This is A C Grayling’s ultimate guide to defeating Brexit (and why the EU is worth fighting for)
10:32 11 January 2017
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Why did the EU referendum happen and how could it be overturned? Brexit is not a done deal and this is how we can fight it
The beginning of a new year is a useful moment to review the fight against Brexit. The following four topics merit particular discussion. One is the importance of keeping in mind what led to the referendum, its nature and its outcome.
This helps sustain the level of determination – even anger – required to defeat Brexit, and to guard against further follies of the Brexit kind.
Another concerns the wider setting of populism and the risk to representative democracy that the referendum process and outcome embodies. Here there are yet further dangers to apprehend, requiring vigilance. The most important point for present purposes is how Brexit is to be fought, for that is the immediate task. The final point is why membership of the EU, and the EU itself, is so eminently worth fighting for. I take each in turn.
But first I challenge any Brexiteer, and especially any Brexit-supporting MP, to answer the points made here. In repeated articles on these matters, and letters directly to MPs raising these and associated points, there has not yet been a single answer to the points made.
The responses have ranged from silence to mouthing of the dishonest phrases “the people have spoken” and “the country has decided” which are exactly the problem with the referendum and the Brexit threat we face.
1. What led to the referendum?
The right wing of the Conservative party has been opposed to involvement in Europe ever since the UK joined what was, at the time, the common market. Although always in a minority, Tory Eurosceptics have made life a misery for every Conservative Prime Minister since Edward Heath – one remembers John Major’s uncharacteristic outburst against them, calling them “bastards” during his tenure of Number 10.
UKIP and the Tory right might not have much in common beyond hatred of the EU, since the former is populist and the Tory right patrician (whether in fact or aspiration), but they have both been consistently backed by the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun newspapers which for decades have poured an unceasing stream of anti-EU bile, untruths, distortions and hostility on to their readerships.
And this despite the fact that the Daily Mail originally supported the UK’s entry to the European project in 1973, claiming success because it had conducted a ten-year campaign for joining.
Whereas in the rest of Europe the EU and its benefits are present in the consciousness of member–state citizens, in the UK there has been near–silence about the benefits of EU membership for labour laws, improvement and protection of the environment, science research, educational exchange, social and employment mobility, pensioners, standards, and much besides – and not least the economy. The UK of pre-EU days was “the sick man of Europe,” struggling and declining, with high unemployment and failing industries. After joining Europe the UK became the fifth largest economy in the world. That was until the mere threat of Brexit in the second half of 2016 gave the economy, and the pound, the shocks which have already caused the UK to slip down the economic rankings, until we are now below India. Much worse will follow if Brexit happens.
The anti-Europe movement was unrelenting in its efforts to undermine UK commitment to Europe, chiefly by mobilising four things: ignorance about how Europe works, ignorance about the benefits of membership, the xenophobia which is a natural ally of such ignorance, and sole emphasis on the inevitable difficulties and hiccups which a great endeavour like building the EU involves.
The EU is premised on a magnificent ideal of progress, unity and rationality which transcends most petty differences in political outlook and cultural style across Europe, but because it is a work in progress with flaws and problems yet to be resolved, it is all too easy to ignore positives and find negatives to cite. And that, exaggeratedly and persistently, is what Eurosceptics did and do.
The long anti-Europe campaign – forty years of it – based on distortions, untruths and bitter hostility from the anti-EU fringe, eventually created part of the conditions in which a Brexit vote could be manufactured. Brexiteers knew they could never win in Parliament or in a general election. But if they could force a referendum out of a harassed PM, and gerrymander it to exclude as much Remain vote as possible, a chance glimmered for them.
And that chance came. It was given by David Cameron who granted a referendum to shut up the right wing of his party, not thinking it would be called because he did not expect to win a general election outright. But he did win a majority in 2015. So, stuck with his promise, despite the fact that a referendum on so complex a matter should never have been called, he then thought – as a majority of the UK did – that of course there would be a Remain outcome. No one could believe that the country would be foolish enough to do otherwise. So he went ahead. But the referendum was perfunctorily designed, again because no great importance was attached to it as anything but an in-house manoeuvre, a bone thrown to right-wingers, to deal with internal Tory party politics,
Cameron is not quite alone in being culpable for the debacle that followed, however: previously the Labour Party had chosen Ed Miliband as its leader, an election-loser from the start, and he in turn introduced a new system for electing a Labour Party leader, with the disastrous effect of delivering the leadership into the hands of activists. So the political scene in the UK, come referendum day, was that the further-right and further-left were respectively making the running. The Lib Dems had been punished by the electorate for moderating Tory rule for five years, and no-one else had a voice in the centre ground.
The mistakes of the Remain campaign, and the disgraceful and outrageous lies and false promises of the Brexit campaign, are publicly well known. Out of the latter especially there is a major point to be learned. Until recently campaigns to garner votes made much use of “spin doctoring”, this being the process in which a fact is spun to turn its most useful side towards the voters. Note the word “fact” here. There is no longer such a thing as spin-doctoring. Spin-doctoring is a thing of the past because facts are things of the past. Campaign managers know that an outright lie will be believed by most people, who will not bother to pay attention to a retraction or apology made later. Even during the referendum campaign itself BBC news editors were debating what to do about the fact that they were being deliberately played by the Leave campaign, having to report questionable claims and statements when first made, knowing that corrections and retractions made later would not reach anything like as wide an audience.
This Machiavellian strategy is the unintended outcome of empirical studies – such as those whose results are reported by Daniel Kahneman in his Thinking Fast and Slow – which demonstrate that most people hold views on a shallow and hasty basis, on gut-feel or prejudice, and who believe whatever is said in the loudest, simplest, most confident tones, without checking whether it is correct.
Both the Brexit and Trump campaigns made full use of this tactic. They fully exploited the thing that most threatens democracy – lack of objective information and due consideration on the part of voters. Democracy requires facts and thought. Efforts have always been made to capture voter sentiment, of course, but the corrosive nature of the tricks and lies now used to manipulate sentiment make a mockery of democracy itself, a reductio ad absurdam of what it is meant to be. Let us identify the chief poisoners and perverters of democracy in the EU referendum campaign: Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun.
But the referendum hustle did not stop on polling day. There was a 72% turn-out and 51.9% of that 72% voted for Brexit. The Brexiters hailed this as a victory and immediately began to jostle for Brexit to happen, despite there being no plans, no preparation and no prior anticipation of this outcome. They wanted to hurry the UK out of the EU door before second and better thoughts could supervene and before anyone could point out that this was no mandate for Brexit. They were not interested as to whether or not they had any idea what was to happen next and how the immense complexities of disentanglement from the EU could be effected.
There were no plans, no preparation, no anticipation and no mandate because the majority of the country believed that there would be a Remain outcome. They believed this because the majority of the country was indeed for Remain: the outcome of the referendum vote represented only 37% of those who had been granted a vote – as we shall see, a major problem is flagged up here – and this in turn represents only 26% of the UK population. Add to this the fact that MPs had been told, explicitly and clearly in a briefing document when preparing to debate the 2015 Referendum Bill – that the referendum was advisory only – would not confer a mandate because non-binding on either Parliament or government. It also stated that if it were to be considered binding – perhaps if an amendment to this effect were introduced in debate – it would need a much larger threshold majority of the order of 60% or more to be regarded so.
This is why the Brexiteers wanted to rush May into triggering Article 50 without further debate in Parliament or anywhere else. A rush was needed because the referendum outcome was on shaky ground. Brexiteers wanted and still want “fast thinking” not “slow thinking”.
The referendum was poorly designws and has weak legitimacy. Too many people were disenfranchised: 16 and 17 years olds, UK citizens living abroad for more than a certain period and tax-paying EU citizens resident in the UK (who should have had a vote on this matter on the principle “no taxation without representation” as they would be directly affected by it).
Too many people simply did not believe there was a danger of leaving the EU, and did not feel it necessary to vote therefore. Too many people did not want to be bothered with a referendum that they did not want in the first place. Too many people were untroubled by the status quo – that is, were content to remain in the EU – and did not want to bother listening to referendum arguments or having to go out of their way to a polling station. The referendum seemed an irrelevance to them.
The outcome on the day, allowing 37% of those allowed to vote to begin trying to hustle the UK out of the EU, is a huge wake-up call, especially to the latter categories.
What does it tell us? It tells us that referendums are extremely bad ideas in a representative democracy, because they remove important decisions from the proper deliberation and examination they need. It tells us that we cannot allow politicians and civil servants to decide, varying the rules from vote to vote, who can have a vote. In the last three referendums in the UK – proportional representation, Scottish independence, EU – the rules and the franchise have been different each time. There has to be a constitutional once-for-all decision about the franchise, and that franchise has to be: every UK citizen aged sixteen and over, and every individual who is resident and paying taxes in the UK. Voting should be compulsory as it is in Australia. A system of accountability for false information in a campaign has to be devised, because in essence the kind of distortions, falsehoods and false promises of the pro-Brexit campaign is a fraud on the voters, and should be punished as such. If there are to be any more referendums involving constitutional change, the minimum threshold vote should be 60% of the electorate as a whole (it really should be 66% - two thirds – the same as is required in the House of Commons to trigger an election out of a Parliament’s term, or for an amendment to the US constitution).
So much is mere common sense.
2. Populism and representative democracy
One of the key points raised by the referendum is that highly complex, highly consequential matters are precisely not suitable for referendums. That is why MPs were advised in advance of debating the Referendum Bill that the referendum was advisory only and did not bind either Parliament or government to act on its outcome. And they were further advised that if any question were to arise about a mandating outcome of the referendum, they would have to consider a much higher threshold than a simple majority. Treating the outcome of the referendum as binding, which is what Brexiteers are in a hurry to do – and at present too many MPs have yet to call them out on this – is accordingly factually illegitimate and politically dishonest.
We have a representative democracy precisely to avoid highly complex, highly consequential matters being decided on the basis of simple yes-no votes cast by those who are not fully informed of the issues. A representative democracy is one in which electors send a representative – not a delegate or mere messenger – to be an agent acting on their behalf on the basis of deliberation and information. Most of us have families and busy lives. We cannot, and almost certainly do not wish to, trawl the minutiae of all the legislation that passes through Parliament. That is what we send representatives there to do. If they do a bad job we do not vote for them next time. If we think someone can do a better job, we vote for that other person instead. That is where the electorate exercises democratic control over representatives.
This structure is designed to ensure that highly complex, highly consequential matters get the care and attention they deserve. It is a structure that by design filters out much of the sentiment, emotion, and effects of misinformation or ignorance, that might lead to bad decisions.
Imagine a situation in which all matters of government were decided by daily referendums. The effect would be little different from ochlocracy or mob rule – although no doubt the great majority of people would very quickly tire of having to vote at all if they had to vote every day on such matters as infrastructure budgets and air traffic control provisions.
It needs endless repeating that if referendums are to be used at all – and they should not be, in a representative democracy – they should require supermajorities of at least 60% or more of the electorate whether or not they vote, although voting should be compulsory as a civic duty like paying taxes and obeying the law. Only with supermajorities can the opinion poll snapshot effect of referendums be somewhat discounted.
Unlike general elections, which set matters in place for a few years only, the outcomes of referendums are difficult to recall or adjust in short time spans. The EU referendum is laughable as a test of what the UK population really thinks and wants and Brexiteers honest and otherwise know this.
Tides of populist sentiment wax and wane. The migrant crisis caused by recent Middle Eastern conflicts has inflamed xenophobic sentiment. UKIP and other Brexiteers, to their immense discredit, capitalised on a waxing of that sentiment. One looks with disgust at the front pages of so many issues of the Daily Mail where the misery and suffering of tens of thousands of refugees from conflict and bombing were used to inflame anti-EU sentiment. If the institutions of representative democracy were properly employed, rather than abandoning the responsibility of informed governance to the whim of such sentiment, there would be no Brexit madness today.
3. How to fight Brexit
There are three connected strands in the opposition to Brexit. One is to get our members of Parliament in both Houses to reject the advice of the advisory referendum. There are majorities in both Houses of Parliament for Remain. We must ask why MPs in the Commons have not yet demanded a free vote in which they exercise their own individual judgments on whether the UK is better in or out of the EU. One reason for the unseemly haste with which Brexiteers are trying to hustle the UK past the Article 50 trigger is that they wish to avoid such a vote at any cost. My own view is that MPs must be persuaded – lobbied, encouraged, supported, pressed – to demand a non-Party-whipped vote, and to vote according to their pre-June 23 publicly stated judgment on the question of EU membership. Such a vote would preserve our membership of the EU and safeguard the UK’s future.
The second is the various legal challenges on whether there has to be such a vote, and whether a Brexit trigger is revocable or not. This latter is the strategy favoured by my friend Jolyon Maugham QC, and he is taking crowd-funded legal action to explore the matter. His point is that if the article is triggered and, after a period of years some form of Brexit deal is reached but is held to be unsatisfactory in comparison to continued EU membership, Article 50 can be untriggered and the UK could reemain in the EU.
The third route is for there to be a future vote, either in Parliament or in a referendum – this latter naturally connected to the untriggering strategy – on the acceptability of any Brexit deal, rejection of the deal entailing continued EU membership.
I see the right strategy as pressing for the first route, with follow-up of one or both the second and third routes as strong further steps should they be required. The first route is the obvious, right, simple and most immediate one, which could stop in its track the haemorrhaging of the UK economy that has already begun. MPs have a duty to act in the best interests of the country: nothing could be more obvious than that and stopping Brexit is in the best interests of the country.
The action that individual Remainers can take is simple, but requires persistence: lobby your own MP in person at constituency surgeries. Write, and keep writing, letters and emails (letters are best: but even better is to send both) to your own MP and other MPs. Share their responses, whether positive or negative, with all the people you know; make their responses public. Some MPs claim that they only deal with correspondence from their own constituents, but they need to be reminded that they vote on legislation that affects the whole country, and have a general as well as a constituency-specific responsibility to all citizens and the good of the country as a whole. After all, the state of the country impacts their constituents, so they cannot claim to ignore nation-wide concerns.
Letters have a major impact on MPs. I was once told by a senior civil servant in the Department of Health that a dozen letters of complaint to a Minister would trouble him or her greatly, because the rule of thumb is that for every letter written, there are thousands of other people who agree with the sentiments it expresses: letters are tips of icebergs. A major and sustained campaign of letters and emails to MPs and persistent visits to MPs’ surgeries is an effective pressure device. Do it, and encourage others to do it. And keep at it. Keep at it and don’t stop until the battle is truly over. Keep at it. Do not give up. Keep doing it, on and on, unceasingly, until the battle is truly over.
Also, get active: join local pro-EU groups, fly the EU flag, go on marches and demonstrations wherever and whenever you can – take action. And keep doing it. Do not stop until the battle is truly over. Persistence works. The Brexiteers may have been seeking their day for 40 years but leaving the EU can be stopped in far less time. Once again, the rule of thumb applies: for every person who joins a march, there will be thousands who cheer them on but for various reasons cannot or will not be there. It is time for people who have never demonstrated or been on a march to do so now. The entire future of the UK is at stake. Action is imperative.
Those nine words - the entire future of the UK is at stake – have the ring of cliché about them, but they are no cliché: they are desperately and dangerously true. Since the Second World War there has been nothing comparable as a crisis in the affairs of our country to match this. On behalf of the children now in school, on behalf of ourselves and all our fellows, on behalf of our fellow-citizens across all Europe whose great project of peace, progress and unity is wounded by this incomprehensible folly in the UK, the Brexit madness must be stopped.
4. Why EU membership is eminently worth fighting for?
Many of the reasons why EU membership is worth fighting for are implicit in the foregoing. They comprise aspects both practical and idealistic. The practical benefits are obvious: the EU is a huge market, the single biggest market in the world, and the UK economy has benefited immensely from being a full member of it. Particular benefit has come in the sphere of services, especially financial services, which are a major earner for our economy and which are seriously threatened by Brexit.
Before we joined the European project the UK was in big trouble. We were a country in serious decline, waning fast in wealth, influence, standing and self-confidence. As part of Europe we have waxed greatly in all four respects. We are now one of the three big EU economies, and we remain a leading player on the world stage. London has become the effective capital of Europe culturally and financially. All this is set to implode. If Brexit happens the likelihood is that we will be solitary off-shore island state – probably trying to make a living as a tax haven for the rich of other countries – in reduced circumstances which push us out of the G7 and put our seat on the UN Security Council in question. I mention both merely as examples of what a diminishment in standing would entail and thus we will effectively have committed a form of suicide. And that might be made yet worse by the break-up of the UK itself, for both Scotland and Northern Ireland are emphatic in their Remain commitment, and there is no reason why they should be dragged down with England if Brexit is not stopped.
In an earlier article I reported the remark of a Chinese businessman: “The UK is the door to Europe. Without Europe it is a door to nowhere.” Prospective inward investment to the UK is already markedly down. I also reported a story doing the rounds about businesses thinking of relocating to continental Europe before a Brexit happens, and finding rents, wage-levels and infrastructure so much to their taste there that they are considering going even if Brexit does not happen. This is anecdote but it has a fatal air of plausibility to it. It is indicative of the damage that the mere prospect of a Brexit is already causing. How can our government and our MPs allow this to continue? It is incomprehensible.
Among the many other practical considerations one could cite are the impact on the NHS and the agricultural sector of not being able to recruit EU staff, the loss of opportunity for our own citizens who wish to work or do business elsewhere in Europe, the huge imbalance in numbers of pensioners now living in other EU countries who would lose residency rights, to say nothing of the hundreds of agencies, laws and regulations which would require decoupling and reinvention and might take many years to sort out, imposing burdens of cost and distraction on the UK which are completely unnecessary.
The litany of practical advantages of membership, and disadvantages of Brexit, could go on. And one would cite them against the acknowledged fact that, as a work in progress, with a long way to go, the EU is flawed and has problems and difficulties. The Eurozone and disparities between the economies of member states require much work. But instead of running away from them, we should wholeheartedly contribute to solving the problems. The UK has always dragged its feet in the EU, not very admirably: more commitment would give the Brexiteers less material to twist and distort in their relentless hostility to the EU.
But there are also reasons for being wholehearted about the EU which are not economic. The EU is a truly imaginative and magnificent idea. The idea of co-operation, unity, and shared endeavour for peace, progress and development. Europe suffered from the worst, as it profited from the best, of its own energies and ambitions from the beginning of modern times in the sixteenth century.
We can deplore colonialism, war, nationalism, fascism, the downsides of industrialisation in its creation of grinding poverty for millions and dire environmental damage - all of these things born in Europe (most, indeed, in the UK) And we can look at the music, art, literature, philosophy, science and culture of Europe, and at the world-changing ideas of the Enlightenment, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and civil liberties, that Europe has created. And it is this latter Europe, the Europe of humanitarian progress, of peace and the Enlightenment, that the EU exists to foster, turning its back emphatically on those aspects of its past which are terrible and destructive – on divisions, nationalism and wars – by working to fashion a community of peoples whose joint endeavour is both practically realisable and rational, and at the same time wonderfully good.
I like to be a citizen of a community which can boast in its heritage Beethoven and Goethe, Shakespeare and Descartes, Leonardo da Vinci and Newton, Einstein and Moliere, Kant and Vermeer, Dante and Diderot, Spinoza and Titian, Balzac and Milton, Faraday and Proust, Yeats and Fermat, and the rest of a pantheon stretching all the way back to Virgil, Cicero, Aristotle and Homer. I like to think that I am a citizen of region of our planet which stretches from the beautiful Adriatic coast to the equally beautiful Welsh mountains, from Greece’s Cyclades to the isles of Scotland, from the forests of Germany to the green hills of Ireland, from the Baltic coast to the beaches of Portugal. I like feeling at home in Rome and Prague and Amsterdam, because I am a citizen in each of them.
The world as it is today was forged in the minds and activities of we Europeans for both good and ill and it is an extraordinary thing that we Europeans are working to put the ill behind us and to take the good and make it better and greater, to put into practice the ideals of unity, peace and prosperity that lie at the heart of the EU project. Instead of just talking about these ideals, the EU is working to make them realities. That is a truly splendid thing and we in the UK are part of it, and should remain so.
To continue as part of it, to make our contribution, to give an example to the world of how unity, peace and progress is an achievable condition for humankind, we must defeat the madness of Brexit.
Professor AC Grayling, Master, New College of the Humanities