Category Archives: Politics

Nationalists caught out by “Brexit”

In the short term, the DUP has been caught out by “Brexit”. The UK leaving the EU would cost Northern Ireland tens of millions of pounds over and above the Barnett formula – money which, therefore, will simply not be replaced. The DUP campaigned for a course of action which will come at a direct and particular cost to the people it purports to serve (in addition to making break-up of the Union likelier). Total lunacy does not begin to describe it.

Nevertheless, Nationalists have been caught out too. The sudden reality of having to work out, in reality, a scheme for withdrawal from the EU has caught Brexiteers without a plan. It was all good in theory, but Johnson, Hannan, Farage et al have absolutely no plan and no idea in practice.

And so it is with a “United Ireland”. Again, the idea was that a border polls would deliver a theoretical majority for the concept of Irish unity, but it is now obvious that Irish Nationalists have no plan either. Messrs Adams, Eastwood, Kenny et al are as clueless about delivering a “United Ireland” in actuality as Messrs Johnson, Hannan and Farage are about leaving the EU. There are even the ridiculous notions both express – notions about the EU allowing the UK inclusion within the Single Market without also insisting on free movement of labour are as daft as notions about British subvention continuing in the event of Irish unity.

Put simply, there is no plan for Irish unity. And the lesson of June’s referendum is that pursuing a theoretical option without a practical plan results inevitably in total chaos.

So Nationalists too have been caught out. They want a “United Ireland” but have shown not the slightest inkling to do the hard work and plan for one.

We are already paying the price for “identity politics” after Britain’s ridiculous “Independence Day” last month left us all 8%+ worse off. It is time to consign it to history in Ireland. Those who want constitutional change have never had a better chance – but they had better come up with a plan right now.

Post-factual politics afflicts Left as much as Right

Make no mistake, in this era of post-factual politics, it is quite possible for someone who embellished their CV, claimed to establish groups she did not establish, and denied saying things she clearly said could become Prime Minister on the basis of offering to deliver something she cannot deliver. I am wary of even naming her for fear of giving the post-truthers something else to latch on to.

Yet this is not by any means confined to the Conservative Party or the Right. Indeed, for nearly a decade now, the Left has been moaning about “austerity” when in fact none has been applied (“austerity” requires the gap between taxes raised and public spending including welfare to decline, something which has simply not happened).

This may have slipped by too:


The Chilcot report runs to literally millions of words – it would take nine days to read it. However, it says absolutely none of those three things, something about which Chilcot himself could not have been clearer.

The Greens often like to talk about “evidence-based politics” but here is a clear-cut case of someone wanting a report to say something, then assuming that it will, and then reporting that it has – when in fact it hasn’t. Thousands of people retweet it unthinkingly, not stopping to question it.

One LBC correspondent described it as “anti-analysis”. Perfect for a “post-factual” age which afflicts all sides. Should we not all be rather better than this?

Case to European Movement UK

I thought it worth sharing, exceptionally, the case I took to the UK Council of the European Movement earlier this month (a distinct version of this piece may appear elsewhere this week). It is predicated on two things – the constitutional and practical implications of the referendum result.

Constitutionally, it is important to reflect that the UK (incorporating in effect, for this purpose only, Gibraltar) is the member state of the European Union and that it voted by majority to leave the European Union. That is the preference (I am going to return to that word) of the people of the United Kingdom taken collectively and no one should attempt to ignore that fact. Nevertheless, it runs up against the constitutional reality that the vote was in four separate legal jurisdictions. Only one of them, England & Wales, voted to leave the European Union. The remaining three – Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar – have each clearly and freely expressed their preference both for remaining within the European Union by a greater margin that England & Wales voted to leave it; and for remaining within (or associated with) the United Kingdom at recent referendums in which both the turnout (at over 80%) and the margin of victory (at over 11 points) was greater than the Leave vote in England & Wales in each case. Thus, although no one should doubt the validity of the overall result, there is a constitutional reality that three out of four jurisdictions voted Remain to a greater degree than one voted Leave; in any true federation, this would be a problem (for example, Australia requires not just a majority of votes but also a majority of votes in a majority of states for a referendum to pass).

I have already recommended a solution to this – the Convention could be by random appointment, or a Royal Commission, or indeed even a Lords Committee.

Practically, there is another obvious problem. Again, the validity of the vote should not be denied – the motion “the United Kingdom should leave the European Union” was passed by majority of those voting, and the United Kingdom is the member state. The UK Government should re-negotiate its relationship with the other European Union member states (“EU27”) with regard to the preference expressed that it should leave the European Union. However, it is not only the constitutional implications of this (the defiance of the clearly and democratically expressed will of the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar) which should be considered. There is also the straightforward practical implication that if the UK Government takes the referendum result as an absolute rather than as a preference, it will be entering into negotiations with one hand behind its back and will thus find it impossible to negotiate the best deal for the people of the United Kingdom in line with the views they expressed. Put simply, “invoking Article 50” invites the EU27 to sit on their hands for two years and wait for the UK to exit the EU with its economy in recession and without a single trade deal in operation to help it back on its feet – a route which would potentially appeal to the EU27 to warn others against taking the same course. It is thus simply impractical for the UK Government to invoke Article 50.

The solution here is to be frank about the context in which the referendum took place. Positions were adopted by leading campaigners on each side after the renegotiation of the UK’s membership, which concluded in March. That some Leave campaigners only opted for that side of the debate after the renegotiation is a clear indication that a different outcome may have resulted in them adopting a different position. Put another way, at least some of those campaigning for and voting Leave were doing so specifically to express opposition to the outcome of the renegotiation; had the outcome been different, they would have considered voting Remain. Their opposition to EU membership is thus not absolute; it is opposition to membership under the current conditions (i.e. those negotiated between December and February).

That leaves at least open the possibility that in negotiations with the EU27, the UK could achieve an outcome which is acceptable to enough Leave campaigners (in addition to the Remain side), but which maintains (or is even in return for) the UK’s “special” membership of the European Union. Simply by way of example, the new UK Prime Minister may wish to negotiate an arrangement, suggested by many Leave campaigners, that the UK maintains access to the Single Market but restricts free movement of labour so that EU nationals are only be allowed to come to the UK to visit for a limited period or to take up a pre-existing offer of work (or in certain other circumstances determined by Parliament). There is simply no chance of the EU27 allowing that in return for absolute Single Market access (EEA membership). However, presented with that choice alongside the option of keeping the UK within the European Union (thus reducing the prospect of other member states opting to leave), perhaps thus clarifying that absolute free movement of labour would apply only to the Schengen Zone (of which the UK has never been a member), it may at least offer the basis for negotiation. Why should the Prime Minister be denied all the cards available to negotiate an outcome which would be acceptable to many, quite possibly even a majority, of Leave voters?

In conclusion, I return therefore to the word preference. The preferences of the population – for maintenance of the constitutional integrity of the UK (and Gibraltar’s association with it), for membership of the EU, for membership of the Single Market, for greater control of the UK’s borders – all have to be balanced. It is important to reflect and record all preferences fairly and to attempt to implement them all to the greatest possible degree. However, it is ludicrous, both constitutionally and practically, to place one preference above all others simply because it is the one most recently expressed, particularly when it was expressed by the tightest margin.

“Brexit” means doing things on other people’s terms

I wrote this just before the appalling murder of Jo Cox MP, but removed all comment linked to the referendum for 72 hours afterwards. It may still have some interest.

I wrote a piece here on the comparison between Italian and Spanish in which I included a note in the economic balance between the two (“Contemporary Position”).

I noted that the two language spheres, Spanish and Italian, both have a music industry. But here is the thing – Spanish has 400 million speakers and Italian just 70 million. Those are not dissimilar to the Continental EU and the UK.

I noted that the practical reality of this is that Italian music producers have no option, if they wish to sell their products, but to record a version in Spanish as well as in Italian – all the big contemporary Italian singers from Ramazotti to Safina do this. Yet the Italian consumer has to put up with Spanish-language musicians recording only in Spanish; they are scarcely going to bother going to the trouble of recording in an additional language worth only 15-20% of their pre-existing market! especially when they know there is limited competition within that market and they may be able to sell on their own terms (i.e. in Spanish) anyway.

And so it proves. Italian-language singers have success in the Spanish-language market by recording in Spanish; and Spanish-language singers have success in the Italian market, er, also by recording in Spanish. Spanish has the numbers, so its linguistic interests dominate both – the Italian market has no control.

Control. See what I did there? The UK outside the EU would find itself in the exact same position as Italian music producers and consumers – it would have to sell to EU standards, and it would also have to buy to EU standards. The EU would continue to set the standards both that UK exporters and UK consumers would have to live by. The UK would have to adapt both ways, not the EU. The numbers tell you that, pure and simple.

So leaving the EU means ceding control.

Of course, the UK could trade with other less similar places, in the same way Italian music producers could export to less similar markets. Test out the average English speaker’s knowledge of Ramazotti and Safina (instantly recognised by millions across the globe), however, and you’ll soon find they don’t…

You see, there’s this thing called the real world…

#Brexit and constitutional disintegration

Northern Ireland actually voted, by 56% (so by a higher margin than Scotland rejected independence in 2014), to remain in the EU.

Its largest party did advocate a Leave vote relatively successfully. There were two fairly obvious things it did not do, however. First, it did not come up with any sort of contingency for the event of the UK leaving the European Union; and second, perhaps more remarkably, it appears to lack any plan for maintenance of the Union it pledges to support. While the DUP has its fingers in its ears, that second is now in very grave danger.

Let us make the obvious point: if I lived in Scotland I would have voted “no” in 2014 but would consider voting “yes” in 2018 should the UK proceed to leave the EU, and would do so without hesitation if it leaves the Single Market. I know many people who live in Scotland feel the same way, and it is hard to believe any are going the other way. As the chances of the UK remaining in the Single Market without remaining in the EU are extremely low (because doing so means not being able to “control borders”, in Leave-speak), the chances of Scotland leaving the UK even this decade are an order of magnitude greater than they were; and within my lifetime they must now exceed 50:50.

The 2014 Referendum established the clear convention that Scotland is a separate country of the UK, entitled to leave if a majority of the population so chooses, which was already generally accepted by the simple fact that it is a separate legal jurisdiction; subsequent amendments to devolution also established that its institutions of self-government may not be revoked by the UK Parliament. Scotland is, in other words, semi-sovereign, like any state or province of a federation. That is why it is so foolish to say “But the whole of the United Kingdom decided”; it is now constitutionally established that the United Kingdom is not a single entity, but a collection of entities.

Scotland’s potential (I would not yet say likely) departure from the UK would leave a rump dominated by an inward-looking, isolated, economically declining England and Wales with a weird semi-autonomous add-on in northeast Ireland relying heavily on financial subvention from an English Nationalist government no longer willing to provide it. Caught between the EU member states of the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, Northern Ireland would also wish to be in the EU, particularly as the subvention began to dry up without any access to EU funds for farmers, infrastructure or research. Its population would in any case be split between those of predominantly Scottish Presbyterian origin who found they no longer really identified with the new reduced UK, and those of predominantly Irish Catholic origin who may have tolerated the old UK but would find the new one completely alien. Discussions for Irish Unity, perhaps with a big package of ongoing funding from the EU to provide security and rebuild the economy, would be inevitable and tempting for many.

The 1998 Agreement as amended in 2006 already clearly gives Northern Ireland a separate status. This is similar to Scotland’s, in that it is a separate legal jurisdiction, it may vote to leave the UK if a majority so chooses, and its institutions may not be abolished by the UK Parliament. Like Scotland, it is semi-sovereign, with the added strand of cross-border bodies, consultation with the Irish Government and, most notably, the right of any of its people to be citizens of Ireland rather than the UK (Unionists often miss the distinction between resident and citizen).

These are the straightforward and likely facts. On top of that many people, usually professionals (Protestants included), will already have applied for Irish passports for themselves and their children to maximise their opportunities. They will know people who move South into new employment, notably in the new finance sector which will appear in Dublin if the UK leaves the Single Market. Even without Scottish independence, they will become more and more content with the notion of 21st century, socially liberal, secular Irishness and quite possibly less so with inward-looking English Nationalism.

Added to this will be Irish Nationalists themselves. Many were becoming quite content with post-Agreement Northern Ireland, in which they could be European and Irish citizens living in the UK, an EU member state, crossing the border with ease to live all-island lives with the supposed added benefits of the NHS and a subvention. However, this will all become a bit irritating if they no longer qualify for exchange schemes, holiday healthcare or R&D funding by virtue of the State they happen to (but would not ideally choose to) live in. It will become even more so if Health funding is gradually removed by a Brexit government which never much liked the idea of the NHS in the first place and the subvention for other public services declines. Such niggles, and very real problems, may make them look again at the practicalities of Irish unity, buoyed also by conversations they may be having with Professional Protestants looking at it for the first time.

Remember that £350m/week?

That is not the cost of the EU to the UK. But here is a thing: it is the cost, almost exactly, of Northern Ireland to Great Britain!

You needn’t think the English Nationalists who won the referendum haven’t noticed…

Just because you have no plan doesn’t mean things don’t happen. Just because you don’t intend for something to happen doesn’t mean your own stupidity won’t cause it to!

Whatever the timescale, the disintegration of the UK has begun. The fools.

How NI might make most of #Brexit

For all my desire to keep the UK in the EU, it is at best a long shot and the relationship will never again from my point of view be ideal.

So, if it comes to it, what should the NI Executive be looking for out of “Brexit”? Just a thought on how what I have termed a “Special Access Agreement” for Northern Ireland with the EU may yet be played to our advantage.

What might such an Agreement entail?

  1. Maintenance in Northern Ireland for devolved issues of the European Communities Act, maintaining EU law in Northern Ireland so that investors know that trading standards, employee rights and environmental regulations are the same here as they are in the EU;
  2. Negotiation with EU of a Special Customs Arrangement, meaning that goods and services travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are not subject to customs – customs posts would be at the ports and would apply only to goods travelling between Great Britain (or perhaps England/Wales if Scotland wished to try to negotiate the same) and the Republic of Ireland;
  3. Negotiation with the UK of maintenance of separate vehicle registration – vehicles registered in Northern Ireland would have to carry Northern Ireland plates regardless of original registration, and likewise in Great Britain, enabling recognition of Northern Ireland vehicles within the Special Customs Area (for example, they would be treated as EU vehicles at ports travelling between France and Ireland);
  4. Negotiation with EU to maintain all reciprocal Health Agreements – EU citizens would be entitled to Health Care in Northern Ireland, and residents of Northern Ireland registered with a GP in Northern Ireland would be entitled to the reciprocal arrangement (with the added confidence given by maintenance of EU Law);
  5. Negotiation with Ireland that all “people of Northern Ireland” are entitled to Irish citizenship (and passport) and that this specifically includes qualification not just by birth but also by residence (of reasonable length) in Northern Ireland;
  6. Negotiation with the UK that all VAT raised additionally in Northern Ireland be kept in Northern Ireland (this is similar to arrangements which exist in Germany), designed to encourage Northern Ireland’s Executive to encourage business because it will be in its interest to do so;
  7. Negotiation with the UK that corporation tax and all taxes devolved to Scotland also be devolved to Northern Ireland enabling corporation tax potentially to be set at zero (noting that, if the UK rate is 15%, the cost of doing this will be lower than the cost of setting it at 12.5% when this was originally proposed in 2010);
  8. Negotiation with the UK that any leftover funds not spent by NI departments should remain available for spending in NI the following year, giving an additional lever to save funds to enable reduction of taxes to increase attractiveness to investors and maximise the new arrangements; and
  9. Negotiation with the EU that Northern Ireland universities and colleges be considered to all intents and purposes EU institutions (including for funding and student exchange).

Of course, this is quite a wish list and it may be that the NI Executive would have to agree to contribute a sum to structural funds in order to achieve it (as well as paying for any gap in corporation tax as per existing agreements; these in fact had more to do with existing UK convention than EU law). However, by agreeing to maintain EU law as far as it can, noting that its citizens are entitled to EU citizenship, and noting that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, there is a strong case to be made (with little disadvantage to the EU in showing good will and going along with it).

The essential point here is that Northern Ireland already is a special case by virtue of its people’s joint citizenship (as per the 1998 Agreement), the requirement to maintain certain laws by international treaty (such as the ECHR), and its geographical location with a land frontier to the Eurozone/EU. Such a “Special Access Agreement” would maintain the key advantages of EU membership, while also enabling the use of some fiscal tools which are not currently realistically available.

If it comes to it, let’s go for it!

UK not yet out of EU…

In my scenarios two days ago I noted that there is still a scenario – though very much the least of the four – where the UK remains within the EU. It is unlikely, but not as unlikely as some think, given that the whole process of extracting the UK from the EU is so complex and damaging. (To be clear, my “central forecast” would be the UK out of the EU and into some form of associate arrangement with the EEA by May 2019.)

To be clear how remaining in the EU is not going to happen: there is certainly not going to be a second in/out referendum; there is almost certainly not going to be a General Election won by a Remain party or coalition; and UK withdrawal cannot be blocked by Scotland. There is some “buyer’s remorse” among Leave voters but there are also Remain voters who are no particular fans of the EU. There was a referendum and Leave won, so it is the political position that the UK (all of it) will now proceed to leave the EU. End of.


The assumption now is that the UK will leave the EU but remain in the EEA Single Market – known as the “Norway Model”. This is of significant benefit to many of those who voted Leave on grounds of sovereignty, because it means EU Law no longer has primacy (although in practice much of it still has to be adopted), UK citizens are no longer European citizens, and the UK can do its own trade deals and agricultural subsidy programmes. Single Market Access is also essential to keeping Scotland in the Union and to any hopes of maintaining London’s status as a global financial centre. However, it is hopeless for those who voted Leave on the grounds of immigration or border control, because a founding principle of the EEA is free movement of labour; additionally, only EU members can veto new EU members (who automatically also join the EEA upon meeting its requirements), yet each new member adds to the EEA membership fee.

Currently, Leavers are trying to argue that they will be able to join the EEA Single Market while at the same time implementing border control. Such a deal simply is not possible.

Ironically, it could be that the only way the UK can stay in the Single Market while implementing some form of inward border control is by remaining in the EU – not least since other EU countries may be minded to trade some form of border control in return for not losing their second largest member (and thus risking complete break-up).

As a pesky Liberal, the whole notion appals me, but here is how such a negotiation could go.

The UK could argue exceptionality on the grounds that, firstly, it particularly has to manage immigration from the Commonwealth; secondly, it was one of only three countries that allowed fee movement immediately to the new ten member states in 2004; and thirdly, it consists almost entirely of an island.

Here is a thing: as it stands, not all UK citizens are actually entitled to workers’ rights across the EU. As the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have severe restrictions on those who may live and work there, they are outside the EU and people attaining UK citizenship only by association with them have their passports “endorsed”, marking them as not qualifying under free movement of labour.

The UK could argue that, given the above exceptionality and that, in any case, some of its own citizens have “endorsed” passports barring them from free movement, that it too should in effect be allowed to “endorse” passports from other EU member states where these were given out on grounds other than “native qualification”. Politically, an obvious example to use would be a Syrian refugee who would not qualify for a UK passport but did qualify for one in Germany due to its more liberal approach; the UK may wish to argue that it does not wish to recognise that passport as one of an “EU citizen”, since it would never have allocated one in similar circumstances.

On top of that, the UK may wish to argue that its generosity in 2004 in particular should now be countered by an agreement that it would not have to give free movement to citizens from any new EU member state (effectively all Albanian passports would be deemed “endorsed” by the UK, for example).

It could argue all of that as part of its negotiation to remain in the Single Market, but the chances of a sympathetic ear from other EU member states are absolutely zero. After all, two years after invoking Article 50, the UK is out, agreement or no agreement – so why on earth would other member states even begin such a negotiation, unless it were in return, say, for excluding financial services from the Single Market (as per Switzerland) and thus delivering a clear economic penalty to the UK?

However, what if the UK were to suggest that such an arrangement, giving it greater control of its border and calming fears about the immigration impact of EU expansion, would mean it could stay in the EU after all (albeit under an arrangement branded something like “Associate Membership”)? There would be something in that for other EU member states, whose native citizens would still have free movement and who would have thus limited the chances of the UK’s withdrawal leading to further departures. And there would be something in it for those who voted Leave on grounds of immigration – in fact they would have greater control of the border (as well as a veto of new members) inside the EU than outside.


I wouldn’t be putting the house on it, but in these crazy times such an outcome is not entirely inconceivable.

Should we dare to imagine another Europe?

The constitutional and economic sabotage the British people have brought upon themselves through last week’s referendum shows no real sign of abating. Rarely has a population inflicted upon itself such immediate suffering.

Nevertheless, we are where we are and it may do no harm to use our imagination now.

One of my frustrations about referendums is they offer a binary choice on issues which, very often, are more complex.


As we can see above, Europe is vastly more complex than just EU and non-EU!

It has always struck me that Europe is split more sensibly into groups, based on geographical and linguistic/cultural proximity. As can be seen above, many of these already exist – the Nordic Council, the Common Travel Area, the Baltic Assembly, Benelux, the Visegrád Group, Central Europe (CEFTA; the former Yugoslavia outside the EU plus Albania) and the Black Sea (BSEC above). There are even natural groupings among the remainder – German-speaking Europe, for example.

If we were to put all those together from scratch, would we be trying to group almost all of them into a single Union with its own parliament, bank and currency? I suspect not. Already Switzerland is in a markedly different position from Austria; and Norway from Denmark; despite the obvious geographical, cultural and linguistic similarities. Even within the European Union, we have Slovakia in the euro but Czech Republic not yet; Finland in the euro but Sweden probably never; Ireland in the euro but the UK formally opted out.

In fact, if we were trying to build single currencies into the equation, we would probably have single currencies for the different groups – a “Krone Zone”, a “Sterling Zone”, a “Balt zone”, a “Eurozone”, a “Zloty Zone” and so on. It is quite possible that those blocks would peg their currencies to each other and would even gradually merge; perhaps Benelux with German-speaking Europe, for example. Whether you would ever put Portugal and Latvia in the same currency is debatable, however.

We are not starting from scratch, but I do wonder if some non-euro EU member states will be tempted by the UK’s new post-EU status, which will probably (though who knows?!) be akin to Norway’s. At the same time Norway had a referendum to oppose EU membership in 1994 (coincidentally by 48:52!), Sweden passed its narrowly by the reverse margin. But would Norway’s and the UK’s (and for that matter, topically, Iceland’s) status not make more sense for Sweden, given it too has a not dissimilar intra-EU immigration profile and no intention of ever joining the euro? Then what about Poland and Hungary; might they too, as close allies of the UK in the EU, not also benefit from staying outside the euro and thus formally leaving the EU to join the new EEA satellite states? It is not crazy.

There are even states within the euro which may begin to feel they should be in another currency zone. Would Finland not be better sharing a currency with Sweden and/or other Nordics, having not had the tools to cope with the recent economic slowdown the way the rest of the Nordics did? And the oft-mentioned David McWilliams has long hinted that Ireland would be economically better off in the Sterling Zone, a view surely enhanced by the fact that instinctively economically liberal Ireland will find the EU top table colder without its British allies at it – unimaginable now but maybe not a decade or so hence. Should we then turn to whether Greece, Italy and other Southern European countries are really better off being unable to devalue their currency against Germany’s, once a core economic lever without which they have unquestionably suffered? It is at least worthy of consideration.

The question worth asking, in other words, is whether the UK’s imminent exit simply means the EU has become too large, not least because it was the UK itself which was prominent in arguing for a larger rather than a deeper Europe. There is at least an argument for the European Commission, Parliament and Central Bank to cover only the core Eurozone (in other words, the EU formally shrinks to cover only the Eurozone), with other parts of the EEA covered by the Nordic Council, the British-Irish Council, the Baltic Assembly or perhaps a Visegrád Council each with their own Commissions and Central Banks; these would then cooperate, perhaps via the European Council, to ensure the smooth and fair functioning of the European Single Market.

The crux of the issue is that the EU cannot possibly lose its second largest member and then proceed as if nothing has occurred, no matter how carelessly it happened. Clearly, there are a lot of people for whom the EU and its institutions are too distant, and it would be foolish to believe those people only live in England and Wales. Perhaps a more core Union, with other interrelated groups of countries forming a clear single market (and environmental alliance) in cooperation with it, would make for a more stable and relevant way to ensure European harmony into the 21st century?

Such things should at least now be considered, surely? And it would be wise for the UK to stay at the table while they are.

UK needs urgent Constitutional Convention

I believe it was Disraeli who said “England is governed by evolution, not revolution”. This has been a constant feature of English history since at least the 17th century. What happened on Thursday was a revolution – and England’s institutions simply cannot cope with it.

Leave voters wanted to answer the question “Who governs Britain?”

The answer? No one.

By rejecting the advice of the very government they elected last year, the people have caused an accidental revolution and rendered the country ungovernable. (To be fair, the messy devolution settlement already in place suggested this day would come, just nothing like as dramatically.)

Parliament cannot deal with this as it takes a different position, by a sizeable majority, from that expressed by the people. The Government cannot deal with it because it took the opposite view. An election would solve very little because it would be held hostage by the same populists who made promises about leaving the EU which are now unravelling one by one.

On top of this, two of the legal jurisdictions which make up the UK – Scotland and Northern Ireland – have expressed a clear view at referendums over the past two decades in favour of remaining within both the UK and the EU. Denying them this clearly expressed right (expressed in each case by at least eleven points) is no less democratically scandalous than disrespecting the overall result last Thursday.

To make matters still worse, there is no clear direction in last Thursday’s result. Given the choice of EU or not-EU, a narrow majority choose not-EU. But given, say, a three-way choice between EU, EEA (single market with free movement) and neither (outside single market with full border control), we do not know which option would be chosen – it could be any of the three.

The political parties are also hopeless for resolving this. The way the country voted on the EU bore almost no relation to the way it votes along party lines. Labour Liverpool and Conservative Reading voted Remain; Labour Sunderland and Conservative Basildon voted Leave. Both parties are totally split on the issue and, in any case, both main parties are utterly confused and rudderless. This is all while UKIP offers no detail on how to leave, the LibDems refuse to leave, and the Greens are in shock. The only coherent voice comes from the SNP, but it only adds to the complication. The parties are just no use at all right now.

As we in Northern Ireland know only too well, such vacuums get filled inevitably by anger and bigotry. The referendum campaign included a political assassination. Already there is clear evidence across England of a rapid rise in overt xenophobia. Nearly to quote Churchill, it takes centuries of careful building to develop a tolerant civilisation, and one thoughtless act to dismantle it.

This is nothing to do with the way people voted. The referendum is the symptom, not the cause, of long-term issues which have led many poorer and typically white English people to be taken for granted. This is not just or even mainly an EU thing. Even the devolved settlement leaves people in Sheffield and Sunderland light years away from those making the decisions which affect them, all while “their money” disappears over Hadrian’s Wall or the English Channel. It is fair to challenge a Leave vote at a rational level because frankly it only makes matters worse for most of those casting them, but no one should underestimate the validity of the sentiments people voting that way (particularly in the poorest parts of the urban north of England) were trying to express.

In summary, the combination of 2015 and 2016 leaves no one in office with any real democratic legitimacy, yet a further election would resolve nothing. The institutions are simply not capable of managing the legal and diplomatic complexities of leaving the EU. The economy is too fundamentally dependent on EU trade to enable departure from the EU without a material decline in living standards. That vacuum and that decline will inevitably be filled by bigotry. None of this will actually help the people who were trying to make their frustrations heard by voting Leave. The next Prime Minister faces an absolute hospital pass and knows it.

The only way out that I see is a Constitutional Convention, with the outcome of that Convention put to the people at a further referendum.

I cannot say I have the expertise to suggest exactly how such a Convention would be formed or would take place. It would consist of delegates most likely appointed at random (similar to jury service), who would have access to expertise (legal experts, academics, senior civil servants) and to resources for consultation. The purpose would essentially be to establish what future form the UK should take – politically, financially, even socially up to a point – and what compromises need to be delivered to achieve this.

I am wary of putting forward the type of question that such a Convention would have to answer, but it would have to resolve the balance of Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s preference to remain in the UK and the EU while the rest of the UK wishes to leave the EU. If the UK leaves the EU, is there an arrangement for “favoured access” which Scotland and Northern Ireland could arrive at while remaining within the UK, or would they have to leave? On the other hand, on what conditions would English people reconsider leaving the EU in order to keep the UK intact? In other words, essentially, do we need to commence an orderly break-up of the UK, or are there compromises (not just with reference to the EU, but also to devolved functions, financial formulas and so on) which we should make now to maintain the UK and deliver some form of stability for the next generation?

I would of course welcome any ideas other than or building in this one. We need to build a movement of some kind which respects what happened on Thursday but is also realistic about which options are really available – an anti-populist movement, if you like.

Let us turn crisis into opportunity. All thoughts welcome.


Perils of the “post-factual democracy”

Stolen from a frequent correspondent and acquaintance via the Financial Times, the term “post-factual democracy” sums up my horror at the referendum campaign.

Ultimately, leaving the EU is not a very good idea (the economic contagion is already apparent) but it is actually manageable. The British Isles will reform itself in some way; Europe will trade and share intelligence somehow; life will go on.

What is a truly terrible idea is voting based on total nonsense – far from a peculiarly British phenomenon. People who have expertise are not just ignored but overtly mocked. Instead of considering expert views before we vote, or even challenging them, we just call the experts themselves names if we don’t like what they say. Would we ignore brain surgeons and do our own brain surgery? So why would we ignore academic, military and financial experts and reckon we know it all ourselves?

There is also this weird view that somehow we should trust people who are actually of the elite but claim to be against it – in preference, for example, to people who are not actually of the elite! Boris and Nigel are not exactly binmen.

Thus the electorate in its wisdom openly chose a path which is clearly not in its own economic interests. How many more electorates are now to do similar?

The outcome of anti-intellectualism is always ignorance, which inevitably leads to fear, and on to hatred and then yes, on to violence. I know. I live in Northern Ireland.

It’s a global democratic disaster of which this crazy referendum was just a symptom.


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