The UK is being stolen: 4 reasons we are still angry about Brexit
A C Grayling
- Credit: Archant
Almost 8 months on from the referendum, the anger Brexit has engendered hasn't dissipated one bit
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1. We are angry because the UK is being stolen. We know that the referendum outcome is in itself insufficient to justify a constitutional change so significant as exiting the EU. There is scarcely any civilized state in the world where a simple majority, let alone a very small one, would permit this: for such a change, a supermajority would be required, of 60% or 66% either of votes cast or even the entire electorate.
Yet a small minority of actual votes cast, representing 37% of the total electorate, was taken by the Brexiters as justifying their actions. And this was on a consciously restricted franchise ('consciously': see the debates on the EU referendum Bill 2015, Hansard) which excluded groups that have the greatest interest in whether the UK is part of the EU, namely 16-17 year olds, a significant number of expatriates, and EU citizens working and paying their taxes in the UK. And note: all of these groups were included in the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014. On both the restriction of the franchise, and the proportion of the restricted electorate voting Leave, there is therefore nowhere near enough justification or legitimacy for a Brexit.
One of the Brexiters, David Davis, says publicly in replies to correspondents to his Department for Exiting the European Union that the 51.9% referendum majority is 'clear, overwhelming and unarguable'. When the Supreme Court had to be called in to require the government to have a Parliamentary debate about triggering Article 50, and it voted 8-3 – a 73% majority – he said publicly that this majority is 'tenuous'. This is precisely representative of the degree of intellectual honesty at work in the Brexit mentality.
As further proof of this point, never forget that the Brexit cabal sought to rush through the triggering of Article 50 without Parliamentary debate, and had to be taken to court to force them to respect our constitution and the sovereignty of Parliament. In itself this fact should be regarded as scandalous. We live in such degraded times politically that having our government dragged before the courts, in order to behave constitutionally, has passed by with hardly any comment on how profoundly troubling this is.
And matters are even worse than they seem in this regard, because in response to being hauled before the courts, the Government, in contempt of our Parliamentary democracy and the meaning of the Supreme Court judgment, introduced a cynically short Bill of a few lines to rush through Parliament. It also ensured restricted time to discuss it, and a full three-line whip to ensure its own MPs, whatever their real views, would vote for triggering Article 50 despite any argument, facts, considerations, warnings or good sense that might come up in the hurried debate.
The Bill and the debate was therefore a farce, a gesture, mere lip service to the constitutional position that the Supreme Court ordered the government to observe, an irritation to the Government that wished to dispense with further debate altogether.
And now recall that the referendum was specifically intended to be advisory and consultative only. Briefing Paper 07212 issued to members of both Houses of Parliament on June 3 2015 in advance of debate on the Referendum Bill says that the referendum is non-binding, advisory, consultative. It also points out that if there were to be any suggestion otherwise, there would need to be a supermajority requirement.
In the House of Commons, in the debate on the EU referendum Bill, the then Minister for Europe, David Lidington, told the House that 'the legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory' (Hansard, June 16 2015). Yet in the most barefaced manner and contrary both to the briefing and the government statement in the House, the Brexit cabal have treated the referendum outcome as binding and mandating, in defiance of the explicit nature of the Referendum Act itself.
This is just one of many major and serious lies on which the Brexit debacle is based. The Brexiters have made up the rules as they go along, changing them when expedient, saying one thing at one time and another at another, acting with the kind of dishonesty and duplicity that one expects only of thieves.
And now recall also that the referendum was completely unnecessary anyway, and arose from nothing more than a long-standing quarrel within the Conservative Party. There was no crisis in the EU or in the UK's relations with its EU partners that made a referendum necessary. It was entirely an internal Conservative Party matter. During the Coalition government David Cameron promised a referendum, against the advice of his senior colleagues, to shut up the far right of his party, which was engaged in its usual procedure of making life difficult as they had done with every Conservative Prime Minister since 1972.
Cameron almost certainly did not expect to win the election of 2015, still less with an outright majority. He had offered the referendum as a bone to the dogs. When he did win a majority in the election, he was stuck with the promise. Neither he nor anyone else, including the pro-Brexit camp, expected Leave to 'win', so in addition to his normal laziness and inattention he allowed the Brexiters to arrange the franchise in a way that best suited them – the exclusion of 16-17 year olds, expatriates and EU taxpayers in the UK, who between them would have assured a significant Remain majority, a fact the Brexiteers well knew. Deliberate restriction of the franchise is called gerrymandering: the EU referendum was gerrymandered.
Likewise, no-one asked the Brexiters to produce an account of what would follow if a Leave vote won: there were no details, no manifesto, only one apparent promise – the EU subvention to be dedicated to the NHS at the rate of £350 million per week – and otherwise a raft of misleading claims and false statements and lying slogans, as the next section shows.
In the absence of any detail whatever on what a Brexit would mean or involve, months after the referendum, after the Supreme Court case, and even after the debate in the House of Commons on triggering Article 50 – after the debate in Parliament! how this likewise extraordinary fact does not provoke greater outrage! – a White Paper on Brexit was published: hurried, thin, nothing but a rehash of Theresa May's vague earlier speeches, and condemned by observers as weak and unhelpful, not least banks and businesses eager for details so that they could make serious plans on the basis of it. It is evidence that the Brexiters still have no clear idea of how a Brexit is to be achieved and what follows.
There are however two major points of interest in it. One is dealt with in the next section below, concerning the sovereignty lie. The other is the fantastic lie that all 65 million people in the UK are fully behind Brexit. It is in the public domain that 17 million voted for it, and equally in the public domain that not a few of these have changed their minds about Brexit since. How a Prime Minister can hope to get away with Orwellian Newspeak in this way, having dismissed the concerns, interests and representations of nearly half the people who voted in the referendum, and all the questionable considerations about the nature and validity of the referendum itself, is hard to explain other than by invoking cynicism or the stupidity of wishful thinking.
The dishonest absurdity of the claim that the whole country is behind Brexit is further demonstrated by Scotland and Northern Ireland, to say nothing of Gibraltar, whose interests have been treated with contempt by the Brexit cabal. All three voted emphatically to Remain. Their interests and wishes are ignored. Scotland now has full moral justification to seek to leave the UK, and Northern Ireland is faced with an agonising problem over the Good Friday Agreement and its land border with Eire. Brexit will be to blame for the end of the UK and a resumption of tensions and difficulties that membership of the EU has done so much to overcome.
So: the referendum was gerrymandered and badly designed, it was the result of an internal Tory Party squabble, it exposes the Brexit cabal's contempt for Parliament and people as shown by their being dragged before the courts, it is careless of the unity of the UK and the concerns of the UK's different peoples and interests – and all this, together with what we will see in the next section about the lies on which the Leave campaign was based, demonstrates that there is no political legitimacy for, and no political rationality in, the huge constitutional change Brexit involves.
There is therefore and emphatically no legitimacy to Brexit. Brexiters iterate the 'will of the people' canard: this is yet more falsehood and Newspeak, for the basis of their claim is only 37% of the electorate, which represents 26% of 'the people' if this phrase means the population of the UK. But even if you allow 37% of a gerrymandered electorate to be 'the people' – the 'whole people'! – just ask, for a moment: were this 37% of one mind in voting Leave? Did they all want to leave the EU for the same reasons? Did they have a clear idea, involving practical details, of what would follow? No. Compare them to the Remainers, all of whom wanted the same thing, a thing they were perfectly familiar with because we have had it for over 40 years: membership of the EU and all its many and manifold benefits.
We are angry, therefore, because Brexit is illegitimate, a felony on our country.
2. We are angry because every one of the reasons given to persuade Leavers to vote for Brexit is a lie. In the referendum campaign there was one and only one apparent promise: that the money the UK pays into the common budget of the EU would go instead to the NHS. That was the first lie to be withdrawn on the very day of the referendum result. Rather than making any savings by withdrawing from the EU, the UK economy will lose not only the money it gets back from the EU, but it will be burdened with higher costs in every direction on business, imports, exports and services, which the economy will be able to manage only by making further and deeper cuts in health, education, welfare, environmental protection, defence, and scientific research and development.
A smaller GDP and increased costs to every aspect of British economic life were forewarned by the experts whom Michael Gove – disgracefully for a former Secretary of State for education – dismissed with contempt. If in response to this battering of the economy the UK tries to attract inward investment by becoming a low-tax haven, the deleterious consequences for health, education, welfare and the rest will be even greater, because lower taxes will mean less money available for those services.
Rich people benefit disproportionately from lower taxes, the less well off do not. Yet one of the reasons for Leaver dissatisfaction with current affairs, which the Brexiters made them think was somehow connected to the EU, is the growing inequality in society. After Brexit this inequality would be far greater, and resentment far greater.
But leave aside the £350 million-a-week-to-the-NHS lie, which it seems is too gross a lie for those who made it – Boris Johnson and others – to be held accountable for it: the biggest crimes go unpunished, the little ones are dealt with severely. Look at two key issues used to get a Leave vote: claims about 'sovereignty' and claims about immigration.
The White Paper itself exposes the egregious lie about sovereignty. It says – and this should make any sane person weep, in light of the 'take back control' nonsense of the Leave campaign – 'The sovereignty of Parliament is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution. Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that' (section 2.1 Cm 9417).
Draw a breath. So we were always sovereign anyway! But it has 'not always felt like that'... Is that the reason for the referendum? This section of the White Paper is entitled 'Taking control of our own laws'. There is no mention of the fact that the UK not only agreed to 95% of all EU laws but initiated many of them. We read here that 'the sovereignty of Parliament is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution' and yet the government treats 37% of a gerrymandered electorate as sovereign, usurping the sovereignty of Parliament by forbidding it to treat an advisory referendum as advisory. These inconsistencies are nothing but the wriggling of the Brexiters intent on getting their way no matter what the facts, the truth, or the right.
The White Paper is a farrago of nonsense. It was written in haste, hurriedly finished at 4.17am in the morning after the debate in the House of Commons on triggering Article 50. It is a rehash of vague speeches by May, with little detail and much inconsistency, as just shown. This puts to bed the great Leave mantra of 'taking back control'. We always had control: claiming otherwise was a lie, told with the deliberate intention to inflame sentiment by misleading and misinforming.
The same applies to immigration. Let us simply acknowledge that anti-immigrant sentiment has too much in it of xenophobia and racism, that it is based not merely on ignorance of what immigrants provide to the country – for example, 26% of NHS staff, net contributions to the tax base, much needed labour in agriculture, vigour to the economy – and note that one immediate result of Brexit will be increased immigration. The UK economy needs immigrants, and the immigrants who make their homes here put more into the economy than they take out. Whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment is disgraceful, doubly so when based on lies about the effect of their presence in the economy. Here the decades of falsehood and propaganda from the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun, the Tory right wing and its ideological storm-trooper arm of UKIP, have done a grave disservice: this is a stain on our country.
And let us not forget that the decades of misinformation and propaganda levelled at the EU and our membership of it by these newspapers and the Brexit cabal have ranged from such absurdities as the shape of bananas to these harmful, hurtful, often racist lies about immigrants.
So: money for the NHS, sovereignty, immigration, bananas – every one of the key themes of the Leave campaign has been exploded as falsehood since the referendum. And yet the Brexit cabal presses on, seeking to rush us out of the EU before we can stop them.
We are angry because we are being lied to by the worst people in our polity, who have hijacked the process. Democracy requires truth, thoughtfulness, and sound information. When people deliberately peddle misinformation, distortion and outright lies, they are manipulating the political process to partisan ends, not winning by sound argument and fact; they are acting mendaciously, and undermining democracy itself through deliberate acts of dishonesty. The Leave campaign was a monstrous act of mendacity, undemocratic and false to its roots. We are angry because Brexit is a lie based on lies.
3. We are angry because Brexit is economically foolish and damaging, and historically retrograde and dangerous. Gove scorned the experts, and Leavers derided the Remain campaign as Project Fear. It is perfectly true that the great project of peace, progress and unity that is the EU deserved a far better campaign in support, acknowledging the difficulties that a tremendous historical work-in-progress suffers from, but asserting the keenness of so many in the British population to work with our EU fellow-citizens to improve, correct, and make progress in it. Division and isolation is not the way of the future: it is merely the Brexit way.
But the fears for the economy that the experts described were all to well justified. Banks and businesses are investigating the option of leaving. Inward investment has slowed. Manufacturers are asking for subsidies to compensate them for lost business as a result of tariffs. The most telling remark came from a Chinese businessman: 'The UK is the door to Europe. Without Europe it is a door to nowhere.' Brexit would make the UK poorer, weaker, more marginal.
Poorer means slipping down the international league tables, soon enough out of the G7, out of any claim to a seat at the top tables on international arrangements such as the UN Security Council, into the marginality of off-shore irrelevance. Would that matter? Yes, because we will be affected by world events with little say in them.
Poorer means reduced spending on health, education, welfare, defence, the environment and the economy itself. The resentment of some Leavers at the stagnation in their living standards is going to increase: Brexit has raised their expectations; there is trouble in store.
Poorer means less attractive to scientists, students, entrepreneurs, investors, the people who bring fresh ideas, new money, energy and progress into the country. It means many among the brighter, more entrepreneurial and energetic of our own people will think of leaving, and many will.
The rest of the world has looked at the EU, admired it – and followed suit. In every region of the world – South Asia, Africa, South America – EU-style combinations and unions of countries have sprung up.
They have their own internal customs and preferential tariff arrangements, for members only. Some are even developing single currencies and supra-national governments. Brexit wishes to take us out of the EU – the biggest, most mature, most organised, advanced and wealthiest of them all – and thereby into a limbo outside all these other EU-type entities too, whose walls are raised to outsiders for the benefit of their own members.
Look them up: here are some – just some – SADC (South African Development Community), CARICOM (Caribbean Community), ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur), SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement), EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union), SICA (Central American Integration System), the Andean Community and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States).
Not one mention of them occurred in the Leave campaign, not one mention in the White Paper, other than general references to the success that we have in trading with those countries, a success we have because we are a member of the EU and because of EU trade deals with these countries and blocs. What will happen when we have to renegotiate all those deals, one by one, on our own solitary terms, from a position of weakness, outside the tariff barriers they erect to protect their own members? We have not been told. Of course not.
To date, the Brexiters' talk of 'global trade' consists of two or three paltry ideas on a wish-list. They have been told by India and Australia that there will be no deals without freer movement of peoples between their countries and the UK, precisely not what the anti-immigrant Brexiters want. The EU has already said as much: access to the EU markets means free movement of people, capital, services and goods. No doubt other countries and trading blocs will say exactly the same. So much for the immigration platform of Leave.
Desperate for something helpful on trade, May hurried across the Atlantic to kowtow to Donald Trump, a racist, sexist, bully-boy liar of proven sleaze, even indeed to hold his (excuse this but it is in the public domain) 'p***y-grabbing' hand, in the hope that a trade deal with the US will rescue the UK from the rubbish bin that Brexit is threatening to tip it into.
And yet Donald Trump is a protectionist: America First is his mantra; bring American business, investment, manufacture and services back home and protect them from the world economy. That does not sound promising. May then hurried straight to Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a man manoeuvring his country into a dictatorship, in the hope of doing a deal with a nation held up as a bugbear in the Leave campaign as an imminent member of the EU – yet another manipulative lie. You could not make some of this up.
We are angry therefore because Brexit is leading us into serious problems economically; it is threatening to trash our country and blight our future; the harm it is doing is already happening, and Brexit has not even started yet.
4 We are angry because Brexit is the result of hijacking and manipulation of our political system by one extreme political wing. There is no secret that Brexit is the desire and the project of the right wing of the Tory Party, UKIP, and their supporters in the worst of our tabloid press, the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun. It is their vision of the UK that they are hustling us into: the vision of Nigel Farage, Rupert Murdoch, the Daily Mail. We can take a hint from across the Atlantic: Trump presents himself as an anti-establishment, anti-elite figure acting on behalf of the common man. But search on the internet and you can see pictures of him, at home in his millionaire penthouse atop Trump Tower, a gilded eerie high above New York, and match his claims to be the common man's representative with the reality of his life.
Exactly the same is true of the Brexiters. Nigel Farage went to public school, and was a City broker before entering the European Parliament, which pays him handsomely, despite the fact that he does not very often attend. (And when he does attend, he treats his fellow MEPs to the kind of boorish lager-lout behaviour that is the worst example of shaven-headed English (not British) nationalism).
With Gove, Boris Johnson, 'Dr' Liam Fox and David Davis he pretends to be leading the charge against the establishment, the elite, the experts, on behalf of the resentful and neglected masses. The transparency of this lie is obvious, when what is happening is that a genuine elite is wresting power for itself – Jacob Rees-Mogg might appear on its flag as the effete and limpid emblem of those whom Brexit really serves – with Brexit floating on a raft of lies and distortions to do so.
Be very clear about the 'democratic' credentials of those who rush to claim that 37% of a gerrymandered electorate in an advisory-only referendum is a 'clear, overwhelming, unarguable' mandate for carrying out Brexit. They lie about the validity of the referendum and what it means. They tried to bypass Parliament, and when forced not to, they treated it with the contempt of a rushed Bill of a few lines in length, forced through on a whipped vote in which so many reluctant MPs complained that although they know Brexit is wrong they would obey anyway. How can that be acceptable! This is the corruption of what a representative Parliamentary democracy should be.
An honourable 114 MPs voted against triggering Article 50; 498 voted for it, the great majority of them Remainers but unwilling to vote according to their principles. What word can describe this betrayal of the country, its institutions, and its future!
The Brexiters trumpet the sovereignty of Parliament, yet treat the gerrymandered referendum as trumping the sovereignty of Parliament, and spurn the sovereignty of Parliament by imposing a three-line whip on the Article 50 vote. The sheer bare-facedness of these anti-democratic duplicities should be enough to make anyone angry: and it certainly makes us angry, we who are not deceived by the felony that the Brexiters are engaged in committing.
And that is why we are angry, and determined to fight on. We are angry at the mess, the lies, the damage, the disaster that everything about the EU referendum and the Brexit process is. That is why there can be no slackening of the fight against it. We must fight to stop it: we cannot allow the future of the UK to be predicated on a massive lie.
If the Brexiters manage to steal the UK out of the EU we will stay angry, and will fight to get the UK back in the EU. And when we do, it will be as proper partners of our EU fellow citizens and friends, working with them to build the kind of future that the imaginative and progressive ideal of European unity aims for.
We will not be frightened by the difficulties and setbacks which any great project such as the EU must face from time to time. Brexiters run away from that, grateful for the excuse offered them by the difficulties. Brexiters know that what they want for themselves is easier to get in a smaller, weaker, poorer UK which nevertheless will give them the low taxes and the personal influence they desire, even though the interests of the rest of us are damaged thereby.
But our anger at the lie of Brexit is matched by the determination and energy required to be part of something as great as the EU project – and to make it work.
Let us – we Remainers – be honest with and about ourselves too. The blame for the Brexit debacle lies mainly with the Brexiters' lies and manipulations, yes. But we have to put some of the blame elsewhere also.
We have to put blame on David Cameron for a stupid decision, a lazy management of the 2015 Referendum Bill, and a flaccid complacent campaign.
We have to put blame on Ed Miliband's changes to procedures for electing the Labour leader (which he did because the Parliamentary Labour Party had voted for his brother David, while members outside Parliament had voted for him. He wished to entrench that). The result has been the collapse of any meaningful opposition from the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, a man inadequate to the task of real-world leadership, a man professionally committed to opposing his own party for not being unrealistic enough in political matters, and a suspected closet Brexiter himself.
And we have to put blame on ourselves, the populace: for being inattentive, for being lazy about political matters, for sitting supine under a barrage of lies and distortions from the tabloid press and the Tory right and UKIP, for having not cared enough at elections and therefore allowed too many third-rate people and hucksters into Parliament, for having not watched the way the party whip system has castrated Parliament, and for not having vigorously educated ourselves as a people in the civic and political virtues of being aware, informed, alert in all that affects the well-being of our state and ourselves.
We should be angry at ourselves; we are angry at the failings and manipulations of our political system; but above all, and far, far more, we are angry, very angry, at the huge, the massive, the historical disaster of Brexit and the people who have created it.
Let us, as Remainers, remain angry: and let us fight on, until the day, whenever it is, that the UK is securely a member of the EU, and a fully participating member of it. This is a just anger, and it will sustain us to victory over Brexit, whether in the short term or the long term.
Stay angry! Stay very angry! - and fight on.
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