Thursday, 7 July 2016

What the Brexit result means. And what it doesn't mean.

If the outcome of the Brexit referendum was unexpected, so much more the wave of hysteria which engulfed otherwise rational people after the votes were counted.  Many of the politicians across the UK who didn’t resign, or lapse into eerie silence, instead exploited this frenzy to claim that their particular agenda was legitimised by the result. 

Some members of the ‘leave’ campaign act as if the poll were a general election, which gave them the authority to form a right-wing, anti-immigration government, while nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland use it to justify their attempts to pull the United Kingdom apart.  Both are exploiting the sense of disorientation enveloping post-referendum politics, and a leadership vacuum that plunged the two biggest Westminster parties into crisis.

In this feverish atmosphere, there is a pressing need for calm thinking and a sense of proportion, so that the UK’s best interests and constitutional integrity can be protected outside the European Union.  It's a good starting point to consider what the result really means and what it certainly cannot be taken to mean.

Most fundamentally, the referendum provided a clear mandate for the UK to leave the EU.  Public opinion may change, but the government at Westminster must plan for Brexit, unless it finds very compelling evidence that voters have changed their minds.  The delegation of tricky decisions from democratic institutions to popular referenda is a dangerous trend, but once the process is started its outcome cannot be ignored. 

Whether or not the campaign was fought honestly, the result stands.  There were ample opportunities for both sides to refute their opponents’ arguments and take apart any alleged lies.  While the debate around EU membership was complicated and contentious, the referendum posed a simple, unambiguous question: remain or leave, in or out. 

It’s impossible to tell with any certainty which factors motivated the British public to vote leave, so its decision can’t be unravelled on the basis of unproven assertions that voters were duped.  Similarly, the result doesn’t support claims by some anti-EU activists that they have acquired a mandate for government. 

Campaigners detailed a wide range of alternatives for the UK’s future outside the EU, from remaining part of the single market, like Norway, to a much more distant relationship with Brussels.  They were necessarily ambiguous about a ‘plan’ for after the referendum, because the leave camp was a coalition, comprising people with very different views of how post-Brexit Britain should look. 

The electorate voted on the narrow question of EU membership, not broad visions for the UK’s future and certainly not rival manifestoes for power.  The leave campaign cannot claim credibly that its narrow referendum victory must mean an end to free movement and strict limits on immigration, or that only its supporters should be considered to become the next prime minister. 

Equally, in Northern Ireland, the idea that Arlene Foster’s position as First Minister is undermined by the Brexit result is an absurdity which her opponents should be embarrassed to articulate.  Fifty-six per cent of voters here opted to remain in the EU, but the DUP is unchallenged as Northern Ireland’s biggest party and it won its right to lead the Executive again in an Assembly election barely one month ago.            

However plaintive the arguments, a UK wide referendum is not equivalent to regional or general elections.  The fact that support for leaving the EU was not consistent across all the UK’s nations and regions doesn’t change the result either, despite the petulance of nationalists at Holyrood and Stormont.

The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon has encouraged the improbable notion that Scotland could stay in the European Union, even while the rest of the UK leaves.  She’s talked up the prospects of a second referendum on Scottish independence and rushed to Brussels to meet with the self-important President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.               

The SNP looks calm and measured in comparison to its counterparts at Stormont, Sinn Fein, and particularly the SDLP, with its shrill requests for the Republic’s government to become involved in Brexit negotiations and heady rhetoric that teeters between invoking the will of the people of Northern Ireland and the broader interests of the ‘Irish nation’.

Their hysteria reveals again that nationalists are in denial about the consequences of the principle of consent, a fundamental aspect of the Good Friday Agreement which underpins Westminster’s sovereignty in Northern Ireland.  It also shows a basic misunderstanding, or more likely a deliberate distortion, of the nature of this referendum.

Regional separatists have neither the right nor the powers to undermine parliamentary sovereignty, or to unravel constitutional ties between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  However, they can ratchet up their language to widen existing political divisions and it may be difficult for the government to resist demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence, if evidence persists that opinion has swung in favour of nationalists.

That’s one of the reasons why a calmer approach to the EU referendum needs to prevail, quickly, in London and among unionist politicians elsewhere.  Debate must centre on which form of Brexit best protects the UK’s interests, economically and socially, and it should include voices which favoured staying in the European Union, as well as those who wanted to leave. 

The poll was an important moment, which changes some things utterly, but it doesn’t spell the end of British politics nor can a comprehensive answer to every aspect of the country’s future be determined from its result.  People didn’t vote to overturn centrist government, nor did they vote to break up the UK.  It’s deeply opportunistic, dishonest and dangerous to imply otherwise.  

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