As a child of an immigrant who settled here from central Europe in the 1930’s I am very aware of the ability of siren voices to appeal to and lead nations to believe that there are simple, radical solutions to the problems of their economic reality. The convenience of scapegoating – in that case a religious group – to focus discontent proved a disaster unprecedented in human history.
If I reflect on the economic reality of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, I remember the UK being dubbed the ‘sick man of Europe’. Restrictions on travel and how much we could take with us, IMF bailouts, a three day week, power cuts and restrictive practices in industry which led to the production of some of the worst cars in western Europe at the time were prevalent. Discord reigned.
Then we joined the EEC. Suddenly we could work in any of 8 other countries (I went to France), we could travel, buy houses in countries like France (and later Spain). Foreign investment came in because they could see the potential – a skilled workforce needing direction, tarif-free access to other EEC countries which brought the likes of Honda and Toyota to a country where the native language was the international language of business. Ours became one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. It attracted workers from other countries to support this – without them it couldn’t have worked since for success we needed a larger labour pool than we had. Most were young, energetic and willing to work, culturally opening us to a wider world.
Over in Ireland the transformation was even greater – they were no longer dependent on the old neighbour but could branch out and get support from much further afield.
And there was peace in Europe. Winston Churchill’s hope that we should play a prominent part at the heart of Europe had come to pass.
There was a feeling of economic optimism which dragged us back to health and reminded us that cooperation, not discord, is what works.
There were doubters, of course, as there should be. A healthy scepticism makes us reflect, and there were many who still felt we had the right to see ourselves as an independent world power able to stand alone. But that was not the reality.
There were downturns, too, like our departure from the ERM – we joined, but the reality soon showed us it had been an error, so the mistake was corrected. Through the 80’s and 90’s the leadership in the form of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, too, believed that we should be at the heart of Europe to retain an influence, though they fought for exceptions and opt outs for our own prosperity and security as a price for staying at the heart of an organisation to which we were seen as important – advantages which we still have but which other members do not.
Fast forward to 2008.
After years of economic success many had started to become overconfident – the shackles on banks and the loans market had been lifted in the 8o’s ‘yuppie boom’. I recall almost daily receiving unsolicited letters encouraging me to borrow, borrow, borrow. It was safe as houses.
Then the bottom fell out. The overstretched banking system went into freefall and, to avoid a repetition of the awful disaster of the 1930’s, our governments (yes, plural) had no alternative but to step in to prevent a calamity.
But there was payback. To do so the UK government, unlike some others, chose a programme of austerity rather than investment. Spending cuts bit deep and continue to do so. And, of course, it was those least able to withstand this who bore the brunt. Discontent grew but did not get its full expression.
The siren voices on the right of the conservative party grew louder again and the rise of UKIP gave a voice to many more.
To appease them, David Cameron agreed to include a commitment to a referendum on membership of the EU in his party’s manifesto. According to Donald Tusk, Cameron never believed it would come to pass as his coalition partners would never agree. Thus he could let the sceptics have their cake without being able to eat it.
It backfired. First, he won the election outright and so was forced to carry out the manifesto commitment. Secondly, he put the question in the simplest possible terms without defining what leaving the EU would entail. Being unexpected, little if any thought or preparation was put into this scenario.
Here I add some other background. For years, indeed decades, a drip drip of misinformation about the EU had been fed through the popular press. Ideas from the shape of bananas to an invasion by 80 million Turks. 421 such false headlines have been identified over the span of our membership. These engendered a feeling that we were ‘not in control’. In reality we had as much say at all levels and in all institutions as all other member states. Further misinformation about how laws were made was also drip fed. We helped construct, agreed to and accepted 92% of the laws enacted by the EU and declined only 7% (some of which had no relevance to us like laws controlling the production/distribution of olive oil). Finally, like all members, we had a veto.
The essence of this all was cooperation and compromise as the means to achieve success. Yes, some concessions sometimes need to be made in such arrangements, but the overall benefits to all involved in such cooperation far outweigh the drawbacks. And all members have to make concessions, not just us (witness the aforementioned concessions made to us in the drawing up of the Maastricht treaty and Margaret Thatcher’s opt-outs and rebates – which we still enjoy!)
This brings us now to the referendum campaigns and the ‘debate’ itself, the character of which was woeful. The ‘remain’ side could muster little more than what Boris Johnson described contemptuously as ‘project fear’, telling us of the dire consequences to the pound in our pockets of leaving. The contempt with which this was treated was matched only by the falsehoods, slogans and vague fantasies expressed by those who wished to leave. The misinformation was scarcely challenged in real debate as campaigners retreated to and entrenched themselves in positions fronted by slogans and generating much heat but little light.
We were led by donkeys.
The remain camp failed miserably to answer the question ‘What did the EU ever do for us?’ (echoes of the Life of Brian) and the leave camp offered us false images and blatant lies about the money we would save (much of which actually came straight back from the EU in grants and subsidies) and the prospect of ‘hoardes’ (David Cameron’s word?) of Turks flooding to our shores for work (in reality Turkey is no nearer to membership than it was 10 years ago). The subsequent rise in intolerance towards foreigners – given legitimacy by the campaign – has itself been deeply disturbing.
In truth, it gave those experiencing the worst of austerity the opportunity to kick the establishment as identified by messrs. Cameron and Osborne (the architect of austerity in the UK), protected as they were by wealth and privilege.
It also gave many who had felt the decline of the UK as an influential world power (in favour of its influence as a member of a larger bloc) an opportunity to express their concern. By and large, younger voters, who after all will inherit our status, were happier by 2:1 to retain our membership, as it would give them the opportunities their parents had had to live, study and work abroad. Why should they be deprived of the benefits their parents had enjoyed? Older voters, by contrast chose the leave option by about 2:1.
The result we all know, but the consequences have been, if possible, even more woeful. The entrenchment of positions and the rise in intolerance are evident. Whilst more information has become available, the quality of debate seems scarcely to have improved, especially if contributions to social media are a reflection of the nation’s views. Much of it remains at the school yard level from ‘remoaners’ whinging ‘we told you so’ to Brexiteers boasting ‘we won, you lost, so shut up’. The lack of recognition that only one third of voters actually supported the result (and citizens living elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens living here had no say) and that the margin was so small hold little sway with the noisy assertion that ‘the people have spoken’.
In reality we knew little of what we were voting for, and had only a distorted view of what we were voting against. The complexity of the withdrawal process was never acknowledged (well expressed by Robert O’M‘s explanation to his 6 year old son that 28 people spent years building a house of lego together, and then one of them decided he wanted his bricks back – the blue ones – and the boy immediately saw the complexity of it), nor has any coherent picture of how the UK will fully function after Brexit ever been put forward – just vague words, confident assurances and fantasies. We were assured that the EU would come running to us to make a new deal. Why should they? 42% of our trade is with them, yet we represent just 6% of theirs. So who really holds the cards in this situation?
Most of the leave campaign leaders fled the scene early on and have made no contribution to the aftermath they helped to create so vociferously, leaving others to pick up the pieces. And finally we have the muddled shambles of a ‘plan’ to get us through it because, after all, ‘the people have spoken’ even though few of us at the time had any idea what it would entail. Among the chief lemmings, the insistence that we should still all jump off the cliff because that’s what ‘we’ decided to do still prevails, even if jumping off a cliff might now look less of a rewarding prospect. Or to use a different analogy, we are told we should continue down this dark tunnel even though we don’t know where it will lead just because when we entered the tunnel it seemed like a good idea to half of us at the time. A more mature response of looking back and reconsidering in the light of new information seems to carry little weight with these blinkered souls. Sadly, almost all of us who use social media or read papers are trapped in echo chambers where we see only posts or articles from those who share our views – trapped in a perpetual spiral – and are insufficiently exposed to alternative views or real argument.
In the meantime, the uncertainty has almost frozen new investment, our economy is now one of the slowest growing in Europe (so different from 2016) and thus our ability to pay back loans and reduce austerity seems to have diminished. The negative aspects of withdrawal have started emerging even before we have left. But the siren voices still say ‘it is what we voted for’.
It isn’t. It’s far from it. It has yet to show us anything positive. The messy, hopeless reality of Brexit is upon us, yet our representatives squabble and bicker, showing little ability to extract us from this mire.
Brexit is not the answer to our nations problems. It never was. It was just a convenient scapegoat for the discontented. We need to be in a position of influence – a seat at the table – as we have been, not a return to being the sick man of Europe drifting in our little off-shore fog, deluded into believing we on our own are still a great power.
As in the mid 70’s when we joined, we need the support of the countries around us (as we support them), the peace and prosperity this has brought and a sense of togetherness which we now so sadly lack. We need the opportunity to reflect on a bad decision and to rescind it. To those who say this is undemocratic I ask how so? How is one vote democratic, yet another one not? That makes no sense. It is just a view put forward by those who fear the nation may really have changed its mind. Why else do we hold general elections every 4 years, if not to give us the opportunity to change our minds or change direction?
We need a chance to pull out of this mad, headlong dash before it is too late.