Last month I was asked to talk to a group of visiting Danish media students about Brexit - given the field of academic campaigners for Leave is rather small, it may get to be a regular gig!
The piece below needs a little spit and polish. However, as the Prime Minister continues to kick the can down the road, and sections of elite opinion that refuse to accept we are leaving the European Union mobilise, it seems appropriate to publish it here, and to do so now.
My academic research is primarily into terrorism, security, Islamism and conspiracy theories, so I speak here more as an activist than a political scientist.
What happened on June 23 2016
It is important to grasp the scale of what happened, because it goes some way to explaining the difficulty political elites now find themselves in.
It was a staggeringly high turnout – 72.2% - higher than most general elections.
17.4 million voted to Leave, 16.1 million to Remain.
I think that 1.3 m majority has been taken as a mandate – it is 4%.
England and Wales voted to leave.
In every English region except London, the vote was to leave (8-1)
Wales by 52.5%
Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain.
In London, 29 boroughs voted to Remain, 4 to Leave.
But the Leave vote was perhaps higher than expected – more people voted to Leave, for example, than elected the Mayor of London.
In terms of demographics, older people tended to vote Leave, younger, Remain. The poorer you were, the more likely you were to vote leave.
Leave did very well in many Labour towns – Stoke, Doncaster, Barnsley each have two Labour MPs, all voted to Leave by more than 60%. Whilst most Labour voters were for Remain, most Labour constituencies voted Leave.
This week a poll of the views of voters by the newspaper they read, suggested in a referendum tomorrow, readers of the main Labour supporting paper, the Daily Mirror, would be split 45/45.
Those with the greatest experience of the EU, were most likely to vote Leave. Older people were more likely to vote, perhaps reflecting the importance they placed in the first referendum on this subject in 41 years. Some of the ugliest comments since have centred on how this in some way discredits the vote, or will make it invalid in years to come.
Results were not compiled by parliamentary constituency but by local authority area. Here two thirds of the LAs voted to leave. An estimated 421 out of 574 English and Welsh constituencies voted to leave (see the work of academic Chris Hanretty)
All this gives very little wriggle room for politicians to openly reverse the decision taken.
As Leave Steps Away from the Stage, Part of Remain Keeps Fighting
Locally in Northamptonshire, we settled on sovereignty as the campaigning issue. All the other issues – economy, defence, immigration – follow from that. We trust the people to get it right, if they have the power and authority to do so.
What this meant in practice was that Leave campaigners broadly left the stage once the referendum result was announced – the dynamic group we had in Kettering had a farewell curry, and went its separate ways.
Membership and electoral support of UKIP, the main political party advocating for Brexit, collapsed.
In the 2017 general election, the two main parties stood on manifestos clearly supporting the referendum result, and took over 80% of the vote. The two UK wide parties opposing Brexit – the Lib Dems and the Greens, made no progress.
Paradoxically though, the prospects for Continuity Remain improved. The onus was now on the Conservative government to deliver Brexit. To draw together different positions and concerns. And to do so in a Parliament that had a further paradox – whilst most of those elected had stood on a platform of accepting Brexit, most of the MPs personally, had voted to Remain. That makes getting agreement on a deal through parliament very difficult. Or we take the position we voted to leave, parliament accepts we were giving notice – and we simply leave in March 2019 when the notice period ends.
It is hard to see where a majority for any other position emerges.
To have a second referendum on any deal, effectively passes a veto to the EU. Give a bad deal, and there is a chance the second biggest contributor to the budget stays.
In the referendum Remain’s position had been had been a defensive one. “We are stronger in a reformed EU”.
Ok, but what reforms do you want? What will you do if you don’t get those reforms? It is a strange negotiating position to say you will never walk out. How do you reform the Treaty of Rome? That is what you would have to amend the commitment to freedom of movement.
Post referendum, Continuity Remain could now continue campaigning, but with no one asking these tricky questions. We saw the emergence of some previously low profile establishment figures as prominent Continuity Remain campaigners, refusing to accept the result – Jolyon Maugham, a barrister who opposed secrecy around income tax, launched a series of legal challenges, a City figure, Gina Miller emerged as the front woman for Continuity Remain. Large sums of money seemed to flood into these campaigns. George Soros, who had taken over a billion pounds from the UK treasury in 1992 when Britain crashed out of the Exchange Rate mechanism, funded Best for Britain, the most organised of these groups.
The former PM, John Major, and former Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, have toured Europe’s capitals stressing the importance of blocking Brexit.
Conspiracy Theory and Remain
In Remain campaigning, we see the emergence of a comparatively new element in British politics, something found much more in the US, or Muslim majority countries – that is conspiracy theory. The belief that major political events are not what they pertain to be, but are controlled by hidden forces.
We see this nationally, and we see it locally. A leader of the Leave campaign, Arron Banks, is accused on social media of working for the Russians. The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, has called for a Mueller style investigation into Russian interference in the Brexit vote. Yet in the unitary authority where his constituency of West Bromwich sits, Leave won by 98,250 votes to 49,004.
That is a two to one majority. There are not that many Russians in the country!
Conspiracy theories about terrorism have become staples – there is no Muslim majority country in the world where a majority believe Al-Qaeda carried out 9/11. One opinion poll found only 6% of British Muslims believe Bin Laden did 9/11. People respond to deeply traumatic events like a terrorist attack carried out in the names of one of the world’s major faiths, by refusing to come to terms with what has happened. Those responsible, in some cases prominent figures within Muslim communities and societies, cannot really by to blame.
It is fascinating how a similarly traumatised response seems to have emerged, where people of the liberal centre (by the centre I mean not just the Lib Dems, but the centre of the Labour, Tory, SNP, PC and Greens) have seen not one but two unimaginable explosions detonate in their lives – the election of Trump in the United States, and Brexit here in the UK. Instead of Israel or the Neo-Conservatives though, the blame for Brexit is put on Russia, ‘dark money’, manipulation of the Internet, a small amount of overspending by Leave (even though we spent less overall!) and perhaps most ugly of all attacks on the old, or claims of the manipulation of the uneducated by the very wealthy.
These are traumatised people, struggling to explain a world they don’t understand any more.
John Gray, the British writer has written perhaps the best piece on this, which he situates within the crisis of centrism, and its ongoing political failure. In a brilliant piece on the Politico website in August, Tom McTeague talked of Britain’s ‘Middle Class Brexit Anxiety Disorder’. It is overwhelmingly middle class professionals – for example academics – who seem to have taken the Brexit vote worst. Interestingly it is those who are often told what to do by middle class professionals who were most likely to vote leave – the elderly, the working class, those who rent their home, the unemployed. McTeague cites academic argument from psychologists Phillip Corr and Simon Stuart, who see Remain campaigners creating ‘In’ and ‘Out’ groups in their world view – ironically this demonises ‘Out’ groups in the same way racists have historically sought to demonise those they place beyond the pale.
What do Leave supporters now want
There is no such thing as a Hard Brexit, or a Tory Brexit. Both are terms invented, post referendum, by those who oppose leaving at all. They think that by coining such terms, they can colour and develop their campaign to take us backwards.
Either we leave the EU, or we do not. And the country has voted to leave and the job of government is to enact that decision. A clear commitment was given to every household in the country that this would happen.
Leaving the European Union means leaving three things:
1. The Customs Union
2. The single market
3. The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice
All of this was stated, by both sides, during the referendum. Remain thought saying so would sway voters, especially when the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor said so. It did not.
The problem with the Chequers proposal put forward by Theresa May is that, before negotiation, she seems to have accepted that we will align our rules of trade with the single market. Even though most British businesses do not trade with the EU. As changes are made in Brussels, we would no doubt have to follow. Without of course having a say in those rules.
This leaves a back door open, back into the EU. It is not hard to imagine a future PM arguing we should rejoin, perhaps in a decade’s time, to address this anomaly. That worries Leave voters immensely.
There are two other important issues for Brexit supporters, and I think the country generally. One, is that we stop paying the EU £13 billion per year. The UK has been a net contributor to the EU every year bar one. We provide 13% of its current budget, and the PM is offering to pay an astounding £40 billion as a divorce bill when we leave. The PM has also said further ad-hoc payments may continue.
The UK and the EU will be changed irrevocably once that money stops being paid. Either the EU has to do less, or its members have to pay a lot more. A British civil servant in the EU Commission, Chris Kendall, was quoted as saying he longs for the day UKIP MEPs are replaced in Brussels by Muslims from Bosnia and Albania. That may happen. But Albania is not going to pay 13% of the EU’s budget.
The second issue is to maintain the territorial integrity of the UK. In the referendum campaign, the argument at times from Remain was you must vote to stay in the EU, or Scotland will leave Britain, and the UK will break up. That provided to be a classic example of Project Fear – that constitutional issue was settled by the 2014 referendum, when Scotland voted by 54% to stay in the United Kingdom. With the SNP struggling in government, there has been no appetite to revisit the issue, and opinion polls strongly oppose a second referendum.
What Leave supporters had not expected was that an issue with a much lower profile, Northern Ireland, would be weaponised by a curious alliance of the EU, the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (who seeks to lead the European Commission when he finishes in Irish politics) and continuity Remain.
That they will attempt to use the question of peace in N Ireland to try to make leaving the EU impossible, or to in some way separate N Ireland from the rest of the UK, shows, not their integrity, but the lack of it.
Peace was established in N Ireland by the people of N Ireland. They did so with the support of the governments of Britain and Ireland, and to an extent the various churches in Ireland, and outside supporters such as US diplomats, and the then US President, Bill Clinton.
The EU played no role in establishing peace in N Ireland.
To suggest peace in N Ireland is therefore dependent on the EU is a con-trick. Theresa May and her Cabinet have done us an enormous dis-service by not shouting this from the roof tops.
The terms of peace were established in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. You will sometimes see it referred to also as the Belfast Agreement. I urge you to download it – it is an easily readable pdf.
The EU was NOT a signatory to the agreement. It is mentioned only a handful of times in the text, largely in terms of facilitating cross border initiatives.
Those initiatives are free to continue, and can just as easily become inter-governmental programmes.
There is only going to be a hard border, if the EU puts one there.
The left has become the right, the right has become the left
The things the political centre, and indeed the centre left loved most, have been rejected by voters.
This has led to what may become a more long term re-alignment in our politics.
The EU, open borders, Globalisation have proved to be its undoing. Oscar Wilde wrote that “each man kills the thing he loves” and when we see politicians like Tony Blair wrestling with the referendum result, we see Wilde’s words enacted.
Curiously it is the political right, that today seems most concerned that globalisation may drive down workers wages. It is the right that worries about the impact of Islam on liberal democracy. It is the right that wants to preserve the sovereignty of the people, against lobbying from big business, who want to keep the single market. In the words of Boris Johnson ‘Fuck Business’.
It is the centre, and increasingly the centre left, which argues you can’t do what voters want, because it would be bad for business. That if we don’t do what the boss of Jaguar Land Rover wants, we will be ruined. It is the centre which worries about people being disrespectful to the second biggest religion in the world. It is the centre and parts of the left that appears unconcerned that workers wages may be affected by migration of unskilled labour from 27 countries. The trades unions, increasingly centred around middle class professionals, seem unaware of the positions the Labour movement historically adopted on market forces.
The left is becoming the right, and the right is becoming the left.
Brexit is a symptom of profound changes that have occurred, but is not the cause of those changes. Those trying to stop it would do well to recognise that, and to be careful what they wish for.
20 September 2018