In my decision to write this piece I have chosen, much like the United Kingdom in its decision to leave the European Union, to break somewhat with established convention. In contrast to the deluge of carefully structured articles that have surfaced in the aftermath of Brexit, this post will instead be a ‘thought-piece’ – a stream of consciousness whose design reflects not only my mental chaos as I try to grapple with this occasion, but also the economic, political and social chaos that has gripped the country in the wake of it. In truth it is difficult to know where to start with Brexit, some of the reasons underpinning it are as old as the UK itself, deeply rooted in a history of empire as well as in class politics. On the other hand, some of its conduits were decidedly modern and were anchored in the waters of globalisation, rapid social change and a climax of Euroscepticism carefully whipped up by far right parties in the run up to the vote. Whilst volumes could be written about any one of these topics, in this piece I will pick out a few of the key themes that were the heart of the referendum and offer some of my thoughts on our European exit.
“Democracy” was the buzzword of the leave campaign, a slogan repeatedly chanted like some Vedic hymn both in the run up to and after the EU referendum. “The EU is undemocratic” they cried, “we need our democracy back” they howled. As an initial thought, it’s strange that a negative definition is as close as we ever seem to get to the concept of democracy. In other words, whilst we seem to have a pretty good idea of what democracy it is not, we have virtually no idea of what it is? We know for example, that it is not rule by military might, nor divine right (although many believe that our monarchy contradicts this principle) but who can truly say that they know what democracy is? Philosophers and political theorists have long posited that democracy is best defined as the will of the people as expressed through their vote. That definition seems attractive at a glance and was central to leave campaigner rhetoric in the run up to the referendum, but the immediate question raised is – what if not everybody votes? It’s worth noting that only about 70% of the eligible voting population cast their vote in the EU referendum and the leave camp won by a majority of 51%. Can we really say that the ‘will of the people’ has been exercised when under 40% of the population voted in favour of Brexit? It is clear that lack of voter turnout doesn’t automatically equal lack of democracy, but as an article I read recently suggested, the fact that a vote from such a low percentage of the population on such a critical issue can carry the day can be argued to be indicative of a glaring deficiency in our democratic process and the line between deficient democracy and undemocratic is anything but clear.
Prolific African writer Chinua Achebe once argued that one of the most important aspects of democracy was an “educated, participatory followership”. I have already touched on the lack of participation surrounding the referendum, but perhaps a more troubling question is to what extent those who voted were indeed “educated” in regards to the EU before they cast their lot? Having been born and raised in Britain, I have always been alarmed at just how little the EU features in our domestic education system and despite having been through one of the country’s more rigorous secondary schooling systems, it was not until I studied law at University that I can claim to have developed any real knowledge of the history and workings of the EU. This academic deficit permeates all levels of society and many at the time of the referendum questioned whether they had sufficient knowledge of the EU or perhaps more importantly, what leaving it might mean, before they made their decision. This is not to suggest that if people had this knowledge, they would have definitely voted to remain, but a shadow is definitely cast over the democratic value of a process where many of those voting were unsure as to the subject matter of their vote.
Closely linked to the cries for a return to democracy were calls that Britain needed to exit the EU so as to ensure the “return of British sovereignty”. Sovereignty is defined as the authority of a State to govern itself and the argument was made by many leave campaigners that Britain had been sucked into the EU and was being forced to adopt any and all of its policies. We had thus effectively lost our ability to self-govern and were being “ruled from Brussels”, so the argument frequently went.
In response to this point, we need only look briefly to history which shows that whilst we may have ceded some of our decision-making power to the EU, this was entirely our own choice. When Britain joined the EU in 1975 under the conservative Government of Edward Heath, it had been long established that joining would entail some loss of sovereignty. In 1963, more than 10 years before the UK joined, the Court of Justice of the European Union had ruled that “the [European] Community constitutes a new legal order in international law for whose benefit the states have limited their sovereign rights”. Shortly after this decision, the Court reaffirmed this position, holding that “The transfer by the States from their domestic legal system to the [European] Community legal system…carries with it a permanent limitation of their sovereign rights…” These decisions made crystal clear that any State joining the EU would be required to relinquish some of its sovereignty and it is bizarre that now, almost 50 years after nevertheless choosing to join the EU, loss of sovereignty was such a pivotal issue in the referendum. There is of course the argument that the UK were not sure of just how much sovereignty they would lose as a member of the EU but the reality is that since joining , the UK has maintained the largest share of its sovereignty as compared with any other member State. We opted out of the Schengen agreement abolishing border controls between member states, opted out of the monetary union rejecting the euro as a form of national currency, secured opt-outs for certain provisions of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and we also opted out of certain provisions of the EU area of freedom security and justice. This ‘a la carte’ approach to the EU can hardly be squared with the notion that the UK were helplessly accepting all of its rules and our relationship could rather be characterised as the UK holding the EU to ransom, forcing it to adopt our policies and rules.
Some have suggested that in place of our current relationship with the EU, they would like to have an agreement similar to that of Norway and Switzerland which both have single-market access but are not part of the Union. They argue that these countries have been able to retain a greater share of their sovereignty whilst still being able to reap most of the benefits of the EU. A closer look at these countries relationships with the EU however, reveals that this argument is specious. To begin with, a consequence of Norway’s non-membership in the EU has meant that whilst it has had no say in the EU’s law making process, it has nevertheless been required to adopt the majority of the EU’s legislation and has implemented all of the four freedoms including the free movement of persons – the most controversial of all freedoms in the run up to Brexit. Switzerland is in a similar situation and is required to accept the vast majority of EU Laws whilst having no say in their development. If our leaving now means that we will be forced to replicate these models, It is highly doubtful whether more sovereignty really will be the result of our Brexit as some have argued.
The issue of immigration was at the heart of the referendum. I would not go as far as to say that the other issues were tangential, but it is without doubt that the foremost reason that many people voted to leave the European Union was because it had become associated with uncontrolled, and uncontrollable, immigration. From the outset it must be noted that the very portrayal of immigration as a problem, and only a problem, in the run-up to Brexit was spurious. Immigrant communities have for centuries contributed to the enrichment of British society bringing not just culture but, perhaps more importantly, labour to the country. It was the large scale immigration from commonwealth nations at the invitation of the British Government post WWII that helped to re-build the nation and transform it from its ravaged, financially embattled state into one of the most prosperous countries in the world today. It must also be remembered that even in present times, many of our public industries are in large part dependent upon immigrant workers and that immigrants continue to make an immensely useful contribution to British society. These aspects were scarcely touched upon in the run up to the referendum, with the leave campaign choosing to focus exclusively on the problems raised by immigration and the remain campaign, concerned about the potential fallout from any talk of ‘good immigration’, happy for the most part to simply counter their assertions.
There are of course problems related to immigration within the UK however, one of the biggest obstacles to solving these issues has been terminology, with the word ‘immigrant’ being used as a ‘catch-all’ term to lump together very different groups of people. There were essentially 3 main groups that the leave campaign targeted in their bid to leave the EU: Recent EU Migrants, recent Non-EU migrants and immigrant populations already resident in the UK. In relation to EU migrants, the main issues were reported to stem from two main factors which were wage depression affecting mainly working class communities and competition for housing also mostly affecting working class communities. Whilst there is evidence that wages across some industries have fallen in recent years, there has certainly not been one cause of this and it has not been established whether EU migration was even a factor, with many citing the global recession and government austerity policies as the main driving factors behind this phenomenon. In terms of housing, again whilst EU migration may in some instances have increased tensions in this area, there is not a single answer to this question and many agree that the housing crisis in the UK has infact been the result of an epic failure of public policy by consecutive Governments who have failed to build enough houses to meet growing demand. In relation to non-EU migrants, their numbers have increased in recent years, but many who have been categorised with this label are not simply ‘migrants’ moving for potentially economic reasons, but rather are refugees, fleeing wars and persecution. I have elsewhere written about Britain’s involvement in many of these overseas conflicts and it is ironic that whilst we have contributed heavily to the international displacement of persons, we continue to lament taking some of the smallest numbers of refugees in proportion to our population than any other major European nation. The supposed ‘problem’ raised by the third class of person, immigrant communities already here, deserves special mention. Far from presenting a genuine problem for voters to consider, this argument played on prejudicial fears of immigrant communities ‘taking over’ British culture. It rested solely on racial and religious hatred and since Brexit, many who voted simply because they do not like immigrant communities and ethnic minorities have reared their heads, buoyed by feelings that their sentiments are in the majority. This has led to a sharp rise is hate crime in the UK and remains one of the more alarming legacies of Brexit.
It is not yet known what will became of the United Kingdom after Brexit. The general economic picture is reported to be bleak, and some have even predicted a constitutional crisis may be on the horizon as Scotland and Northern Ireland consider whether they will remain part of the UK in future. In my view, one of the most damaging aspects of Brexit is neither economic nor political, but rather that it sends a message to the world that despite the fact that most countries are moving ever closer together, the UK has a vein desire to move backwards; To ossify its borders whilst most are becoming more fluid and to isolate its culture whilst most are becoming more intertwined. As someone who has spent much time living abroad, I know that perhaps more than anything else, it is this image of a reactionary UK, unable to cope with change that will be the lasting legacy of Brexit and our departure is all the more dispiriting as the arguments for it rested on such feeble footing.