Nothing Has Changed
On the 23rd of June 2016, the UK held a referendum on whether to remain or leave the European Union. The results were 51.89% to leave and 48.11% to remain. Due to the significance of the subject matter and the way the European question has been discussed in the media over the past decade, there was a high voter turnout of 72.21%. 33,577,342 people cast their vote out of a total electorate of 46,500,001. The levels of public engagement were far higher than those seen with local or general elections. However, despite a binary question yielding a binary result, the issue of Brexit has not been laid to rest. It can be cogently argued that the entire referendum was rushed, poorly thought through, with neither side running campaigns that provided all the relevant facts of the impact of leaving the EU. As ever the entire matter has been driven first and foremost by party politics and remains so today. Perhaps the biggest issue that stems from the 2016 vote is the size of the leave victory. A “win” of 1.89% is far from decisive and makes a nonsense of political rhetoric such as “the will of the people”. At the time, Nigel Farage, then leader of the UK Independence Party, stated that “a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the Remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it”. Unfortunately, nearly three years on Brexit shows no sign of ending.
Traditionally, UK politics is mainly driven by two major parties, which hail from different ends of the political spectrum. Major socioeconomic issues are usually championed or opposed by each of these groups. The UK electorate are broadly tribal and due to the first past the post voting, deciding outcomes on the big issues such as taxation, the economy and social matters is fairly straightforward. However, Brexit has thrown a major spanner in the works, as it has fallen outside of this existing methodology. The choice of whether to remain or leave has divided both the Conservative and Labour parties, therefore neither are fully invested in one particular position. Parliament is therefore split on Brexit which is why it has been unable to deliver a definitive outcome. The referendum asked a very simple question and the results were then handed to parliament to implement. But parliament has not managed to do this and it would appear that this inertia will prevail for the immediate future. There is no majority view on either side of the debate and more importantly, parliamentary numbers to back a specific position and force it through.
The entire Brexit debate has also seen a shift in UK politics away from evidenced based, factual driven policy and measured reasoned debate. In many ways Brexit has been co-opted into a broader political cause that encompasses many long-standing grievances. Regional inequality, a decade of austerity and fears over globalisation and social change have resulted in a major sense of pushback against a political system and traditional parties that do not appear to serve any interest other than their own. Societal changes have seen broadly held political ideologies erode and the rise of consumerism and individualism means that many now view politics as a mechanic for facilitating one’s own needs, rather than the collective “good” of the nation. Hence Brexit is a very dogmatic and tribal driven debate. Contemporary politics has always been up until now about compromise and what can be achieved over what is hoped for. Yet attempts to compromise over Brexit have failed in parliament and certainly the public appears to have no stomach for it. It’s very much a case of all or nothing.
Last week, the UK voted in the European Parliamentary Elections. Due to the ongoing Brexit impasse, the country was legally bound to participate. As many of the electorate were deeply unhappy with the status quo there was a strong show of support for the newly formed Brexit Party, which has campaigned on a single issue and has at present no other distinct policies. Hence the traditional parties of Labour and the Conservatives suffered an unparalleled loss of public support. Again this stems from neither having a clear policy on the matter. At first glance, it would appear that the Brexit Party was the major success story of these elections. As ever politicians interviewed across multiple news outlets fought to put their own unique spin on the results, to either validate their own positions or to mollify the political fallout. But if one looks beyond the rhetoric and consider the results in a measured analytical fashion, they offer a rather stark conclusion. It is broadly agreed that these elections where fought predominantly on one issue alone; the question of Brexit. Therefore if the results are viewed from such a perspective you find that leave voters predominantly supported the Brexit Party which polled 31.6% of the vote. Remain voters backed the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party who collectively made up 32.4% of the vote share. If you then consider the Scottish and Welsh Nationalist votes, as both parties have a clear remain agenda, then that adds a further 4.6% to that position.
The question of where the two big parties stand is more ambiguous so it is hard to assign their numbers to either of the two sides of the Brexit debate. Ultimately these numbers show that there is still no majority view in the UK of the subject of leaving the EU. Furthermore, the electorate appear to be becoming more entrenched in their position and have simply transferred their votes to those parties that have a clear policy on the subject. Therefore the conclusion is that after nearly three years, despite numerous debates in parliament, new facts and details about the reality of Brexit becoming apparent and continual public discourse on the matter, nothing has changed. This conclusion is certainly food for thought.
For those who wish to see a speedy resolution to Brexit, these results are a clear sign that such a thing is not going to happen any time soon. The question of Europe and our relationship with the continent has claimed yet another Conservative leader and we now face the prospect of an acrimonious battle for the position. Currently the next leader will become Prime Minister by default, yet regardless of whether that individual adopts a tougher stance on Brexit, favouring a no deal resolution, it doesn’t alter the current parliamentary reality. There is still no prevailing consensus among MPs and no one political party has sufficient numbers to force through any kind of definitive decision. Furthermore, the divide within the Conservative party is such that some MPs are preparing to vote against their own government and party to initiate no confidence proceedings if a no deal scenario becomes likely. Simply put, last night’s election results have made the Brexit conundrum even harder to resolve.
So what happens next? If both Labour and the Conservative parties wish to survive as functioning political entities, then they need to rethink their positions and effectively pick a side very quickly. It will more than likely be a case that the Conservatives will now pursue a no-deal stance and go all in on concluding our exit from the EU by the current October 31st deadline. Labour will now have to clearly adopt a confirmatory vote policy that includes a remain option, on any proposal that parliament agrees upon. Again, the notion of compromise is jettisoned. There will naturally be consequences for picking a side, as much as there will be for not doing so.
Brexit remains the most impossible political circle to square in current peace time politics. And due to the lack of a clear consensus among the electorate, no single outcome will “heal the nation”. The UK is not only going to remain an angry divided nation, it is more than likely going to get a lot worse. For those outside of the UK with an interest in global politics, I’m sure the Brexit issue may well provide fascinating viewing and much to consider. Yet for those living and enduring the ongoing Brexit debacle it is becoming a major source of worry and concern. There is scope for a no deal Brexit to have calamitous results upon the UK economy, potentially of the kind you cannot just ignore. Similarly, overturning Brexit and revoking Article 50 could also lead to the implosion of nation politics and the collapse of the “perception” of democracy. A political “Kobayashi Maru test” if you will. What happens next is anyone’s guess.