Before 23rd June 2016 – thoughts on the EU Referendum.
Theoretically, the Referendum should be about this. "Although the ideal of a Europe-wide, co-operative community is altruistic, has it – in actuality – failed irreparably and become too corrupted from its original conception to be fixable? Is it time to abandon it rather than to continue reforming it from within?"
It is clear, from the claims/counterclaims that Remain and Brexit factions peddle, that this has been lost to an emotional polarisation into Remainers or Brexiters.
To gain some insight into who is for out, let's look at the general political spectrum that is behind the Brexit movement and use the metaphor of "producing and sharing the cake" to do so.
Those to the extreme right wing of the parties largely see the value of "cake" as a way for them to make fat profits to fill their wallets. Everyone "needs" a bit of the "cake" to live comfortably. This point is of little importance to the right winged. They largely see that "cake making" presents the opportunity for accumulating large profits by building "cake" factories and controlling the "cake" market. They are often keen to buy costly education for their children and buy private health care for themselves. They are much more likely to see public services (welfare, education and health services) as millstones that suck their profits away (the Rebublican wing in USA politics is a good example). They are eager for any change that could lead to greater personal profits. They are not inclined to be willing sharers of the "cake" (everyone wants/needs a bit of "cake"). They are far more likely to ring fence their interest around "me". They are very much more inclined to cherish "me/mine" at the expense of a broad "them" and this is amplified by differences in colour, language, affiliation and "normality" (eg, the Nazi cleansing of "sub-normals").
Those in the middle part of the political spectrum understand that, to have an efficient "cake" making enterprise, human nature dictates that there must be some incentive (a potential to make profits) for the "cake" producers (organisers of the business, the factories and the distribution of cake). However, these incentives must be moderate rather than obscene ("obscene" is OK on the extreme right). Also, the "cake" factory owners provide opportunities and income for their workers. The making of fortunes out of the general public's need for "cake" should remain reasonable and it needs to be sensitive to the needs of the disadvantaged. A proportion of our profits must be shared – we need to culture an egalitarian society. They are far more likely to ring fence their interest around an extended "us" that stretches as far as other animals and even "Gaia" (note the right's denial of global warming). This middle ground disapproves of xenophobia. Working politicians quite often align themselves as centre-left or centre-right rather than belonging to one pole or the other.
Those on the extreme left wing of the parties see that there is much "cake" out there. They believe that they have a right to it without having to make much effort to produce the "cake". Given the opportunity, they will set themselves up as the party elite and ensure that they commandeer a disproportionately large share of the "cake" profits. Hence the experience of Communism (with a big C) rather than the kibbutz style of commune-ism (with a little c). They unashamedly ring fence their interest around "me" and are less particular about who constitutes "them" provided that they don't threaten to hoard and control "cake".
So who are the people that are eager to escape the common market? what political tendency do they have? Well, the BBC published a nice graph that displays this.
I suspect that the proselytising Brexiters are, by and large, much less likely to be naturally inclined sharers. They are populated by a large proportion of "me" centred, profit minded people.
So what do we make of the point they make about freeing up all this EU subscription money so that it is now available for education, welfare and health? Or could it, instead, be intended for making fatter profits? Do any of their arguments about Brussels red tape and obstructionism have a bearing on releasing constraints to make fatter profits?
There are two big arguments used by the Brexiteers. First, there is the "waste of money in and on the EU". They want us to believe that our EU subscription is all cost and no return; and that savings would be used to make us all (egalitarian style) better off. They emphasise that, when the UK economy is doing well (GDP is up) the EU swipes it away. Well, no, it is not all swiped away. In true egalitarian style, if we are doing well (earning more) we do end up contributing a proportion of this "profit" to the greater good. Equally, in bad times, we might benefit from a shift the other way. This is little different from general taxation; we know that the "Blue" end of the spectrum dislikes paying lots of tax. They tend to dislike anything that forces them to conform to the common good at the expense of personal profits.
[Taxation would be a great subject for the "next referendum": do we wish to stop paying taxes? I bet that we would have, at the very least, a 60% vote in favour of severely reducing if not simply scrapping taxation altogether].
The second big argument is immigration. So, who are the entitled EU immigrants that make it into this country? By and large, they are people who are contributing handsomely to the growth of our economy. They are prepared to work hard and they bring skills that our government does not have to pay for. Their loss would be also be a net loss to the nation. What about the immigrants cramming Europe's shores from Middle Eastern and African countries? First, we have had a substantial hand in creating this crisis (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria – we do not learn that intervention, more often than not, backfires); however, we would dearly like not to have to deal with this consequence. Here is a group of immigrants that are so desperate to escape their lot that they will risk their lives (in the hope of gaining something marginally better, in countries with constitutions that laud civil liberties and fairness). Will that go away if we Brexit Europe? Will we be able to better control this problem? Or is this is a problem of the modern world? Are Norway and Switzerland exempt from this pressure? It might be nice to think that Britain can go back to the days of a glorious Empire (where the indigenous populace of our Empire were regarded as lower classes and cruelly used). But, we are in a different world now. Former glory days are unlikely to return. However, Britain does have one great strength; we are a grown up society, with a reputation for philanthropy, that has led the world in reform and legislative example. This is still our strength and we can do much to bolster up our apparent indispensability by working within international groups to move the global community away from corruptive regimes to caring and responsible communities.
"Gaining back control" cannot be done without "isolating" ourselves and, in consequence, even diminishing ourselves. This is a high risk strategy and it runs counter to the general trend in societal maturation. It may prove a beneficial – temporary – step back but the world is "going global"; there is little that we can do (or even, perhaps, should do) to reverse the trend. And what, anyway, is sovereignty? First, it's a word that slips off the lips easily. Second, our sovereign has hardly any power and only an honorary influence. Her family has long since lost their sovereignty over British power and wealth. In the days when it was still real, it meant the sovereign could, dictator fashion, do what they wanted and take what riches they liked. The Magna Carta saw the first erosion of this form of sovereignty. So "gaining back sovereignty" is, at least partially, "grabbing back the power to do what the hell I like". But we are all accustomed to the forfeit of sovereignty. In our own homes (the Englishman's castle perhaps) few would challenge our personal sovereignty. But even there we have to compromise with our partners and our offspring. And so, sovereignty is progressively forfeited to the common good as we extend our horizons from home to street to town to country to Europe to the World community and then to the protection of Gaia herself (Donald Trump – from the right – is giving us a salutory lesson on how to ignore this in favour of self interest). This acquiescence to an international form of sovereignty is an inevitable fact of 21st century existence. We cannot grab back local sovereignty (control) without forfeiting international relationships. If we did, we might have to fight a war to grab it back – and we'd almost inevitably lose. We no longer war with our close neighbours – they are currently our partners.
And then there is Brexit's greatest trump card. Despite all the talk and veneer of political correctness, we humans are physiologically inclined to revert to xenophobia. This reflects the animal side of our behaviour; tolerance and inclusiveness come more from our intellectual behaviour. The immigration issue – throughout the world – has become a major vote catching strategy (mainly for the radical right). It is a dishonest tactic and a veneer beneath which radical right ideas can foment away, relatively immune from criticism or condemnation. Farage's party have rather nailed their colours to the wall on this one in the last few days. Unmitigated xenophobia is being pedalled – like many other far right winged resurgences across Europe and the world. Our consumer society fuels this self-centredness; but consumerism cannot survive without co-operative productiveness.
We have been steadily moving ever closer to a homogenisation of all our differences (colour, class, creed, wealth, power and so on). This is like entropy; whilst it might be delayed it cannot be resisted forever. Rather than fighting it, we need to manage it – particularly avoiding sudden changes that lead to pockets of violent reaction and resistance (like right winged resurgences). A resistance to a more even distribution of wealth is what that dominantly "blue" parliamentary support for Brexit affirms. Unfortunately, the masses that are seduced by the xenophobic cry would be segregated from any even distribution of wealth and welfare by the very group that are pedalling this phobia. The Brexiteers that actively pedal this as their battle cry want more for themselves at the expense of the masses.
So that brings us back to the real question. Has this (admirable) vision of a united and co-operating Europe become so bogged down in inefficiencies and fault lines that we have no option other than to break away? There may be an argument to support this view but, if it is true, would it not be better repaired from within rather than risk throwing in a "bomb" that will blow all this hard earned and altruistic co-operativity apart?
Another facet of this Right Wing effect is reflected in the recent shootings in the USA. Superficially, the xenophobic response is to ascribe this to an extreme Islamic plot to damage the USA and the West. However, the emerging theme seems to be that the perpetrator was experiencing animal/cultural conflict in his own identity. In Britain and much of Europe this would have probably resulted in a much smaller scale reaction. In the USA, the "off-the-supermarket-shelf" availability of firearms has made it easy for the emotional conflict in a lone individual to have devastating consequences. In Britain and Europe it is accepted that the self centred wish to play with firearms must be surrendered to the greater social good of protecting the general population from such weapons. Again, the right and extreme right (in the USA) are the group that laud their right to do what they want as individuals and invent excuses to justify their selective amblyopia. "Me" self interest takes precedence over the common good.
Now, we also have the cruel and needless murder of Jo Cox, MP, a staunch proponent of the Remain cause. We owe it to her honour and memory – not to change our intention of the way we will vote – but to ask ourselves, candidly, am I being seduced into voting a particular way by a sense of xenophobia, a panic about being swamped by immigrants. If you are, then candidly answer this question: will the immigration problem be solved by leaving Europe or will it continue unabated? The Brexit campaign is claiming that they can stop it but they will only do so by deep isolation and the withdrawal of international co-operation (but, they tell us, we will still be able to establish cooperative trade arrangements etc). Short of enforced repatriation, deep isolation is the only way to get rid of "them". Norway and Switzerland (Brexit's business models of how we would be able to survive outside the EU) are not exempt from this same 21st century problem.
And, a final word. We are in a big pickle now; the large majority of sitting MPs would vote for remain. However, it is the self interest of the Conservative party that has got us into this situation of holding a public referendum (the result of which is going to be influenced strongly by emotional polarisation rather than rational analysis). The Conservatives became terrified of losing voters and MPs (and thus power) to UKIP. I think we need to rule out similar future referenda by insisting that a majority of between 66 and 85% of MPs should be needed to approve any similar referenda in the future. We, the public, democratically elect MPs to take politically informed decisions such as remaining in or leaving the UE.
After the Referendum – the outcome and comments
I have no doubt that fears of being swamped by immigrants is what, very substantially, gifted Brexit with their win; Nigel Farage fully understood this. The Brexit campaigners should now be held to account if they fail to change the level of immigration – for whatever reason that proves to be. The reigning government, that is charged with taking us out of Europe, will, hopefully, be bound to behave ethically. I receive a welter of emails – purportedly jokes – that peddle xenophobic humour. The more that is peddled, the safer the senders believe it becomes to promulgate such attitudes. We are all fundamentally, at the animal-vs-intellectual level, inclined to revert to xenophobia.
Campaigners should be held to account for selling beliefs as facts. This is a fundamental flaw in our political campaign system. The people touting for votes are able to sell "facts" rather than argue "beliefs". When they peddle "facts" they should be held responsible if they fail to deliver their promise or the "facts" prove to be insupportable. They would soon see the expedience of reverting to "I believe ..." "and this is my reason for that belief". Instead we have been peddled absolute certitudes that are probably and largely vaporous. On this account, we need to insist that the NHS is now given an extra £350 million a week when we stop our EU subscription.
The earlier "European Union (Referendum) Bill of 2013-14 was voted through the commons on a majority of 305 with nearly all Labour and Liberal Democrats abstaining (a clear protest against a majority outcome that they could not influence). The Lords eventually killed this particular bill. It was resurrected in 2015 after the surprise win by the Conservatives who had promised, in their manifesto, to hold such a referendum before the end of 2017 (that was, in retrospect, a warning shot across the bows). It was clearly an attempt to head off a haemorrhage of their MPs and their votes to UKIP. This time, instead of abstaining, the other parties accepted the inevitable (probably also realising that this was losing them votes) and it was voted through with a majority of 544 to 53 (the Scottish National Party voting against). In retrospect, this was a mistake on Labour's part. The belief, at the time, was that it had little chance of procuring an "exit" vote. In my opinion, Parliament should never have given up its right to set policy and allow this bill to be passed so that the outcome would be decided on the transient whim of the people. We elect MPs to govern and make such decisions. If this proposal, to hold a referendum, had required a 66-80% majority vote (something that a vast majority of MPs fully approve of) it would probably never have succeeded and an EU exit would have had to be advocated within the policies of the parties standing for the next general election.
Democratic voting is a potentially flawed system. It can result in outcomes that are dominantly the result of circumscribed self interests without any regard to the common good. Our first past the post, party-driven system of vote-counting allows this sort of swing whereas proportional representation dampens it greatly. Parties from the extreme right (or left – though this is currently a lower probability) can easily woo the electorate with policies that most, in current positions of power, regard as invidious. We have learnt from the history of various extreme regimes that they can carry out obscene injustices when furnished with the power to do so. This raises an important point about "democracy"; does anyone have the right to prevent or inhibit the electorate from voting into power political groups that many of us agree are unsavoury? Can the electorate be trusted to deliver sensible and egalitarian decisions without some method of dampening out the emergence of extremism? And would we be entitled to impose it? I guess we would if this became a consensus view of all sitting MPs, the house of Lords and a representative group of head judges. This would, again, require a very high consensus agreement before implementaion (90-95% ish). It could outline the limits of what is acceptable matter for electioneering and disenfranchise those who abuse it.
I have used this "circumscribed self interest" point to suggest that a referendum on whether to reduce taxation or even abolish tax would almost certainly lead to a massive tax reduction and the crippling of general services. Anarchy would then rule. Another example is the reality of global warming. There is a frightening, majority belief that this is just scare mongering and we have no need to worry about our energy profligate cultures. Just listen to Donald Trump and the support his raft of invective invites. Some of us are extremely worried about the outcome. I am of the opinion that humankind is very likely to be wiped out before too long; when it finally happens, it is likely to be very quick as we topple, unawares, across the point of no return. We may already be there (this is what the paleo-archeology of past extinctions suggest). Even the extreme Right, with any amount of obscene riches at their disposal, will soon find themselves extinct too; but they might suffer longer).
The way our democracies are set up allows us to laud disbelief in expert advice. There is a popular belief that expert opinions are just driven by self interest – whilst ignoring or just not realising that the biggest self interest demon is that of chosing to believe what you want – to protect your own self interests (eg, the Republicans and the National Rifle Association in the USA).
Well, now we have let a bevvy of genies out of the bottle. We have no idea how friendly any of these will be. Perhaps Brexit will prove right and it won't be self destructive at all. On the other hand, we have turned our backs on our neighbours and previous partners. If all turns out badly, we deserve our lot and Conservative self interest should be at the top of the blame pile. Whatever your fears, there are some things that honour says you should not risk. I think we need to legislate to ensure this sort of thing never happens again just on the whim of one party that does not even have a majority of the electorate behind it.
The powers that be in Brussels are, perhaps, not blameless. They have seemed remote and some of their legislation has seemed unnecessarily proscriptive and interfering. There is a belief that the EU is a money devouring institution. The EU needs to realise that it needs to persuade its members that they are getting good value for money. The immigration fear affects all indigenous residents. Change should be subtle – over generations – rather than sudden. There needs to be some reponse to the disproportionate emigration to particular countries by either restricting or fully funding its consequences. It must not ignore the electorates that could eventually reject the European Union outright. A Federal European State might eventually, in some distant time, emerge but this will not succeed if it does not take the the general popular consensus along with it (that is a good subject for referenda). It should never be forced along or plotted in private.
This obligation to leave the EU on Thursday's vote appears to be binding by the way that the referendum was set up. But, on this theme of accountability for misinforming the electorate, did the leave campaign know the true costs and consequences of leaving the EU? Have they deliberately witheld vital information that would have materially altered the referendum outcome? They have played "dirty" in deliberately resorting to playing the trump card that stirred up the electorates fear of immigration and was this dishonourable, perhaps even criminal? Now they are admitting that they probably cannot control immigration as their supporters were led to believe. They are also, now, not to honour the clear insinuation that £350m/week would be available for the NHS. I think that a legal challenge, even a criminal investigation into corrupt (at least morally bereft) electioneering practices could be considered by the purportedly large majority of MPs in the House of Commons who do not want to have to sanction this outcome. It might not alter the obligation to leave the EU but it would greatly inhibit future campaigners from dishonourable practices.
If Parliament (the House of Commons) is absolutely convinced of the inadvisability of a Brexit, then it has an option. Brexit have campaigned on "getting back our sovereignty". However, constitutionally, sovereignty in this country is not vested in the people, it is vested in Parliament. If the current Parliament feels strongly enough that an economic disaster is looming, should they implement Article 50, then it could, David Cameron style, decide it is not the right parliament to lead us out and call a general election. Then the electorate can appoint their desired majority Parliament, a parliament prepared to implement Article 50. The EU is far from perfect and needs to address this but the Europe and worldwide economic disaster we might precipitate, by exiting, has the potential to be far, far, far worse. Should a large number of MPs think that we are about to commit economic suicide (the possibility of this outcome will become clearer as the dust settles) they would be honour bound to make the protest. The people of Great Britain need to reflect on what they have done during 15 hours of extreme emotional polarisation.