I´m writing this on the anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11 2001. I remember watching with horror as the twin towers came down and clouds of dust engulfed Manhattan. Those on the receiving end did not deserve it. It was a reminder that proper evil can, and does, exist in this world. The story dominated the news channels for months and we still see the legacy in the most horrible civil war of recent times in Syria.
The UK news today is full of Brexit, as it has been for the past 2 years. So far, I have managed to resist writing about it. This has not been easy. My stock in trade is helping people to see through flim-flam and think critically about their decisions. The whole Brexit debate is so littered with misinformation and low quality argument that it provides a constant source of annoyance/inspiration, or even potential case studies. Nevertheless I have resisted for one simple reason – if you write about Brexit you will almost certainly make some kind of prediction – either explicitly or implicitly. The reality is that none of us are very good at predicting the future. I’ve written before on this topic in this article: Prepare to be wrong. In the case of Brexit it’s pretty easy to understand what people are predicting. In the long term, Remainers think the UK will be better off staying in the EU and Brexiteers think we will be better off out. At this point I should probably point out my personal allegiance: I’m a Remainer. There are multiple reasons for this, but probably the big one I thought about in 2016 is that even if you don’t like some of the rules you are likely to get bigger and better opportunities if you stay in the larger club (there you go: I’ve gone and made a, likely inaccurate, prediction). However, I know enough to know that I can’t predict what the implications of staying, or leaving, are in 10 or 20 years into the future, and am entirely prepared to believe that I could be wrong.
Like many people I was shocked by the result of the referendum so I sought out people who had voted leave and tried to understand their thought process. Just like I had a number of reasons to remain, Brexiteers had a number of reasons to leave, a lot of them to do with the rather opaque processes that govern the EU. “Taking back control” was obviously a slogan that had hit many nerves. I tried to be open to different points of view and let myself be influenced by different opinions. After all this discussion, in summary, this table was my finding:
Around the short-term we had a consensus between the 52% and the 48%. The discussions hadn’t changed my mind but I had a different perspective. Long term – who knows what´s going to happen? Short-term the majority of us all believe it’s going to be worse. My argument for remaining has now changed to: “Why put yourself through this short-term pain if you have no idea whether it’s going to help or not in the long-term?” It’s certainly true that, at least in 2016, we didn’t have a big consensus on that prediction. During the course of these discussions I noticed some other things that perhaps would be less apparent if you just saw one side of the argument…. I noticed that the vast majority of Brexiteers are not racists, although if you are a racist you are more likely to be a Brexiteer, as Will Self pointed out and was then misquoted by Mark Francois. The vast majority of Remainers are not anti-democratic traitors who wish to deny the “will of the people”, although those that do believe “property is theft” are more likely to fall on the remain side. I also noticed that most people I spoke to have not changed their opinion since the referendum. In fact, if anything their conviction has strengthened, although most stated the reason for this was the rhetoric and actions coming from the opposite side.
Today, in the Times Daniel Finkelstein argues that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act should be scrapped – he states the power it grants to parliament is being abused and that it has lead to a situation where the government is being forced to implement a policy it doesn’t support – “It’s no way to run a country” he says. I am a big fan of Daniel Finkelstein and find his columns insightful and entertaining. I often learn stuff – this is the greatest praise. However, on this occasion I disagree. Boris Johnson is in charge of a minority government, a situation of his own creation. In turn the reason he is there in the first place is a result of the legacy of the referendum and the subsequent political turmoil. The country is split, parliament is split and the topic is complex. Boris isn’t being forced to ask for an extension, he has a choice, he can resign, right now if he wishes. Parliament has not denied Boris an election, it’s just said “not yet”. What Parliament has done is to say that it doesn’t believe the 2016 referendum represents a mandate for a no-deal Brexit – which it doesn’t, and that until such a mandate can be provided the status quo must prevail. To me, this seems to be exactly what representative democracy is designed to do. Yes, it’s messy, it takes a long time, and by itself it does nothing to raise the quality of our debate, but diplomacy via the “golden shot” method (I always like Danny’s references) would seem to be exactly where our representative democracy would end up given the last 2 years. It’s also possible to imagine a more “grown-up” world where a coalition government would take charge, debate would be at a higher level and there would be less lying for political reasons. However, with Johnson and Corbyn we probably get the debate we deserve, and “golden shot” government is probably the best we can hope for. We should remember they were both voted in by the membership of their respective parties in pretty clear cut elections. I have hope though. Neither Corbyn nor Johnson (or Farage) have ever won a General Election, and they may never do so. I am also reassured that Parliament in general, with the aid of legislation like the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, seem determined to moderate the worst excesses of the more extreme political wings of our democracy.
I don’t pretend to be able to predict what will happen with regard to UK politics and Brexit over the next 6 months. In truth, Brexit is a fairly arcane debate about Political procedure and sovereignty. Whilst there will be suffering in the short term in the event of no-deal Brexit (and I don’t wish to underplay or trivialise the impact on those who will be affected) this is not war or terrorism, and we do not help our cause when we exaggerate or say it is so. If we can elevate our debate, cut out the misinformation and propagandising, and be prepared to compromise, then we can be hopeful of good outcome. Regardless, though, we are not the victims of Brexit terrorism – we will get the Brexit we deserve.