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!

#Brexit and the rise of Russia

“Stay in the EU and there’ll be an EU army” was yet another Leave lie. But EU cooperation on defence is of course essential. Its eastern frontier is now directly challenged by a crazy dictator, launching cyberattacks on government website and taking chunks of neighbours’ territory.

The UK offered the best intelligence and the joint largest military response to this threat to our allies, to which the EU brought democracy in the 1990s and 2000s.

Not only is the UK now on course to split from the EU, creating practical difficulties to cooperation to counter this obvious threat, but it is also on course to fall apart itself – something Russia knows all about but will thoroughly enjoy for all kinds of reasons.

Giving prominence to crazy dictators is not a very wise move in the current, uncertain world. Of course, the UK may soon effectively have one of its own.

The people misspoke last month.

“Article 50” must not be invoked

I differ slightly from many fellow Remainers in that I do not believe the result of last month’s referendum is deemed illegitimate because the winning side has now been shown to have engaged in outright lying. Although I think the UK should have a referendum watchdog as it does for advertising (and as nearly all democracies have), the fact is the Remain side had the air time to explain the lies and the people still opted on the basis of all the information, albeit marginally, to leave the EU. Let us all respect that decision.

Nevertheless, I do agree with my fellow Remainers and indeed many Leavers that the terms of the UK’s exit must be put back to consultation with the people. That is why Article 50 must not (and, in my view, probably will not) be invoked, because that creates an ugly two-year countdown during which terms would be dictated to the UK rather than agreed with it.

The more obvious way for the UK to leave the EU is to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, which gives effect to EU Law in the UK. This is the one which requires legislative consent in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but to be clear withholding that consent has the practical political effect only of retaining EU Law in relation to devolved issues; it would no longer apply in England at all, nor for any reserved matters, and the UK would now be in breach of EU membership terms (thus in effect ceasing to be a member state).

Of course, this repeal should only take place once the UK has its future relationship with the Single Market and other prospective trade deals beyond the EU clearly established. The “Department for Brexit”, as proposed by one potential Prime Minister, would oversee all of this work and, in principle, once it had reached a satisfactory conclusion in the view of the UK Government, the majority in Parliament commanded by that Government would vote to repeal the European Communities Act.

Of course, by its very nature, all of these negotiations (which include not just the rest of the EU) will take some time, surely at least until the next scheduled General Election. It would make democratic sense for that election to be fought between a Conservative Government ready to repeal the European Communities Act on the basis of the work done by the Department for Brexit; UKIP ready to repeal it on the basis of keeping foreigners out and trashing the UK’s economic prospects; and a Progressive Coalition of LibDems, Greens and a new-SDP candidates standing on a common platform committed not to repealing the European Communities Act at all and remanding in the EU. Alternatively, the deal could simply be put back to referendum.

Thus would be satisfied the respect for the democratic legitimacy of last month’s referendum but also the respect for the democratic right of the people to make a determination once the terms of leaving the EU are clear. Is there anyone outside UKIP who would have a serious problem with any of that?!

EU Op-Ed (News Letter)

Full version of my Op-Ed in Thursday’s Belfast Newsletter:

Many people are asking now what the vote to leave the EU means to them. Of course, the answer is always “It depends” – on what the UK’s new relationship with the EU is, on when it is resolved, and on what exposure households and organisations have to the EU.

One point needs clarification: the EU is an association of 28 member states. If one member state decides to withdraw, then all of its territory ceases to fall within the EU, and its citizens cease to be EU citizens. What precisely this means depends on the exact nature of the relationship subsequently negotiated, but we should be in no doubt that if the UK proceeds to leave the EU, the only way for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain within the EU is to leave the UK.

It should not be doubted either that the UK-wide vote will be taken as an instruction by the new Prime Minister to begin negotiations on withdrawal from the EU. It is anyone’s guess how these negotiations will be carried out, or what outcome they will arrive at. We are hearing much about ‘Article 50’, which may be invoked by the Prime Minister as the most obvious means of withdrawal. However, this gives the UK and the EU only two years to negotiate terms. Thus, such a move would instantly weaken the UK’s negotiating hand, as it would be out at the end of two years even if nothing had been agreed.

A disproportionate number of people in Northern Ireland will be exposed in some way to EU funding. In an extreme case, that the UK leaves the EU relatively quickly with no subsequent trade deal in place, this funding would simply disappear. This possibility has to be considered, but is unlikely.

Another possibility is that the UK will leave the EU but remain in the EEA (the so-called “Norway Model”), thus maintaining free movement, a contribution to EU budget (but also access to Structural Funds) and a requirement to implement some (but not all) EU Law. This would mean that some current funding (e.g. PEACE) would probably be secure, and that there would be some chance of maintaining access to specific other funding streams, albeit at a reduced level (e.g. for business R&D or infrastructure).

Unfortunately, the downgrade in the UK’s credit rating alone had the effect of requiring the UK now to pay more merely to service the interest on its debt than it pays into the EU budget. Notably, even in the EEA, there is no access to Rural Development Funds (such as CAP), which will now in effect have to be replaced from within Northern Ireland’s devolved budget.

It remains possible, though unlikely, that the UK will remain within the EU in the end. An incoming Prime Minister, faced with economic recession and constitutional chaos (and, thus, a tarnished legacy), may seek a new EU deal and put it back to consultation with the people. However, even this may mean some withholding of EU funds and continued economic uncertainty during negotiations.

There is opportunity is every risk, however, and now may be the time to engage in real reform of public services and in appropriate consolidation of provision within the voluntary/community sector.

EU funding advice in Northern Ireland

I was on BBC Good Morning Ulster on Wednesday to try, against all the odds, to explain what will now happen to EU funding in Northern Ireland. Fundamentally, this is a matter of risk analysis.

To explain, before moving on to funding, there are fundamentally two ways the UK could commence the process of leaving the EU; first, it could “invoke Article 50” giving itself two years to negotiate exit terms; second, it could withdraw by extracting itself from all EU treaties. The first is much simpler, but arguably puts the UK in an extraordinarily weak negotiating position, so it is unclear which (if ultimately either) will be attempted.

Firstly, whatever agency or department or organisation or group or business you are working with, you need to check what funding you receive from the EU. This seems obvious, but it may not be. For example, if you are receiving project funding from your local Council, you may perceive this to be “Council funding”, but in fact it may come via the Special EU Programmes Body (which you may regard as “cross-border funding”) which itself comes from the EU (and is thus actually what is commonly referred to as “European funding”).

Secondly, once you have established what is “European funding” and what is not, you need to carry out a risk analysis. The likeliest scenario is that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union but remain within the European Economic Area (EEA; often referred to as the “Norway Model”) in early 2019. But there is a wide range of scenarios to place on that risk assessment: three key ones would be a quick exit from the EU (possibly switching, at least in effect, to the EEA from the end of this year); a slow exit from both the EU and EEA; and no exit from the EU at all. All of those, even the last, may have an impact on the EU’s potential to fund projects within the UK.

Thirdly, if we take the likeliest scenario, any programme funding already agreed (even if it is not already drawn down) should generally be safe until the end of 2018; most programme funding runs to 2020, and it is probable but not certain that will be honoured. Membership of the EEA would mean the UK continues to contribute to EU funds but also has access to some of the programme funding, such as for business R&D or academic research. Capital investment from the European Investment Bank (EIB) is also possible in the EEA, but becomes more difficult; existing agreements (such as the underwriting of Ulster University’s move from Jordanstown to Cathedral Quarter) should be honoured, though again it is not certain. There remains a significant risk around any future applications for EU funding for projects, programmes or businesses in a member state which is negotiating withdrawal from the EU; certainly it should be assumed any of these will be unsuccessful once Article 50 is invoked or the UK starts extracting itself from EU treaties.

A very significant issue with membership of the EEA outside the EU is that the UK then falls outside EU Law for agriculture and farming, rendering maintenance of rural development programmes highly unlikely. Most relevantly, this would mean the UK falls outside the Common Agricultural Policy, with (in Northern Ireland) responsibility for agricultural subsidies passing to the Northern Ireland Executive. The vagaries of the Barnett Formula (assuming it remains in place) mean there would be a shortfall, so that maintenance of funding at current levels would mean taking tens of millions from other departments such as Health and Education.

Fourthly, there is a significant issue if the UK also leaves the EEA, which is no doubt the position UKIP will come to adopt (with the risk that this will force other parties to move in its direction). A clean “out is out” would mean all EU funding were lost, almost certainly immediately at the moment of exit (two years from invocation of Article 50, or whenever the UK extracts itself from all EU treaties, whichever is first).

The whole issue will require careful monitoring. While the betting is currently on an EEA deal, UKIP pressure may force the UK Government towards a more “out is out” position, although in that case it is possible that would result in electoral defeat by a pro-EU coalition. For now, the key is to ensure what is EU funding and what is not; and to assume funding is safe to 2018-20 but that any new attempts carry high risk. Farmers in particular must prepare for withdrawal of CAP money, with the potential for it to be replaced by a much less favourable Northern Ireland-specific system.

All of this does mean the third sector will have to move towards greater collaboration, and farmers will have to diversify. This is not necessarily bad news in the medium to long term – in every risk there is opportunity!

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.

#Brexit scenarios… please help!

I wanted to write out some scenarios for the UK’s departure from the EU to put out there and see if there are others.

Some of the legal aspects are noted here, for detail.

1a. Temporary EEA

Likeliest now, I think, is a temporary EEA arrangement which becomes accidentally permanent.

The new PM could suggest EEA (“Norway Model”) as a solution to maintain access to the Single Market and keep the UK together while limiting harm on the City (this may already have happened), and the EU could agree to this quickly as it has the effect of swiftly removing the UK from the EU while limiting economic damage. There is not a lot the EU could do about this because it is a matter of fact that the UK is in the EEA and has expressed no desire to leave it. While it would suit both sides to deem this arrangement “temporary”, it may in fact become permanent.

1b. Permanent EEA

A deliberate negotiating for an EEA arrangement is less likely, as it may tempt other countries (notably non-euro Sweden and Denmark).

2. Swiss Arrangement

The EU would probably quite like the Swiss arrangement, of case-by-case bilaterals. This would cause severe damage to the City, with finance sector jobs moved to Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin.

It would take a very long time to negotiate, however, and would cause significant division and disadvantage within the UK. Some may feel it would becalm those who made immigration the issue more than the “Norway Model” would, but that assumes they can be becalmed at all…

3. Absolute Exit

The rise of populism in both the UK and across the EU may tempt a complete divorce. This would be utterly economically and socially calamitous to both sides, however, and would almost certainly herald the break-up of at least one of them.

4. Remain in EU

You what?

Yet this remains possible. Once the new PM invokes Article 50, the UK is out in two years even if nothing has been agreed in negotiations. Such a calamity may be put back to the people as “Remain an Associate Member of the EU or Leave completely and herald utter chaos”, although even then I wouldn’t want to bet which side would win.

Any more…?

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.


Media still don’t understand referendum result

The biggest issue with the referendum result is not, in fact, what now happens with regard to the UK’s relationship with the EU, but who governs the UK and with what legitimacy.

The media continue to misunderstand this, but presenting the referendum victory as one for Messrs Johnson, Farage and perhaps Hannan. Those names were not on the ballot paper, and I would safely say that if they had been, only a minority of Leave voters would have voted for them.

The Leave vote is being characterised by the very Liberal Elites they were kicking in the teeth as essentially a rural Conservative/UKIP one. Look at the results charts, however, and that fundamentally misunderstands who Leave voters are.

The very first sign of the Leave victory came from a whopping lead secured in Sunderland. This is hardly a citadel of Tory farmers! On it went – Sheffield, Hull, even Birmingham had Leave majorities of varying sizes. While not discounting the Conservative voters who did vote to leave (though even many of these came in some of the poorest parts of the south, such as Hastings and Folkestone), the vast majority of Leave voters were not Conservatives or even UKIP. A lot were (previously, at least) Labour and, most notably of all (but missed completely by the media) a huge number were non-voters.

Actually, overall, the north of England voted Leave in greater numbers than the south. So where in the media are the northern English voices about what should happen now?

Many Leave voters were putting down a marker not just against the political elite but also the media elite which it feels ignores them too. The fact it is ignoring them even now rather demonstrates the point!

The average Leave voter simply does not look like Mr Johnson or Mr Farage. Think urban north and you are much closer. This is very important – because they are still distant from real power, and indeed with Mr Johnson and Mr Farage in charge they will only become more distant.

This brings us to the most important issue of all. In the words of the Prime Minister who took us into Europe: “Who governs?”

And with what legitimacy?

A Prime Minister Johnson, or Gove, or even May comes to power without an election, but is also entirely unrepresentative of the Leave voters who in effect created the vacancy. (For the reverse reason, their legitimacy would also be instinctively questioned in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but we will come to that in another post!)

The media have to be very alive to this issue, but it seems they are not. Focused as their are on political (would-be) leaders rather than the actual social issues the voters themselves were feeling, they are simply missing the point – and the people. There is no point reporting who the next Prime Minister will be or even how negotiations will likely proceed without also assessing the legitimacy of that Prime Minister’s actions through the eyes of those who in effect put him or her in office.

As I wrote from the start, these are not political matters so much as social and economic ones. So they need to be reported as social and economic ones. To report them otherwise is to miss the point – and to contribute to the very alienation which drove much of the Leave vote in the first place.


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