Barack Obama recently baptised ‘rising inequality’ the defining challenge of our time. A challenge that most commentators widely suggest lies behind the UK’s decision to exit the European Union. It is true that, despite the post-Brexit rhetoric about a north-south divide, across the length and breadth of the nation we are seeing a yawning gap between an asset-class and an underclass.
In Tottenham, thousands are out of work: too many children grow up in workless households and workless estates. They come of age in a dole queue. Those lucky enough to have a job fare little better. They navigate the part of the ‘knowledge economy’ that no ministerial pamphlet will talk about. Their roles are insecure, unsociable and monotonous. They arrive home exhausted, bled of energy. And amidst the collapse of social housing, people live in hutches, not houses: plywood walls divide rooms in homes that were designed for families of three and are now being occupied by six.
The problem is that income inequality and the gap between the rich and the poor, so brutally present in the UK today, is about to get much worse upon exiting the European Union. Gone are EU subsidies and, as housing developers lose share price, gone too is any prospect of building again. In the man-made recession to come – as night follows day – unemployment and the welfare bill will rise, and NHS spending will fall. As tax receipts fall, the Government won’t have the money to deal with a long and deep economic downturn through fiscal stimulus or to provide a proper welfare safety net for those who lose out.
As the relative safety of the crowd disappears, the political narrative will no longer be about income inequality and relative poverty in places like Tottenham; instead, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies warned this week, the new enemy will once again be absolute poverty – not seen in Britain for generations. This truth alone should be reason for the UK to press the pause button.
Since I first called for a parliamentary vote ahead of any move to invoke Article 50 and trigger the process of Brexit, I have lost count of the number of people who have called me ‘anti-democratic’. It is not anti-democratic for Parliament to decide on whether we should remain in the EU, in fact it is the exact opposite. The most fundamental tenet of our democracy is the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – we do not govern by referenda or plebiscite but through parliament.
By their very nature, referenda boil complex matters down to a simple binary question. The complexities and consequences wrapped up in the question of the UK’s EU membership are far greater than any other issue that has come before parliament for generations, and it is for that reason that the referendum was specifically designated to be advisory and non-binding.
We could have had a binding referendum that mandated parliament to legislate in accordance with the outcome, as was the case with the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011. Given the magnitude of the issue at hand, for the EU referendum to have this formal trigger, effect provisions would have been written in to the relevant legislation to require a two thirds majority and a ‘quadruple lock’ to ensure that all four nations of the United Kingdom were of the same mind. The referendum result would have failed on both of those tests by some distance.
As the ultimate legal authority in our democracy parliament cannot abdicate its responsibility to a referendum that was explicitly designed to be an advisory exercise.
It is up to individual Members of Parliament to now judge whether or not Brexit is in the best interests of their constituents and of the country at large. Making tough decisions on that basis is the ultimate responsibility of a Member of Parliament, and the nature of our representative democracy ensures that decisions are taken after a mature and lengthy deliberation that takes into account and weighs all relevant factors and information.
And of course if the decisions taken are deemed to be the wrong ones, Members of Parliament and the government of the day can be kicked out at periodic elections.
The Chilcot Report recently criticised the legal processes that led to the Iraq War, in particular the way that legal advice was delivered to the then Government before the House of Commons voted to go to war. The report criticised the manner in which prerogative power seemed to outweigh the supreme legal authority of parliament, the insufficient oversight over executive decision-making, the then Prime Minister presenting a case with unjustified certainty and the lack of sufficient planning. If Article 50 is invoked without the approval of parliament, the government would justifiably stand accused of repeating these mistakes.
All of this is not to say that the real concerns being raised by many of the 52% of Leave voters must not be urgently heeded. There is wide concern about the impact of free movement, about the people and communities who have lost out as a result of globalisation and, in particular, the deindustrialised areas and seaside economies that have been left behind as development and progress has taken place elsewhere.
Whilst recognising all of these very real issues and the need to address them, it does not necessarily follow that Members of Parliament decide to go ahead with Brexit, especially when many of the people who thought things would improve if the UK left the EU are those who will be hit first and hit hardest.
The man-made recession that Brexit will trigger will inevitably hurt those who always bear the brunt of any economic downturn – ordinary people and families who are living in deprived areas and struggling to make ends meet in insecure employment and on low incomes.
The distortions and misleading promises made by the Leave campaign are now well known, especially the much-vaunted £350million weekly windfall for the NHS and the promise of unfettered access to the European single market without free movement of labour. But in the weeks that have passed since the referendum we have seen that these representations are merely the tip of the iceberg.
All of our trading relationships with non-European Union nations are contingent on our membership of the EU. The best part of 100 bilateral and multilateral agreements will cease as soon as we leave the union, so as well as striking a deal with the EU we must also negotiate deals with all of our trading partners across the globe. Our membership of the World Trade Organisation would have to be renegotiated too, a process that its director-general, Roberto Azevedo, has ominously warned would be far from straightforward.
All of this work would represent a titanic task for a country boasting a huge team of experienced experts, but due to the fact that the EU has led all trade talks with other countries on our behalf since 1973 we barely even have any trade negotiators in place to try and deliver this brave new world.
Prominent international trade lawyer, Miriam Gonzales Durantez, has warned that we will need at least 500 negotiators working flat out for at least a decade to recast our international relationships. Michael Gove may have told us that the British people have ‘had enough of experts’, but now the Government is desperately searching for any expertise it can find and will no doubt end up paying millions to hire in external support from McKinsey, Linklaters, PwC and KPMG.
Liam Fox has been flying around the world on a charm offensive in complete ignorance of the fact that we cannot even negotiate any new trade deals whilst we are part of the EU. US Trade Representative Mike Froman embarrassingly rebuffed our International Trade Secretary in no uncertain terms last month, demonstrating that on the international stage bluff and bluster simply do not cut it.
During the referendum campaign Leave campaigners claimed that completely redrawing our international relationships from scratch would be a simple process, dismissing anyone that disagreed as a pessimist who was ‘talking down’ the UK. Over the course of the last few the scale of the Herculean task ahead of actually delivering on Brexit has revealed itself. Even Boris’s understudy at the Foreign Office, Sir Alan Duncan, has admitted that the process for leaving the European Union is ‘likely to be a long and complex one’.
There are infinite difficulties ahead. The world will want to see what the UK-EU arrangement is going to be before committing to a trade deal. Europe is saying that we have to trigger Article 50 before any substantive negotiations on our future relationship can go ahead. As soon as Article 50 is triggered our trade negotiators will be firmly on the back foot. They will be immediately be placed in a very weak bargaining position sat across the table from people who now need to strike a deal within two years.
Brexit will come to dominate Whitehall and the business of government to the detriment of so many other vital issues that need to be addressed urgently. Speaking from experience of serving in Government as the Iraq War unfolded, it is incredibly hard to get things done when there is such a huge issue dominating the political agenda.
Whitehall simply does not have the capacity to focus on delivering Brexit whilst simultaneously delivering on education reform, redrawing our welfare system and sorting out the huge problems across our National Health Service – not to mention huge infrastructure projects such as Crossrail 2. We have already seen the Prime Minister shelve the concept of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in favour of an anodyne commitment to boosting productivity everywhere outside of the capital. Focusing all of Whitehall’s energy on delivering Brexit would actually make it far more difficult to deliver the changes needed in communities that voted to Brexit because they felt left behind and ignored by central Government.
Amidst all of the confusion and uncertainty about what comes next, it is worth remembering that 63% of the electorate didn’t vote for Brexit at all. More than two million British expatriates were denied a vote. Thirteen million people decided not to cast their vote. Not one person voted for Theresa May to single-handedly decide if and when to push the Article 50 button, not even the Conservative Party membership in the shires. The bottom line is, in a parliamentary democracy a decision of this magnitude demands nothing less than the scrutiny of both houses. We would be selling Britain seriously short if we settled for less.
David Lammy has been the Labour MP for Tottenham since 2000.