Why Brexit happened

June last year the Brits rather upset political pundits, betting markets, our international allies and common sense by voting to leave the EU. I will save the reasons for this decision for another post (/rant), but I thought I’d start this jolly (and not at all bitter) series by laying out why Britain decided to hold a referendum in the first place.

In the heady and blissful days of 2013, the Conservatives were in a coalition government with the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems are pretty relaxed about the EU, but the Conservatives have always been rather divided on the issue of Europe, to put it mildly.

The Conservatives were facing an electoral challenge from a smaller anti-EU party called UKIP. In fact, in 2013 it seemed like the Labour Party’s best chance to win an election would be the Conservatives losing votes to UKIP and pro-EU Labour coming through the middle.

So in darkened smoke-filled room the Conservative elite figured out an ingenious strategy: They would promise to hold a referendum on EU membership if they won the 2015 election. If you wanted to leave the EU, they argued, you shouldn’t vote for the anti-EU party, but for the Conservatives, because then you would get the referendum you so badly craved, and if Labour won there would be no referendum.

The then Prime Minister could tell older provincial people that he had their back while telling financiers, who were reasonably worried about planting a bomb under the UK economy “No worries, we’ll win the referendum, unite the party, cut your taxes and reach for the champagne.” Nudge nudge, wink wink. All good so far.

It also seemed likely in 2013 that the Conservatives would need the support of the Lib Dems to stay in power after the 2015 election. The Lib Dems would never support a referendum on EU membership, because they’re imminently sensible and don’t have a wing of old fogies harking back to the days of empire. (Comes with the liberal turf, I suppose).

It seemed, then, that this was a great, low risk strategy to win voters. However, it turned out the plan worked a little too well. Partly as a result of their carefully designed message, the Conservatives won the election, had to hold the referendum and managed to lose it!

That is briefly how we came to have a referendum. In coming posts I will explore more deep-seated reasons for why the UK, usually so content with following authority sent a massive two fingers up to Conservatives and their crew of high financiers and political elite.

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Why First Past the Post caused Brexit

For anyone who is young, idealistic and cheerful, I would not recommend visiting Britain at the moment. There is a pall of gloom in the air, mainly because a misguided political gamble by a handful of elites in the Tory party has lurched our economy off a cliff. Those who grabbed the steering wheel have no idea how to avoid the crunch and those relegated to the backseat are wringing their hands and praying that we get another referendum on whether we have a soft landing.

In a previous post, I laid out how we got into this rather unfortunate situation, but now taking another self-righteous stride backwards, and, taking what one might call the long view, I would suggest that the real cause of our troubles is a seemingly innocuous element of our constitution, namely our electoral system.

The UK has First Past the Post. I go into this profoundly bizarre system elsewhere, but the long and short of it is that one party can get 35% of the vote and receive 65% of the seats in parliament, while another party gets 12% of the vote and only receives one solitary MP.

Proponents of the FPTP argue that one of the benefits is that it prevents extreme parties being represented in parliament. For example, UKIP, a thoroughly undesirable bunch of xenophobes and Little Engladers, are a party we don’t want sitting on those blush seats. So the Conservatives argued that a system of proportional representation would lead to UKIP getting 60-80 seats in parliament. Cue moral outrage from decent middle class folk.

It might seem very sensible to exclude a party with thoroughly unethical and bigoted ideas. The only problem is that at the last election 4 million people voted for them, and in return for 4 million votes they received exactly one MP. This lead to a perfectly understandable groundswell of resentment and frustration with the British political system among UKIP’s electorate. Those that were then ostracised and excluded mobilised and collectively thumbed their nose at the political establishment that had ignored them for so long. The Brexit vote was to a large extent a scream of frustration from people who feel they have not been listened to.

Brexit was caused by FPTP the post in a direct way, because Cameron was scared of Labour coming through the middle in some constituencies, he promised people that the only way of getting a referendum was a vote for him. But it was also caused by FPTP in this indirect way because a majoritarian system ignores large parts of the population and that resentment will come out sooner or later.

Good old Blightly, we have an electoral system that manages to keep out parties from government that want to hamper out economy by restricting immigration, want to endorse little Englandism by forcing companies to declare foreign workers, want to cripple social mobility by introducing grammar schools. Good job we’re able to keep a party like that out of power with FPTP…

Where were you when…?

I will start my posts, updates and occasional rants about post-Brexit Britain, by saying where the Philososloth was at the time of the referendum six weeks ago. Being a supposedly savvy latte-sipping, middle class, London-living political pundit I was sitting in the bar of the Marriott Hotel, confidently expressing to anyone who would listen that Remain would win and win comfortably. “Probably 55 to 45” I was telling my friends, suavly sipping at my not-so-suave Dark and Stormy. In the background Big Ben chimed merrily, as I expanded on my theory. “Could be even more of a blow out. 58 to 42, maybe” privately delighted at my mathematical dexterity of numbers adding up to 100.

On the bus home I was listening to the news, becoming more and more sure of myself as I heard talk of the markets going up, confident Remainers and Brexiters already scrabbling around for some good excuses. I went to bed early and set my alarm to 2 15 in the morning. I couldn’t miss a moment of this exciting and decive victory for common sense.

My alarm went off at 2 15 and I groggily got out of bed and put the kettle on. To my consternation the internet wasn’t working and after some swearing and banging the machine I finally got IPlayer up and running and found to my disbelief…. that Remain were 200,000 votes ahead.

Now that might sound like a comfortable lead, but, as the harrowed-looking political commentators were telling me, this lead was nowhere near large enough. The votes already in had been from places predicted to vote Remain in far larger numbers. Only problem was, they hadn’t, Remain was ahead by a whisker in the grand scheme of things and solidly Leave voting parts of the country were still to declare.

My disbelief turned to consternation as the votes came in. I was shocked. How could I have gotten it so wrong? Surely Twitter hadn’t been lying to me. All my Londonite friends had been banging on about how awful Leave was and how everyone they knew would vote Remain.

The results, when they finally came in, showed me why I had been so mistaken. I was living in a Remain bubble! Pretty much only London and Scotland had voted to Remain, along with a few other trendy university cities. I was horrified. Not only because of the win for Leave or the fact that I had been so badly mistaken in my predictions, but because Britain was a different country to the one I thought it was.

My upbringing of occasional visits to the Home Counties with cream teas at stately homes was a far cry from the disillusionment so many people felt with the country’s direction. Areas that had been left behind by the benefits of immigration and increased gloabalisation had voted heavily to Leave the EU. They had attached, it seemed to me, any grievance with modern Britain to the EU.

In the coming posts I will explore this sense of being left behind. I think it maps neatly onto Brexit, the Labour Party’s existential crisis and, across the pond, why Trump is doing so well in the States. So buckle up and prepare for some Moderate-Lefty rants about the state of the world.

A New Case for Britain to Stay In the EU

If Cameron intends to make the product of his renegotiation the centre-point of the campaign to remain in the EU, the Brits could very well end up voting to leave. Even if he manages to get the concessions he’s asking for, the reaction of the British people is bound to vacillate between boredom, bemusement and indignation.

  • The sterling will be protected from being integrated with the Euro (yawn).
  • Welfare tourism will be combated (yawn- and it won’t satisfy anyone concerned about free movement within the EU)
  • Make Brussels pledge that the UK will not become part of a European super-state (Wait, what? Is that even a possibility? What are we doing in this crazy organisation?)

The fact is that the concessions Cameron gets will be meagre and they should play a very minor role in the campaign to keep Britain inside the EU. Centre-stage should be a positive account of the part the UK can play in the EU and the significant benefits for the UK of remaining in.

An important part of that strategy should be to combat the myth that the UK is powerless within the EU. This is seemingly a widespread perception. A recent poll showed that 61% of Brits think that the UK should take more leadership in the EU, while at the same time thinking that Britain is powerless within the current system.

The UK is not powerless within the current system. Britain is represented, and takes a leading role in, many of the EU’s programmes and initiatives. The narrative that France and Germany are conspiring to exclude the UK from influence and power in the EU is simply untrue. Germany and France realise that the UK is one of the most important members of the EU and there is genuine concern and frustration that the UK is choosing to take a back-seat.

Last week President Xi of China visited London. The red carpet and the Queen were rolled out, and he was given a slap up banquet. Two years ago, when President Hollande visited the UK all he got was a sarnie in a pub somewhere in the Midlands. We need to change the way we talk about the EU within the UK. We need to change the way we interact with the EU. Britain can take a leading role in Europe and influence its future direction in a way less influential players can only dream of. The choice at the referendum is between a Great Britain and Little England. The choice should not boil down to whether Cameron manages to wrap inadequate negotiations in an appetising package.

The EU Referendum: Are you In or Out?

The UK is holding a referendum on the membership of the EU. It has to happen before the end of 2017. PM Cameron is busy negotiating a better membership deal for the UK. Not content with waiting for the results of Cameron’s negotiation, groups are forming on either side to argue their case for Britain to stay in or leave the EU. Here’s a quick guide to these groupings.

Stay in:

‘Britain Stronger in Europe’

‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ needs to go back to the drawing board, not only on their name, but on pretty much everything else as well. The campaign, for want of a better word, has had a stuttering start. It seems strange to people that their message so far is: “We think regardless of what the PM brings back we should stay in the EU.” Arguing for the status quo (let alone a status quo which Cameron hopes to change) is challenging.

Amid concerns that they would sound patronising by highlighting the dire consequences for British business of leaving the EU, ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ opted for sounding patronising by highlighting the dire consequences for British business of leaving the EU. Rather than talking about the many positives of the EU, such as preserving freedoms of race and religion, workers’ and women’s rights and rebuilding Europe after two devastating world wars, they are dealing in fear.

Leave:

‘Leave.EU’

It’s not just the stay-in campaign that deals in fear. The imaginatively named ‘Leave.EU’ are trying their hardest to highlight all the scary things about the EU; imagine all those continentals coming over to Britain. Imagine all that money which they soak up by visiting the NHS. Oh, think of all those people coming over here and working hard for our economy. The horror of it all!

‘Leave.EU’ is an eclectic bunch of anti-immigration fanatics and xenophobes. Luckily for the UK they are poorly organised and incompetent. Not surprising seeing as most mainstream, “sensible” euro-sceptics joined the other anti-EU group (yes, there are two!)

‘Vote Leave’

What ‘Leave.EU’ lack in credibility and competency, ‘Vote Leave’ makes up for in a stodgy lack of charisma. This pale, male and stale brigade consists mainly in those who hark back to an imperial hay-day, when the voice of Britain meant something on the world stage.

The tired battle cry goes something like this: “Outside of the EU Britain will be a major player!” It seems they learned nothing from the Suez Crisis, which is a shame seeing as most of them probably remember it.