Let’s talk about Brexit.
We all recall how it started. David Cameron, way back when he was Prime Minister (remember that?), agreed to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union, in order to unite his party and lay that whole silly business to rest.
Well, as we know, it didn’t turn out quite like that. He campaigned to Remain, but Remain lost. And Mr Cameron, debonair as ever, walked away from the conflagration, whistling gaily.
It will take some time before Brexit’s real history is written. The books on the subject that I have read have all, in some respect, fallen far short. Tim Shipman’s All Out War, self-described as “the full story of Brexit”, was a gossipy account of the details of the Brexit Referendum campaigns which was a classic case of not seeing the wood for the trees. To illustrate what I mean, the main reason I bought it was to clarify in my mind a very fundamental thing which had not been explained: was the referendum legally binding or merely advisory? In its whole 688 pages, the book did not answer that simple question.
Other books I have read, though more congenial to my outlook, are equally frustrating, in that any cool and dispassionate tone quickly gives way to fury and polemic. Nine Lessons in Brexit by Ivan Rogers is an example of this. Even Kevin O’Rourke’s Short History of Brexit, though probably the most valuable of the books I have read on the subject, gets bogged down in the wrong sort of detail (in my probably misguided opinion).
I want to take a little time here to set out in calm, factual terms what seems to me the essential point about the whole Brexit business. It goes something like this….
The Referendum was, in fact, advisory and not binding. There was no commitment in the European Union Referendum Act itself to implement whatever advice the electorate might choose to give to the Government. It was entirely the Conservative Government’s own decision to state, in manifestos and leaflets, that they would do so.
The electorate were provided with information, much of it conflicting, about what leaving the European Union would mean. Each campaign rubbished much of the information provided by the other side. The Remain campaign’s warnings of the damage that would be caused by leaving were dismissed as “Project Fear.” On the other hand, the official Leave campaign’s promises were open to arguably even greater legitimate doubt.
Here is an article detailing some of these to-say-the-least-doubtful statements: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/final-say-brexit-referendum-lies-boris-johnson-leave-campaign-remain-a8466751.html
There were dirty tricks. Maybe the dirtiest trick of all occurred in the aftermath of the murder of MP Jo Cox on 16 June, just seven days before the Referendum. Remain and Leave agreed to suspend campaigning until Sunday 19 June, as a mark of respect. However, it has been credibly alleged that Leave.EU (the unofficial Leave campaign headed by Arron Banks) deliberately decided to continue aggressive campaigning during this period: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/08/arron-banks-ignored-deal-to-stop-pro-brexit-ads-after-jo-cox-death
It has been officially concluded by the Electoral Commission that there was extensive overspending by the official Vote Leave campaign: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-44856992
In addition, the Conservative Government spent £9.3 million of public money on making and distributing a pro-EU leaflet, which, because it was done prior to the start of official campaigning, did not have to be declared. Though no rules were breached, this caused a good deal of understandable resentment: https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/992576/Brexit-news-remain-unfair-advantage-david-cameron-independent-commission
In July 2018, when the Electoral Commission fined Vote Leave for its substantial overspending, it was argued that this meant the vote was illegitimate. However, the vote could not be annulled legally because it was advisory: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-referendum-vote-leave-spending-cheating-electoral-commission-rerun-what-happens-now-a8451601.html
That is the absurd, horrible crux of the whole thing. If the Referendum had been binding, it could have been annulled because of the breaches that took place. But it was only an advisory referendum, which the Government had merely decided to treat as binding. The decision cannot be revoked, because it was never officially a decision at all.
(And after all, the result of this advisory, non-binding referendum was marginal: 51.9% to 48.1%. So marginal, indeed, that when polling closed for the Referendum Nigel Farage thought Remain had won: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/eu-referendum-nigel-farage-remain-edge-it-brexit-ukip-a7098526.html)
Suppose you ask for my advice about something. Say, whether we should stop our membership of a club. I am given a great deal of information to help me decide. Much of this information is contradictory, much turns out to be inaccurate. Anyhow, after sifting through it all, I say to you: “Well, I’m very much in two minds, but on the whole I think we should leave.”
And you say, “That’s good enough for me.”
So we start to arrange leaving. During this process it becomes more and more apparent that leaving would be a harmful thing to do. “Actually…” I say.
But you stop me. “No. You have made your decision. It is your Will. And I have to carry out your Will, whatever the consequences.”
I say, “But what if I have changed my mind?”
You tell me sternly, “That’s none of my business. I’m not even going to ask you if you have changed your mind. It is my sacred duty to carry out your Will.”
“But I was told many wrong things. You know I was. You told me some of them yourself. You said leaving would be easy peasy. But it isn’t easy peasy. It’s going to cost us a flaming lot of money. It could easily kill us. And after all, you only asked my advice. It was your decision to accept it. This is not my sacred Will. Not any more it’s not. Come on, let’s stop, this isn’t fun any more.”
“I’ve got to do it. I have no choice. It is your Will.”
“But it’s not my Will! Go on, ask me if it’s my Will!”
“I’ve already asked you and you’ve told me. I’m not going to ask you again, that would be a betrayal. I must carry out your Will.”
And so on.
So many lies. So much posturing. So many Union Jacks to drape around one’s shoulders, so many references to the Will of the People to shoehorn into every speech. So much time to waste. So much money to throw away. So many industries to bankrupt, so many jobs to lose.
On the night of the Referendum, there was a catastrophic run on the pound, from which we have never recovered. To put it in simple terms, since that day we have never been able to exchange pounds sterling for anything like the same amount of euros we were able to get previously. So much money, gone. So much lost from our economy, and from every one of us, at a stroke. Well, no one rejoiced at that. At least, almost no one….