Should we vote again?

In June 2016, I was in a meeting about things that had nothing at all to do with Brexit. We had reached the end of business and were leaving the room when somebody mentioned the upcoming referendum and a look of disgust crossed one lady’s face. “Oh, I’m voting Leave,” she declared, and added: “… the E.U. (the letters were delivered with heavy emphasis and profound disdain) – or whatever it’s called”.

Those words came back to me a few months ago when I happened to click on a Ricky Gervais stand-up routine on Netflix. He was mocking those who say that when a country is facing some incredibly complicated issue with myriad ramifications and the real possibility of catastrophe if we get the decision wrong: “Let’s ask the man in the street.” “NO! Let’s NOT ask the man in the street,” he said, and asked: “Have you any idea how f**king stupid the man in the street is?”

They resonated again when, a few days ago, I came across this sentence at the end of chapter 21 of The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: “popular education … conferred the power to read and write, but did not confer culture; this enabled a new type of demagogue to practise a new type of propaganda …” The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of ‘demagogue’ is: “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.”

That, perhaps, is what made it possible in 2016 for the Leave campaigners to ask the British people whether it was time we put the interests of our country first and made Britain great again. Donald Trump asked the American people the same thing in the same year. The Germans have a word for that kind of confluence: zeitgeist (time-ghost, spirit of the age). By appealing directly to the hopes, fears and prejudices of the masses rather than by advancing convincing rational arguments, both campaigns won the day. Hitler employed precisely the same tactic in 1930’s Germany and the eventual result was the Second World War. The consequences of these recent votes remain to be seen, but it has been observed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist).

It was a deservedly popular desire in 2016 – and still is – that more money be spent on the NHS. It was and is a popular prejudice that loads of foreigners were pouring into our country because of the EU’s policy of the free movement of people within its borders: driving down wages, taking our jobs and our houses and putting a strain on our already overstretched classrooms and our already overstretched social services.

In an article published June 23rd 2016, Victor Reklaitis said this for MarketWatch:

“While the public debate has focused on economic arguments — such as whether an exit would shrink or boost the U.K. economy — experienced pundits suggest voters will be driven by emotions, deciding with their hearts, not their heads.”

The five main ‘OUT’ arguments were:

  1. Control immigration. Prominent Brexit supporter Michael Gove said: “Because we cannot control our borders …. public services such as the NHS will face an unquantifiable strain as millions more become EU citizens and have the right to move to the U.K.”
  2. Make Britain great again. Boris Johnson likened it to an escape from prison. He argued that the U.K. would be more competitive because it could make its own trade deals with other nations and legislate in the interest of British manufacturing. He likened Brexit to the Dunkirk retreat during World War II. Such appeals to national pride and even nostalgia had big roles in the Brexit pitches.
  3. Reject the Brussels bureaucrats. The EU “has become centralizing, regulating and controlling, the opposite of what is needed for jobs and future success,” said Gerard Lyons, a leave supporter and Johnson’s chief economic adviser, in a column for the London Evening Standard.
  4. Reject what the establishment wants. If incumbent politicians and big banks told you to do something, wouldn’t you kind of want to do the opposite? That helps explain part of the appeal of Brexit. The in/out debate helped reveal deep scepticism toward the establishment, just as the 2016 presidential race did in the U.S. This is the nation that voted for ‘Boaty McBoatface’.
  5. Lower prices. The EU is a “customs area” that aims to protect the agricultural and manufacturing industries, said Lyons in his column. It does this by setting quotas, giving handouts to farmers and putting restrictions on just where fishing boats can trawl. That “results in people across the EU paying more for the prices of these things compared with world markets.”

And who can forget those Brexit campaign buses with “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead” emblazoned on their sides?

 

Do you remember the newspaper headlines in the tabloids at the time? Here’s a little reminder:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sun, of course, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News, the rabidly anti-Obama, anti-Clinton, pro-Trump ‘news’ channel in the US. I looked up The Daily Express in Wikipedia: “The paper’s editorial stances have often been seen as aligned to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Europscepticism and other right-wing factions including the right-wing of the Conservative Party.”

The five main ‘REMAIN’ arguments were:

  1. The strength of the economy. “On this issue, REMAIN has the status quo on its side with an economy predicted to be the fastest-growing in the developed world this year [2016]); it has a prime minister who has presided over record job creation, and opponents who can only offer vague, John Bull optimism.” The Economist warned: “Don’t underestimate how much the U.K. needs the rest of the EU … The Brexit camp’s claim that Europe needs Britain more than the other way around is fanciful: the EU takes almost half Britain’s exports, whereas Britain takes less than 10% of the EU’s.”
  2. Avoid scary uncertainty. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) in its World Economic Outlook report said: “Negotiations on postexit arrangements would likely be protracted, resulting in an extended period of heightened uncertainty that could weigh heavily on confidence and investment, all the while increasing financial market volatility.”
  3. A more secure world. Brexit would “unmoor the fifth-largest defence spender from its allies. Poorer, less secure and disunited, the new EU would be weaker; the West, reliant on the balancing forces of America and Europe, would be enfeebled, too (The Economist)” Even within the U.K. itself, the state of affairs could become much less stable. Brexit could “initiate an irrevocable process toward Scottish independence and the breakup of the United Kingdom,” security specialist John M. Roberts cautioned in a column for Marketwatch.
  4. Keep that easy access to sunny Spain. If the U.K. leaves the EU, its citizens could end up needing visas to travel to continental Europe. Brits who aren’t just travelling to spots such as Spain, but instead have actually retired there, could face even more headaches. These expats could, for example, no longer count on easy access to health care and public services. The U.K.’s college students also could lose out, as they have benefited from EU freedom of movement rules, using them to study at universities on the Continent — some of which have lower fees.
  5. A hit to households. After Brexit, the U.K. economy could be around 6% smaller by 2030 — and that would mean a loss of income equivalent to about £4,300 (or $US 6,100) a year for every British household, Treasury chief Osborne said in a report in mid-April [2016]. “The overall economic benefits of EU membership are significantly higher than in any potential alternative,” the report argued. U.K. shoppers save £350 a year (or about $US 511), thanks to lower prices that come from being part of the EU. That’s according to London School of Economics data.

Please examine those five principal arguments for Leave and the five for Remain. How many rational arguments can you find, supported by real facts and figures and backed by reliable institutions and proven expertise? They are all on the Remain side; but as we now know, only 16,141,242 people in the UK (48.1%) voted to remain in the EU whereas 17,410,742 voted to leave (51.9%). The country was (and is) split down the middle; but the Brexiteers had it, and nine months later, on 29 March 2017, the UK invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) which began our withdrawal from the EU and gave formal notice of our intention to withdraw so that withdrawal negotiations could begin.

We are now 17 months into the 24-month period allowed for negotiations to be completed. It behoves those of us who give a damn (and there are many) to look at whatever ‘facts’ have emerged during those months. Perhaps then we can make an informed decision on whether it would be logical and reasonable to give ‘the great British public’ a chance to vote again when we have the details of whatever deal the government finally hammers out with the EU (or doesn’t). Under those specific circumstances, will we still wish to leave?

Of course, it isn’t possible in a piece like this to look at all the available facts. The government currently has 7,000 civil servants working on it, and has put aside funding for 9,000 more ‘if needed’. Whatever facts I present in this piece as the basis for what I hope is a rational argument, I will inevitably lay myself open to the charge that I have chosen facts that appear to support the side of the argument I have decided to favour. To that I would counter that if the facts that are now available to me, an ordinary citizen not affiliated to any political party nor a member of any organisation on either side of the political divide, appear to support one side rather than the other, it is rational for me to present that side in as balanced a way as I can, avoiding all unsupported assertions, emotional rhetoric and personal slurs. Referring to important figures in the debate in derogatory terms – such as ‘Bojo the Clown’ or ‘Treason May’ – is brainless and silly. When Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says a no deal Brexit would be “an unmitigated disaster”, she may or may not be proved right in due time, but if such an assertion is unsupported by convincing and verifiable facts (I’m sure she would agree), it is worthless.

But where am I to find these facts? Well, certainly not in those journals that purport to be ‘news’ papers but are in fact mere peddlers of propaganda for one side of the argument. Unlike The Sun or The Daily Express, The Guardian and The Independent are editorially independent newspapers. Their journalism is free from the bias of billionaire owners or politicians on either side of the political divide. There is therefore a reasonable chance that what these newspapers report as facts are just that. When they report opinions, which they regularly and properly do, they report them as just that: opinions that you are invited to consider.

I have taken note of such opinions when relevant because, of course, it is a fact that eminent people on both sides of the argument hold diametrically opposed opinions on the direction this country should take: either completely away from, or completely back into, or towards some kind of compromise with, the European Union. I think we are at least all now clear that that is what it is called.

FACT: On Friday 24th August 2018, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond (who must surely know a thing or two about the economic realities of the current situation) warned of an £80 billion hole in the budget if we were to exit the EU with no deal. He issued his warning hours after the UK’s current EU/Brexit negotiator, Dominic Raab, launched 24 technical notices advising industry and other sectors of the economy how to protect themselves against the risk of ‘no deal’. Hammond chose that moment to repeat earlier forecasts suggesting that the hit to economic growth if Britain left without a trade deal would force the Treasury to borrow an extra £80 billion over the next decade. Chemicals, food and drink, clothing, manufacturing, cars and retail are estimated to be the sectors most affected negatively in the long run, with the largest negative impacts felt in the north-east and Northern Ireland.

The Guardian reported that ‘leavers’ responded to this warning ‘with fury’. Might it not have been better for leavers to respond with a rational argument, if they had one? Jacob Rees-Mogg, Chair of the European Research Group (“a part publicly funded, single issue (hard Brexit) research support group for the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party” Wikipedia) said: “The Treasury and the Chancellor want to undermine Brexit, but their incessant scaremongering has led to the self-immolation of their credibility.” That’s an assertion which harks back to the ‘Project Fear’ and ‘scaremongering’ accusations advanced by Brexiteers in the run-up to the June 2016 Referendum. It’s what was (and apparently still is) said whenever anyone who knows what he or she is talking about points out that the facts suggest we will be far worse off outside the EU than we were inside it.

Hammond, The Guardian tells us, “is among those in the cabinet calling for the closest possible relationship with the EU, with the strong backing of the business secretary Greg Clark.” Oh, so two high-ranking cabinet members of the Conservative party with real responsibility for vital areas of the UK’s economy are in favour of maintaining ‘the closest possible relationship with the EU.” That seems to me to be a fact worth noting. I looked up the entry for Jacob Rees-Mogg in Wikipedia. I strongly advise you to read it. You can then, of course, decide for yourself how relevant the facts recorded there are when deciding how much weight you want to give to his opinion on this or on any other subject.

FACT: The technical notices issued by Dominic Raab’s department warn businesses that if Britain leaves the EU without a deal “the free circulation of goods between the UK and the EU would cease.” Traders were warned that they would have to fill out customs declarations for goods entering the UK from the EU, and advised that they should think about whether they should “engage the services of a customs broker, freight forwarder or logistics provider to help, or alternatively secure the appropriate software and authorisation.” The notices also made clear Britain expected the EU to start imposing tariffs on UK goods in the event of no deal. Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chamber of Commerce, said: “Ministers say they will take unilateral steps to keep trade moving freely but must demonstrate what they will concretely do to limit the impact of delays and red tape.”

Adam Marshall wants facts, not promises. A lot of other UK citizens do too. Incidentally, wasn’t Brexit supposed to do away with the “endless regulations and bureaucratic red tape” foisted upon us by the bureaucrats in Brussels? The ‘no deal’ scenario might require up to 16,000 civil servants to administer, as well as an army of “customs brokers, freight forwarders and logistics providers” whose wages must surely put up the price of the goods being transported, once they finally become available for purchase by the great British public. It would be logical to assume so, wouldn’t it? Does that sound like less or more red tape to you? Does that sound like lower or higher prices?

It is a fact that the Leave campaign promised British consumers lower prices outside of the EU. Is that promise likely to be as empty as the one that told voters a leave vote would result in an extra £350 million per week for the NHS? How many people were fundamentally misled by false promises at best, cynical lies at worst, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum? Surely that is a fair question.

I’m asking it because if the answer is a lot, then those people who now know better and think they made a serious mistake in voting Leave surely would wish to support any campaign to give us all a second chance to vote on an issue of clearly colossal importance. It may be that the number is negligible, and that in the period following the 2016 referendum decision, people have got used to the notion and are ready in even greater numbers to give Brexit a shot. But unless we have a second referendum on the issue once the details of the deal are known, we will never know.

FACT: there is still no agreement on how to resolve the issues affecting Northern Ireland. Dominic Raab’s current technical notice to businesses trading across the border recognises “the very significant challenges that the lack of a UK-EU legal agreement would pose in this unique and highly sensitive context … If you trade across the land border, you should consider whether you will need advice from the Irish government about preparations you need to make.”

Is the Irish government currently engaging additional civil servants to work out what advice to give to businesses in Northern Ireland currently trading across the land border in the event there is no legal agreement? Or is it waiting to see whether a UK-EU legal agreement can be thrashed out by the end of March 2019 before it spends a good deal of money preparing advice that may not be necessary? If the latter, how long will it take for Dublin to work out what preparations those businesses in Northern Ireland need to make, if any, after March 2019? How will those businesses fare in the meantime? I would be most grateful if the Brexit camp would furnish us with some facts on that matter. It seems to me they are sorely needed.

Asked about the risks to British citizens living abroad, Dominic Raab said he hoped that “cooler heads” would prevail and allow “practical cooperation” over issues such as access to pensions. I’m sure we all hope that. Hope is good. Certainty is better. On verra, as the French say.

FACT: Recent surveys indicate that by more than three to one, people now think that Brexit talks will not end well. “The Guardian/ICM poll finds a great shift among leave and Tory voters. Meanwhile, a YouGov poll of the north-east yesterday found a startling change of attitudes among Labour voters, shifting from 59% for Brexit to 68% for Remain. This region voted leave by a 16-point margin, but is now 50-50 favouring a new vote on the deal.”

Given the enormity and bewildering complexity of this issue, and given the fact that ordinary people lead busy lives and find it difficult to find the hours, days, weeks and months even an already well-informed, highly educated, politically active player has to spend keeping up with the facts and opinions, claims and counter claims which jockey constantly for our collective attention, are there any simple rules of thumb that might guide us when we are trying to decide on which side of this argument we will eventually come down?

We could consider the political leanings of prominent campaigners on either side of the debate and see which group of people we more admire, and which of the politicians on either side we wouldn’t vote for under any circumstances. Regrettably, my research has revealed that on this particular issue there isn’t a clear divide. The presence en masse of the far right (with whose views in general I have always profoundly disagreed) on the Leave side is complicated by the presence also of prominent figures on the left like Frank Field, whom I have long admired as an honourable and principled man with a sound social conscience. If I was willing to go simply on the opinions of the last two American presidents, it would be no contest. Barack Obama thinks we should remain, Donald Trump thinks we should leave. I invite you to choose which of those two men’s political opinions and overall credibility you would rather put your faith in.

My research highlighted for me the fact that the Remain side does not have a coterie of effective spokespersons to match those on the Leave side. I think everyone is aware of the still-high-profile presence of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davies, Liam Fox, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg et al on the Leave side. I tried to draw up a similar list on the Remain side and found I couldn’t. There are prominent people aplenty, but they are not identifiable in the public eye in the same way. The prominent Remainers in 2016 resigned when the vote went against them: David Cameron and George Osbourne from the Conservatives, eleven members of the Labour Shadow cabinet in a bid to oust Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left following his failure effectively to support the Remain campaign. They failed, Corbyn consolidated his position, the process of weeding out ‘the Blairites’ from positions of power and influence within the party proceeded and is still proceeding apace, and now the only effective elected opposition to those still vociferous Leavers on the far right of the Conservative party seems to be coming solely from that party’s moderate wing.

But mightn’t one have expected the hard-left wing of the Labour party to have mounted an effective opposition? After all, don’t they hold views diametrically opposed to those held by the hard-right wing of the Conservative party? Not on this issue. On this issue they are curiously aligned. Why is that? I can only conclude they each have an underlying – presumably very different – set of objectives that they think our continued membership of the European Union will make it more difficult for them to achieve.

Which leaves the Remain campaign supported only by the emasculated centre left of the Labour Party and the cautious centre right of the Conservative party. Their views broadly constitute the middle ground where, I venture to suggest, the majority of the 16,141,242 people who voted Remain in June 2016 find it most comfortable as a general rule to stand. The question that occurs to me now is: did the referendum vote in 2016 show conclusively that 17,410,742 British citizens now align themselves either with the far right or the far left as a general rule in politics?

Is it not more likely that a significant proportion of them were not really aware of ultimate far-right and far-left agendas – given that neither side were/are being entirely open about those – and were instead persuaded to vote in the way they did by promises that were tailored specifically to the desires, fears and prejudices the ‘man in the street’ was well known to have?

The far right did the tailoring, and the far left let them get away with it, perhaps because it was the best chance they had of getting the result they wanted conveniently under the radar. Might that be why Jeremy Corbyn professes now to be abiding by the will of the people (by which he means 51.9% of the people) as expressed in the June 2016 referendum when setting his face – and therefore the face of the Labour party – against a second referendum? The facts appear to back that assertion.

Last week, the “Is It Worth It?” bus campaign began an eight-day journey from London to more than two dozen cities across the U.K., where it aims to publicize the British government’s leaked estimate that leaving the EU will cost approximately two billion pounds per week—markedly more than the 350 million pounds per week Brexit proponents said the country would save by leaving the bloc. The tour is a grassroots effort which gets no financial help from any political party or government.

Is that government figure of £2 billion per week accurate? If it is, shouldn’t that startle those who thought leaving the EU would save us £350 million per week? It now appears that leaving the EU will cost us almost six times that much.

Christian Broughton, editor of The Independent newspaper, offers the following three reasons why he believes the British people deserve a say on the final deal:

  1. The people, on both sides of the debate, are losing faith with the current process. From Theresa May to Parliament as a whole, a chaotic approach has delivered infighting, resignations and party politics,but little progress on the key issues that people care about.
  2. The people on both sides should have the chance to finish what they started. With reality coming into focus, it’s only natural to check this future is what people really want. After years of negotiations behind closed doors, the people must not be shut out of the final decision.
  3. The people – on both sides – know so much more now than we did in 2016. The campaigns – again, on both sides – were flawed and clouded by misinformation. Many myths have been exposed. Now we must check there is support for the facts of Brexit.

At the time of my compiling this lengthy blog – apologies, but it’s a complicated subject – 725,000 people have signed the petition to give people a say when the details of the final deal are known. That number is steadily climbing towards the million mark. To turn those signatures to bodies, it is hoped that more than a million people will march through London on 20 October in a visible show of support for this objective.

It’s an uphill struggle because the leaders of both major political parties are unwilling at the moment (for whatever reasons, declared and undeclared) to countenance a second referendum once the details of the deal (or no deal) are known. This morning (Sunday 2 September) Theresa May announced that she would not be swayed by calls for a second referendum. To hold one, she said, would be “a gross betrayal”.

Of whom? A gross betrayal of the far-right of her party, who – it is now perfectly clear – grossly misled the electorate in 2016? How about “a gross betrayal” of whatever proportion of the 51.9% was taken in by the Leave campaign’s false promises about greater funding to the NHS, lower prices and the sweeping away of bureaucracy while preventing “untold millions” of economic migrants from putting “an intolerable strain” on our schools, our housing and our hospitals?

Could it not equally well be argued that not to hold a referendum on whether or not we want to leave the EU under the conditions of whatever agreement is finally hammered out would be “a gross betrayal” of all those who have changed their mind since June 2016? Recent opinion polls indicate that that number may be significant. Without a second referendum, we will never know.

If it was right to consult the people in 2016, when the majority of people – including me – knew little about the consequences of leaving the EU and 17.4 million people chose to believe what the Leave campaigners chose to tell them, then it must surely be right to consult us again, when we know so much more, and the details of what we are voting for or against, are so much clearer now than they were before.

Neither of the main political parties in this country want a second referendum, because they both (as currently constituted) support Leave. And yet there is a very real possibility that a majority of the people they represent now think we would be far better off remaining as full members of the EU – to which we are tied geographically, historically, economically, culturally, philosophically, psychologically – thereby supporting the vast majority of decent, tolerant, reasonable people in its member countries in the struggle against the alarming rise of far-right groups now spreading xenophobia across Europe.

I hope and believe millions of conscientious UK citizens have been thinking a lot about Brexit as the consequences of the referendum vote in June 2016 become ever clearer. I have signed Christian Broughton’s petition, and Amy and I will be marching on 20 October in support of the call for a second referendum once the details of the final ‘deal’ (or no deal) are known. I hope millions of you will do the same, and that the march will be the biggest this country has ever seen. It is hard to imagine a more important issue. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the UK and of the EU may well be shaped by it over the next three turbulent decades.

 

LINKS

Update on the petition