Tuesday, 5 July 2016

A nice walk

I went for a nice walk in Central London on Saturday. It was great to be in the sunshine and showers, slowly ambling past the architectural treasures and follies in the historic heart of our democracy at Westminster. The experience was rendered infinitely more pleasurable by the fact that the authorities had, for some reason, decided to ban all traffic in those streets for the day – even (shock, horror) bikes. So the air was clean and there was no threat of getting run over, even walking in the middle of the street.

It wasn't as quiet as you might have expected, however, as 30,000 other people had decided to do the same thing. And some of these people had trumpets and other noise-making gadgets (and I realised for the first time exactly why it was that, historically, the trumpet was always the primary instrument of the army).

This was clearly a family day out for many, and the huge crowd was good-natured and boisterous. Many of these walkers had created very clever posters lampooning the politicians who led the campaign for the UK to leave the EU. I think my favourite was the one paraded by some children referencing the Scooby Doo cartoons. With Gove, Johnson and Farage dressed as fake spooks, it stated You won't get away with it, we are the meddling kids.











Some of my acquaintances, even left-wing people, actually disapproved of this march. They called it 'anti-democratic'. 'We've had the referendum, we didn't like the result, but that's it, we've got to live with it, that's democracy' went the argument.

I beg to differ. I think we have a duty to continue to campaign, if we really believe that Brexit is so wrong, in particular to defend some people who may be rendered vulnerable by the result of the referendum. Majority votes have the potential to damage the weak if the question asked is a bad one. That's why generally why we don't use referendums, we use representative democracy through Parliament. Additionally we have a high duty to European peace and solidarity, if we truly believe that that is what the EU is ultimately about. If we believe the 52% got it badly wrong, it's our duty to go on saying so.

The constitutional position is fairly simple. The referendum was only advisory, and Members of Parliament, have, as I stated in my letter to my MP, the duty to take not just the referendum result, but all the circumstances, and all their best judgement about what is best for the nation, into consideration in coming to their decision as to whether to allow the UK to secede from the EU. It's totally legitimate for the Remain supporters to go on lobbying parliament to try to convince them that we should not leave the EU, for many and various reasons, after the vote has been counted, and even after we start to leave, if we do, to continue to lobby to reverse the process. This isn't anti-democratic. it's fully a correct part of the democratic process. If an MP was on the losing side of a vote in the House of Commons on a subject that he or she cared passionately about, no-one would be surprised if he or she continued to try to persuade fellow members of their point of view on the subject and to agitate for a further vote. Many important reforms have historically come about in this way: the principle was lost first time round but succeeded in the end. No-one would argue this is an undemocratic process in a legislature – why so if amongst members of the public after a referendum? I would expect the supporters of any cause who believed in it strongly, even the Leave camp, if events were going against them, to do the same. Ultimately, of course, the objective is not to make Parliament take an unpopular decision. It is for the populace to realise that they got it wrong first time round. Public sentiment and politicians' minds need to be turned at the same time.

But in the shorter term, before most people realise that Brexit is wrong, there's another relevant argument: 48% simply isn't a mandate for the scale of destructive change that will be brought about. As many have pointed out, it is normal in not only developed political systems, but in voluntary organisations, for change to the constitutional status quo to require a supermajority of 60%, or two-thirds, or majorities simultaneously in two levels of government (for example in all devolved authorities as well las the central one). Such a stipulation wasn't put in place in this referendum, though it was in the first Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums. Instead all we have is the discretion of MPs to call upon.

I'm not over-optimistic about the effect that a march of 30,000 people will have. The Stop the War protests were bigger, and they didn't stop the war. But protest is an essential element in the combination of levers the ongoing Remain campaign will need to use turn this around. There is an important difference with the Stop the War movement. The war was inherently self-limiting, as the people will not stand for an indefinite foreign military involvement. Marching may not stop a war, but may bias the politicians to pull out more quickly. Separation from the EU just goes on once triggered, and the period for campaigning about it is indefinite. The arguments by the Remain side will become ever more convincing with time as the problems with separation ravel up in ever-more tangled knots, growing more intractable as they are further examined. We are seeing this currently as the Conservative party debates who will be the next Prime Minister.

Now the EU emigrants in the UK and UK emigrants in other countries have become the political pawns in the Conservative leadership contest. 'Give everyone working here the right to remain' some say. 'No, we need to use them them as a bargaining chip against the other states where are own expats are' say others. So the lives of both their expatriates and ours are tossed about by these politicians in their own game.

The truth is it isn't possible for the UK government to give a guarantee about the EU nationals here because they can't be confident of getting a reciprocal deal from the EU. The truth is that the EU will not want to offer such a deal quickly, if at all, because the UK has to be seen to be punished for separating. The further truth is that some states in the EU probably would not be that averse to no deal being achieved, ever, and mass repatriations resulting, because in due course the expanding economies of the East European states might well need more of their workers back, and the Spanish and Proven├žale authorities may be quite happy to get rid of the burden of a large number of elderly British from their healthcare systems. Recall that every member state will have a veto on the final deal reached. The worst deal for Britain is the one that will take it. The UK is the biggest exporter of people in the EU: we have most to loose from negotiations on 'right to remain'.



It's not clear to me that the Bexit campaigners thought any of this through in advance. There is one huge, critical question that none of our pro-Leave politicians are asking, as French commentator P Y Gerbeaux (spelling?) commented right at the end of Radio 4's Westminster Hour this week (after recounting how many EU immigrants in the UK are now feeling scared and alienated): What hasppens if, down the road of the Article 50 process, all the UK negociators can get out of Brussels is a deal that is terrible for the UK? What happens if what the UK is offered is trading terms less favourable than those offered to Turkey, plus an insistence on full freedom of movement, plus fees? The UK then has only two rational course available: leave with no agreement, in which case we might get our 4.9 million mostly elderly nationals back pretty quickly, which will do wonders of our health and social care bills, or stay in the EU on current terms (if the other states unanimously still want us, which seems doubtful).

The likely real results of negotiations are seen in the actua example of Switzerland, which did have a binding referendum on limiting immigration, which the Swiss government has not been able to implement because it conflicts with trade agreements with the EU. The Swiss example shows how a favourable al la carte European relationship won't be possible. We'll either end up in a very subservient relationship, as Switzerland is now finding itself in, or with no more relationship with the EU than, say, Russia.

The fundamental problem with the concept of Brexit, is, and always has been, that it doesn't mean any one clear thing. That was the main difficulty with asking the populace to vote on it. The referendum asked a bad question. The EU is a continually evolving entity, shaped by it's member states and their government's policies. What Brexit means this year is different from what it might mean in the future. But there are several things we can say it definitely does mean. It means our government does not send any Commissioners to Brussels. It means our people do not elect members of the European Parliament. It means our ministers are not part of the EU Council of Ministers. It means our representatives are cut out of the decision-making of Europe. On the other hand, Brexit does not definitely mean control over our borders, and it does not mean definitely no contributions to the budgets of European institutions. Far from meaning 'taking back control', in most likely scenarios, Brexit amounts to a desperate loss of control.

How did this state of misunderstanding arise? It seems to go back to a kind of post-Imperial British feeling of entitlement and inflated self-importance. We're still a nuclear power after all. We may have the second most impressive lot of aircraft carriers in the world by 2023 and we're still at the top table of the UN in the Security Council. There's been this feeling all along that Europe needs us more than we need them; an arrogant conceit that we, the anglo-saxons, are still going to show those failing Eurocrats exactly how it all should be done.

So on Saturday protestors filled the pavements, carriageways and cycle tracks of London, clambering over the brand new granite kerbs of Cycle Superhighway 2 in Parliament Square to push for a different, more realistic course than the one the 52% chose. I will leave the EU debate and go back to discussing cycle infrastructure in my next post. Some divisions are bad, but kerbs are OK.

1 comment:

  1. "Some of my acquaintances, even left-wing people, actually disapproved of this march. They called it 'anti-democratic'. 'We've had the referendum, we didn't like the result, but that's it, we've got to live with it, that's democracy' went the argument."

    Like you, I don't accept this way of thinking. Thoreau writes: "A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then." He argues that a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it, and also that any man more right than his neighbours constitutes a majority of one already.

    AC Grayling has written a wonderful letter to all MPs, which shines a very clear light on this issue (here).

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