On Wednesday Theresa May will trigger Article 50 to begin the formal process of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. There will no doubt be much flag-waving, false-patriotism and baby-boomers getting teary-eyed as they sing along to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ while staring at a picture of the Cotswolds. It’ll be hailed by the majority of the print press as an event equivalent to when the colonies declared independence back in 1776. The Leave campaign will be at its most triumphant, most crowing: We did it, we won!
If you are one of the large minority who did not vote for Brexit in June last year, the jingoism of Wednesday may all be a bit to much to bear. But fear not, there is cause for optimism: Wednesday will represent the high-water-mark of the Brexit campaign, ‘Peak Brexit’, if you will. It will represent the last point in time before the true reality of what this Government has decided to do becomes apparent. From Wednesday, the tide of public opinion will slowly, inevitably, shift away from the hard Brexit that is being pursued by Theresa May.
Bold words you may say. Typical ‘Remoaner’. Fantasist. The people have decided! Why will they change their minds now?
If you have a few more minutes I will tell you why the separatist wet-dream being pursued by Theresa May’s Government will never be achieved and why, in the end, the arguments in favour of the European Union will prevail. I will do this by talking around three simple subjects: ‘The Will of the People’; ‘The Economic Reality’ and ‘Time’.
The Will of the People
A common line of attack by the Brexiteers uses this as a tag-line. The argument goes something like: “The people voted to leave the European Union. To argue against that now is undemocratic as it ignores the will of the people. Accept the result and carry on. The Government is enacting the will of the people.”
This is wrong on almost every count.
Firstly, let’s be clear on the result of the referendum. Looked at from an entirely impartial position, the referendum indicated one thing and one thing only: the country was split down the middle on this issue. The result did not give a clear mandate to head off on the decisive path now being pursued by our government and certainly was not so decisive that all opposition to that path should now cease. Likewise, it did not give a mandate to maintain the status quo. A reasonable government, in reasonable times, would have looked at the result and taken it as a very clear steer that the country is not particularly happy with the current arrangements with the EU and used it as a strong lever for a proper re-negotiation of the existing treaties. Exactly the same should have happened if the result were reversed.
The Government did not do this. It took the result as an excuse to tear the whole structure down. Why? Because our government is now being run by the very right of the Conservative Party – a group of people who have been crowing against Europe for longer than I can remember and who should really have joined UKIP a long time ago. As a result we’re heading to the most extreme of leaving options: leaving the single market as well as the Union.
Faced with a split vote the Government should have taken a third-way. They should have been brave and used he referendum as it was intended – advisory. They did not. They are using the ‘Will of the People’ argument to pursue their own personal political agendas.
There is a tiny, but fatal, flaw in the rhetoric that’s being peddled to prop-up a hard Brexit: The overwhelming number of people in this country did not vote to leave the European Union. Only 37.7% of a somewhat constrained electorate voted to leave. The ‘will of the people’ was in fact to do nothing. This is important for one very simple reason: Brexit will effect 100% of the population. The effect will be negative. Consider how large a swing we’ve seen in recent General Elections, where 47% of people can vote of Labour one year but only 26% support them today. The electorate is fickle and, as the impacts of the government’s course of action start to hit home, their opinion will change.
The referendum was a snapshot of views on a particular day in June. No more, no less. The ‘will of the British People’ changes daily and I can absolutely guarantee you that, if you’d held a second referendum on the day after the first, the percentages for each option would have been quite different. To use ‘the will of the people’ as the mainstay reason for implementing your policy leaves you very exposed when it starts to become blindly obvious that public opinion has shifted against you.
The Economic Reality
On the day after the referendum the Leave campaign had something of a crisis on their hands: they’d actually won. This was an outcome that nobody had expected. They thought they would run a close race but nobody actually thought they’d emerge triumphant. As the implications of the result sank in those who’d led the campaign quickly manoeuvred themselves to positions where they’d have as little involvement as possible in actually implementing the result.
Why did they do this? Why was the result a problem?
Simple: When you’re running a campaign intended to be no more than a protest vote you can promise whatever you like. You can make all kinds of wild claims and never have to worry about being held to account. You do and say anything you can to get that little-bit-more airtime. However, when you accidentally win, and are suddenly the ones running the show, serval million chickens start coming home to roost. As anyone who has owned chickens knows – this doesn’t end well.
The classic example of this is the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election. Always assumed to be a party of constant opposition it was easy for the Lib Dems to push through some quite outlandish or aspirational policies – things they’d do if they ‘ever got into power’ (knowing the odds of that were quite low). The problem in 2010 was that they actually ended up in government and, very rapidly, realised that certain promises were simply not financially viable given the state the country was in. Tuition fees was one example of this but there are many more. The electoral effect on the party was disastrous and is one from which they’re only just starting to recover.
A second example, unfolding in front of our eyes as I write this, comes from our friends in the USA.
Trump was never going to win. Not in a million years. It was unthinkable and most of the national polls had him way behind. Sat in this position he was free to promise the world: If he got elected healthcare would be ‘great’, immigration would be ‘stopped’, he would ‘build a wall’; all those jobs that had been lost due to automation would be ‘brought back’ and America would be ‘great again’.
These are easy things to promise in an election campaign but very hard things to deliver in reality. Trump will not be able to accomplish many, if any, of the things he said he would because, like the rest of us, he is living in the real world. His failure to get healthcare through and to he rebuttal of his ‘Muslim ban’ are but the first examples of this. There will be more and, as a result, his support will evaporate.
And then there’s Brexit.
Vote Leave never thought they’d win and so, like Trump, were able to promise the world: Brexit will ensure that you all have jobs, British jobs, and that all those closed factories are opened again. Brexit will solve all the problems in the NHS as all the money we send to Brussels will be used to fix it. Brexit will prevent any more nasty immigrants coming to this country. Brexit will allow you to take back control and make Britain great again! Brexit will save you all.
But it won’t
Each one of these promises will fail to be delivered. There will not be an endless stream of new jobs. The closed factories will remain closed and more will follow them. Immigration will not drop off a cliff (we need it and a fair chunk of it is not from the EU) and the NHS will continue to lurch along in a perpetual state of crisis. The solution to the problems this country has are not going to be solved by leaving the European Union but, rather than focussing on actually sorting out these issues, the Government will now spend the next two years completely bogged down in a series of negotiations and desperate trade deals. Brexit is an unnecessary distraction and complication.
As it becomes clear to the British people that they have been taken along on one of the greatest cons of all time the support for Brexit will falter, and then collapse. The problem we have is there isn’t currently going to be another referendum. In the US they can vote Trump out in three years. After the coalition the Lib Dems paid the penalty for going back on their pledges. Brexit will rapidly become a hugely unpopular policy that there isn’t a clear route for the electorate to do anything about. But that does not mean it shouldn’t be opposed. The 2020 election will be where the price is paid.
This is a simple one: Time is on Remain’s side.
The reason why the Brexiteers are so keen to move so quickly to drag us out of the European Union is because they know that time is their enemy. They know that every day that passes is a day closer to their false promises being revealed for all to see. They know that, after Wednesday, support for their cause is only going to decrease: No government has ever seen an increase in its poll ratings in the period immediately after it is elected as it starts to implement its difficult policies.
They also know that the country may have been split down the middle on the Brexit issue but it was not split evenly: Those under the age of forty voted to remain, those older than forty voted to leave. As you go to each end of the age spectrum the split becomes even more extreme. Under thirties voted overwhelmingly to remain and the opposite is true for the over sixties.
The leave camp know that, as weeks turn to months and months turn to years, their core vote shrinks. They know that the next generation, and the one after that, are fiercely pro-European. They know that, if the referendum had been held in 2026, instead of 2016, they would have lost by a mile.
And that is why I am optimistic.
We are at ‘Peak Brexit’. Leave have never had it so good. They’ve had a nine-month honeymoon since the referendum that’s about to come to a jarring end. Time is against them, the economic realities and ‘real world’ will soon start to bite and the primary argument about implementing the ‘will of the people’ will soon start to unravel.
The British people are not fools. They have long memories and a track record of holding governments to account. They will not forget the promises that were made by the leave campaign and will soon realise that they’ve been taken for a ride. They will realise that the hard Brexit policy being pursued by the Conservative government is something designed to satisfy their own party urges, and not to do what’s best for the country.
Brexit may have won the battle on the 23rd June but it will ultimately loose the war. Do not think that this is over. Do not be fooled by the rhetoric that states that opposing this act of national self-immolation is undemocratic. Opposing this mess is more important now than it has ever been. A strong and determined opposition to the Brexit process over the next two years will chime with public opinion and will leave government in 2019 facing a very difficult choice indeed. While the government may not be swayed, Parliament will be. Lack of opposition will allow the Conservative party do as it pleases and to leave the EU at any cost – a policy that will be as damaging for the country as it will be divisive.
So grin and bear the ‘celebrations’ next Wednesday. Don’t get upset by the red-white and blue headlines on all the national press. Brexit as a cause is based on a series of populist slogans that it will be impossible to implement.
Brexit is on borrowed time and is about to be very publicly exposed for the fallacy it is.