Brexit: getting from grief to acceptance, together

Brexit: getting from grief to acceptance, together

posted in: Europe, General Election | 0
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So we’ve taken back control, it’s now all of ours to use, not just those who voted to leave. Our future belongs to all of us and we all have to be a part of it. This means avoiding division and choosing unity. We must reject grief, childish belligerence or congratulatory backslapping. Our reaction matters. It matters to markets, to our position in the world and to the future we secure. The Brexit vote may be over, but the campaign has just begun. What we all do next will be the difference between being a successful outward looking nation forging a new path or a backward looking divided society fighting yesterday’s battle.

Brexit may not even happen. It wouldn’t be the first time an EU vote was ignored. In fact it would be wholly in line with the EU’s attitude to democracy. The French and Dutch voted against the Constitution in 2005 and were made to vote again as did Denmark over the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Greece’s anti-bailout landslide in 2013 was simply ignored and the country coerced into submission. Clearly, the EU is not known for its democratic character.

Rerunning votes until the “right” result is reached may be the European way, but it is not the British way. To ignore the will of the people would be an indictment on our democracy and a shameful embarrassment for a country with such a distinguished history of popular sovereignty.

So we need to accept the will of the people and focus on the future. There is much to negotiate and much at stake. Markets have fallen and the pound slumped. Project fear is turning into project reality – at least in the short term.

Markets rise and markets fall, with uncertainty and fear the most potent drags on growth. This is why our reaction matters. Fear is often self-fulfilling, especially to markets. If we continue to bury our heads in our hands and blame the other side we will do nothing but contribute to the problem.

Many on the Remain side are understandably angry but some of the grief on show is exaggeration bordering on self-indulgence. All is not lost. There is much to negotiate. If we are to secure a strong future we need to work together and most importantly, compromise.

Those who voted for Brexit must understand free movement of people from the EU is the necessary price of free trade. On the other side, those who stand to benefit from EU membership, the skilled, educated class must now come to terms with the fact that the legitimate concerns over immigration and economic and cultural dispossession must be addressed – ahead of the narrow economic concerns connected with our membership of the EU.

Our future relationship with the common market is still to be defined. We are after all still in the EU, and will be until 2 years after Article 50 is triggered – sometime in the autumn of 2018. It is absolutely conceivable that we will negotiate an acceptable position for all, remain part of the European Economic Area and render the current market uncertainty largely moot.

Therefore, if we are to move forward together we as a society must stop our plunge into vitriolic abuse, regather our senses and press for a negotiated outcome acceptable to all.

The non-negotiables – the Remain compromise

The vote actually settled little. As the Remain campaign correctly stated, there is no agreed view of the future from the Leave campaign. However, there are a few non-negotiable aspects that the Remain camp will have to concede as a democratic reflection of the will of the people.

The UK parliament must be sovereign – This should be obvious so I won’t dwell on it, but as part of any settlement the UK parliament must have control over all primary and secondary legislation. After all, we didn’t vote for political integration in 1975 or any time since. This has never had democratic legitimacy. In short, we must “take back control”.

Free movement must change – This will be the hardest part of the negotiation. Free trade without free movement of people may well be the stated wish of the Leave campaign but it’s unlikely. Both Norway and Switzerland accept free movement of people as the price for membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).

However, to ignore this question would be politically unacceptable. Immigration is a key concern for many people and it is not based on racism, nor xenophobia. This is very important and those voting remain and stand to benefit from EU membership need to fully appreciate the importance of the issue. It has 2 facets, one economic and one cultural. They are both legitimate but are both being questioned by some as a cloak for either racism or nationalism.

The economic argument is well known but worth restating because some of those for whom it is inconceivable that membership of the EU is anything but wholly positive see the Leave vote as a reckless act of financial arson, a self inflicted wound. Time will tell if this is true, but it is certainly not how everyone sees it.

Access to cheap labour from the continent has forced down wages of the low paid and low skilled. This was admitted by Lord Rose in the Remain camp, and by the Bank of England. Therefore – and this is vital – whether immigrants contribute to the exchequer is not of importance, it is the effect on wages that is of relevance here. Any cosmetic changes to access to benefits are therefore not sufficient.

Breakdown of the leave vote by council areas. Source: SkyData
Breakdown of the leave vote by council areas. Source: SkyData

Analysis of voters bears out the importance of this issue. Those who voted leave are poorer and less educated. As can be seen above, no area with a percentage of voters with a university education above 35% voted to leave. This shows that those without the means to take advantage of the EU, those most at risk of unskilled migration and the resulting insecure working conditions voted Leave.

If we value democracy we must respect and attempt to understand this concern.

The second argument is cultural, and possibly more troubling. A prevailing view exists – particularly among the older generation that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit – that there is much to be treasured and protected in British tradition and culture. The rate of change seen since the advent of free movement of people has put tremendous pressure on people to accept cultural norms that are alien to them, slowly altering their communities, leaving them uncomfortable and culturally, rather than economically, dispossessed. They don’t recognise their country any more.

The change has been rapid. Although net migration is roughly 330,000 a year, the short term inflow is far higher. More than 800,000 National Insurance numbers were granted to EU citizens last year, 75% are unskilled and would not pass the visa requirements in place for non-EU citizens. This rate of change is unprecedented in our history.

There is a fine line between this and xenophobia. However, to an overwhelming extent the British population has shown remarkable flexibility in meeting this inflow. Racists voted leave, to be sure, but they are a vanishingly small minority. To suggest the actions of a tiny few is representative of all Leavers is itself ignorant and narrow minded.

All that is asked of government is recognition and a reduction in the inflow of people. If the EU had met the British request (and that of other EU nations) during the renegotiation more flexibly we may not be in this situation now. Therefore, free movement should be addressed if we are to meet the democratic challenge set by the referendum result.

Meet the Brexiteers – we need to understand why we are a land of 17 million strangers. Source: The guardian

Before moving on, there’s one last thing the Remain campaign need to compromise on. A concerted effort needs to be made to try to understand Leave voters. They are not stupid, they are not racist. They simply do not believe they will benefit from the EU and they’ve been ignored for too long. The Remain campaign needs to take their share of responsibility for leaving this view to fester.

The negotiables – the Leave compromise

“Leavers” should not have it all their own way however. After all, it was only a 52-48 vote – hardly a landslide. It could be argued that if the aftermath of the result were known before the vote, it is doubtful we’d be having this discussion now. Therefore, the negotiation should recognise the needs of the Remain camp.

Free trade – The economic interests of the UK must be protected. Far from being a “little Englander” campaign, those of the Leave side suffered from a “big Englander” view, a feeling we are bigger and stronger than we are. They confidently say we are the 5th largest economy in the world, but we weren’t before we joined the European Community in 1973.

Although we should look elsewhere to drive our trade relationships, for we now have that freedom – most notably with India with whom European efforts at striking a deal have stalled for nearly a decade due to intransigent Italian textile workers – we need the EU, it’s as simple as that. It should also be noted that we have no trade negotiating capability in government, having effectively outsourced it to the EU for 30 years, so it’s unrealistic to expect a rash of deals to spring out of thin air within months.

So a vital concern of the negotiators must be to remain part of the EEA.

Scottish voices – Scotland voted against Brexit and this cannot be ignored. While it may be hard to bring them back into the fold, efforts should be made. Many Ukip voters may balk at the idea of Nicola Sturgeon being part of the cabinet but this could be a very positive move in healing the wounds of the campaign. I am aware she is not an MP but there are ways around that – politicians, like nature, (cue Jurassic Park reference) always find a way.

In any case, we need as many competent pairs of hands as we can get and she has proven herself a strong politician and tough as old boots.

Anyone but Boris (or Farage) – To see Boris Johnson in number 10 may well be a step too far from many on the Remain side. I would suggest even Leave voters may shudder at the thought of the bushy haired court jester facing Angela Merkel with matters of great importance on the line.

Theresa May seems a solid choice. She’s competent and the thought of a latter day “Iron lady” facing down the Europeans, navy blue handbag and all would be more than acceptable to the leavers. The idea of May, Sturgeon and Merkel around the negotiating table is a truly terrifying prospect!

A workable outcome

The result therefore is a negotiation, a compromise. The Brexit vote was not a landslide mandate for change. After all, Nigel Farage stated before the vote that a 52-48 vote the other way should leave the idea of a second referendum available.

So what would an acceptable picture look like? Below is a starting point that I believe acceptable to most.

We remain part of the EEA but impose a points based immigration system similar to that of Australia. Europe won’t go for that so we phase it in over 10 years and EU citizens have significant advantages to their points score. No EU citizen in the country goes home (it would be questionable under human rights law anyway) and no UK citizen is repatriated against their will. In return for the free movement restrictions, we offer access to our fisheries as today and offer subsidies to the EU for our oil and gas. We retain all powers of primary and secondary legislation.

This is very much a possible outcome although with innumerable details not mentioned here. Markets would be calmed, economic interests of both the EU and the UK protected but concerns of the Leavers addressed and control taken back.

Whatever the outcome of all this uncertainty we must leave the name-calling behind. Leave voters are neither stupid, nor racist or xenophobic as has been – rather predictably – the response of some sections of social media. Their anger at free movement of people and perceived powerlessness are real and legitimate. They must be respected.

So let’s all calm down, get back to being friends again and go and get a result we can all live with.

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