Leave voters for more protection and intervention in their economic and social positions.

Moreover, the buccaneers in praying in aid the examples of Switzerland and Norway ignore the logic of size, specialization and endowment. It is quite possible for a small state with good specialization to make a go of it in an international world. But the UK is not such a state. Of course, one of the logics of the Buccaneer position is to push towards such a broken- up Britain: an independent London could flourish. Indeed, one of the emerging political tensions will be London- which voted 60:40 remain, is highly open to the world, constitutes 12.5% of the UK’s population but contributes 30% of her income. London would require good reasons not to want to be more autonomous. Furthermore, the Norwegian example forgets her endowment of massive energy reserves, essentially a Saudi Arabia on ice. This enables Norway to indulge a luxurious, nominal-sovereignty life-style – believing itself to be fully independent, subsidizing its quaint farming communities to prolong this illusion whilst heavily dependent on the European Union for its geopolitical survival. The UK, lacking such luck, cannot afford such delusions. And as for the Swiss? Mr. Farage’s simplistic argument ‘We could be like the Swiss- rich!’ ignores many inconvenient truths. For a start, Luxembourg- inside the EU- is richer than Switzerland. Moreover, the Swiss have a highly federal political structure, depend on massive immigration levels, pursue a poltical-economic business model predicated on tax evasion and finance whilst pursuing a foreign policy characterized by not joining anything (they only voted to join the UN in 2002[2], are outside NATO etc.) These are hardly characteristics that fit the United Kingdom’s position, traditions or ambitions.

The Fortress model is less developed but emerging. An interesting point of departure is May’s close adviser Nick Timothy, who is an open admirer of the Tory Joe Chamberlain, who led the (failed) attempt at Tariff Reform in the early 20th century. Timothy likes the Chamberlain emphasis on state support for education (and state interference in economic affairs, infrastructural spending etc). It is interesting to note that already government spending targets have been abandoned and massive borrowing to fund investments entertained.

What Timothy forgets (or declines to mention) is that Chamberlain’s thesis also foresaw a massive development of the British Empire into a closed trading bloc, sheltered by protectionist walls. Such a bloc is not available to the UK now and is never returning. A variant- promoted by Hannan- is an appeal to the (mediatized) notion of the ‘Anglosphere’—essentially a belief (for it has no real political or institutional foundation) that the Old Dominions (NZ, Canada, Aus, SA) plus the USA offer some form of partnership or competing Union to the EU. Again, these nations have long signaled that Britain should remain in the EU; and whilst some will doubtless offer trade deals if the UK leaves, this will not amount to any meaningful political or economic grouping. Timothy and Hannan both fail to grasp the logics of interdependence and the importance of institutions in managing this and ensuring a balance between efficiency, equity and effectiveness in our international relationships and citizens’ lives. Inter-governmentalism is not sufficient internationally; liberalism in one country is not sustainable internally or economically.

But the Fortress model will attempt to make this work. However, it will also embrace a vicious control of migration, which will undermine the development of skills and entrepreneurship (a protectionist barrier) whilst not being able to leverage the protected British Empire talent pool of Chamberlain’s dreams. There will be a heavy overlay of government surveillance and control of people, their hiring and contracting; and a curbing of the flow of students and researchers. This is an implicit tax on creativity and job creation.

To the extent that Fortress still attempts to access international financing, it will be interesting to see how markets will bet on an increasingly protected/ directed UK. Quite how public expenditure and taxation will function is to be seen. The signals to attack corporate wealth and leaders may also have the unintended consequences of capital and talent flight.

Conclusion: Le Pen is in power…in the UK

In many ways a populist, anti European and anti immigrant government is already in power in a major European state. Le Pen values and instincts are in government, just not (yet) in France. Of course polite Conservatives would prefer not to recognise this, but the fact is their party has been hollowed out and its centrist and liberal instincts almost snuffed out. Watching Ken Clarke, former standard bearer of Conservative Europeansim, is now a painful sight. The Eurosceptics- perhaps better termed Euro nihilists—are in charge. Britain has imposed upon itself its own France 1940 moment- a catastrophic collapse of a state and its geopolitical position, in a lightning campaign that surprised a lot of people. But as Marc Bloch mentioned in his classic ‘L’étrange défaite’, France then was like a wooden chair that to outward appearances looked sturdy, but that had been eaten away by ants; and it collapsed at the merest touch.

Britain is now that heap of wooden shavings on the floor.

But it need not remain so. But we must accept where we are.

First, let’s accept the referendum for what it was—and no more. It was a cunning stunt designed to extricate Mr Cameron from his party’s internal problems and it failed.

Secondly, the referendum is a denial of British democracy and a sign of just how internally eaten away is its governance structure. Representative democracy is dying and a weird media-ocracy populism is taking over. This has to be reversed and European friends will need to nurse Britain through this, whilst learning from common challenges to improve the EU’s functioning and legitimacy. Not all Leave beliefs about the EU were wrong- euro governance is wretched and the refugee crisis dire.

Thirdly, the referendum settles nothing and is not the settled will of the people. A lot can change in the coming months and will do so as realities bite. Britain needs time to sort itself out; it is suffering a nervous breakdown. Since many Leave behaviours and instincts are quite contrary to European values, the EU should discreetly encourage the 48% to keep going.

Fourthly, the referendum gives no answers only opens up questions. Neither of the emerging political economic models (Buccaneer or Fortress) look credible and both could damage relationships with European member states and the wider international system. The EU should act as firm friend to the UK and encourage it to find a way through its mess, which may even mean a return to full membership (at some stage.); whilst not in any way compromising its values or core principles. Keeping the door open would be very wise.

Fifthly, and as a sum of the above, the British are now in for a long struggle to regain direction, political coherence, leadership, national purpose and a sense of moral bearing. The Referendum unleashed a culture/identity war, similar to American contests, from which we can never return. Many things are certain to be broken and re-configured, including party alignment and territorial integrity. We see the Labour party nearly splitting. An independent Scotland is now more probable than ever. Further violent demonstrations and anger whipped up the Leave campaign can be expected; and a corresponding backlash from the 48%ers who (rightly) feel that their futures have been stolen through a deceitful referendum maneouvre. There will also be a section of Leave voters for whom the impossible promises of the campaign can never be met and who will remain resentfully available for any continuing populist insurgency.

Finally, despite the bleak position, it is clear how much is not settled and how much could be changed, if pro European voices and values were mobilized and if liberal Britain (from all parties and none) sought to fight back. It may take many punishing years of failure and hubris as Brexit unfolds; but all is not yet lost.


=====EDITS/ Updates

2016/09/16- added link to UKIP defectors to Conservatives from Guardian

[1] I thank Will Davies for illuminating this and Pat Kane