The EU referendum is not a done deal

By - Thursday 26th April, 2018

There are things that you can do to stop the UK leaving the EU

Photo public domain.

Ahead of the local elections in early May and before we get to choose our dictators after they’ve told us what we think it is we want to hear, let us raise our sights above and beyond the local scourges of knife crime, rogue landlords and pestilential fly tipping to focus on an issue of somewhat more far-reaching and overarching import for the UK – for Boris Johnsons’s ‘substantial’ majority in the 2016 EU Referendum (actually 4%) reflected nothing more or less than the whim, not the will, of the people.

A review of leaflets from the various contenders for my patronage in Croydon is an illuminating exercise. Amongst the promises to revive local culture from the dead and cleanse the streets of villainy and plastic bags is a charming footnote claiming that the tree in the photo behind the candidate was imported as a sapling from Qing Dynasty China 200 years ago and still bears fruit. Which goes to show that Croydon is indeed fertile soil for ambitious, resurgent growth and investment and could, if it were to pitch itself harder as a much less costly finance, technology and services hub with excellent transport links (and thus relieve itself of the need to levy a hefty council tax to support its regiment of ‘enforcement officers’ on their daily round of rent-seeking), become the Shenzhen of south London. Remember how Sarkozy, the ex-President of France, hailed Croydon as a model development base for foreign companies in London?

To return to more overarching matters, the result of the EU Referendum was not decisive; it was thoroughly divisive. In no way did the slight majority in favour of leaving the EU reflect ‘the will of the people’. This result is no more than advisory and is certainly not binding on either government or parliament. Referendums or plebiscites are the favoured instruments of populist regimes of the past – a means of claiming legitimacy for rule by government through so-called ‘direct democracy’ when no mandate has been conferred by an electorate. It is the sovereign will of parliament, not of the people, that must determine and pass the law of the land – particularly with regard to such an all-encompassing single issue as our withdrawal from the European Union. Chris Patten has put it succinctly thus: “I think referendums are awful… They were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster… I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system… On the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak”.

The present government’s heart is not in this foolish venture – it now cravenly believes it cannot betray this referendum, when, in fact, it is not legally bound by it.

The referendum result was an almighty Conservative cock-up

David Cameron went ahead with his promise to hold the referendum in the mistaken belief that he would win the argument to remain in the EU and rout the Eurosceptic critics in his party. In the event, the loss proved to be an almighty Conservative cock-up, compounded by Theresa May’s claim that she had a duty to follow ‘the will of the people’ and by calling another election to reinforce a position that she had not held at the time of the vote. It was quite apparent at the time that those who voted to leave did not do so rationally with regard to the economic consequences, but for fear that their culture and identity was being threatened by immigration and eroded by fiat from Brussels.

Uncontrolled migration into Europe from the Middle East and Africa has caused anxiety and consternation in the UK, in particular, since there is no obligation to carry ‘papers’ or IDs here (as in the rest of Europe). In any case, this requirement is easily flouted by the discarding of passports on arrival and failure to seek asylum in the first country of arrival. But immigration is of great benefit to the country, and to Croydon. Trust and confidence in the government to control it has been lost since the Home Office – based in our borough – admitted to losing track of more than 600,000 foreigners who should have left as illegals or because their visas had run out. Border checks are urgently needed to restore control over who is admitted to the UK. A points system needs to be introduced to select incomers based on the skills they bring. This would go a long way towards dispelling the sense of unfairness which many British people feel.

Once out of the Customs Union and the Single Market, the UK will be hamstrung by tariffs and the withdrawal of foreign investment and manufacturing to continental Europe. Any free-trade agreements contracted with other countries are likely to take years to conclude. There is also no feasible solution in sight to the prospect of a ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic as a result of Brexit. The EU is not disposed to make an exception or to grant any dispensation over this condition. The problem will remain intractable and will exacerbate sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland and threaten to undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

There is a manifest crisis brewing in the soul of Europe

Europe is no longer an anchor of the new world order; it is in disarray, adrift in a sea of debt. The EU is over-extended to 28 member states and riven with internal wrangling over national sovereignties, currencies and the place of religion in politics. There is a manifest crisis in the soul of Europe, caused by the divided aims of still quite disparate countries and cultures, the ease of credit, aggressive secularism and the setting aside of Christian heritage (about which definitive feature of European identity its constitution is silent).

There is still a chronic disconnect between the electorate in the EU and the European Parliament, leaving people feeling disenfranchised and uncoupled from any system of accountability. Unemployment and a broken financial pump (which will need several more years’ priming) mean a downward spiral in the economy, growth and living standards and a dismal prospect of recovery for the foreseeable future. At present, the centre cannot hold, nor can it hold back the tide of incomers seeking refuge, unless united and concerted EU efforts are made to absorb them in an orderly way. What is out of kilter or equilibrium at the moment is the balance between ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ – the letter of enlightenment values (democracy, the rule of law and human rights) and the spirit of humanitarian aid and compassion, recognition of the need to make common cause to address intractable problems and threats to the EU’s fragile existence. Most of these problems are remediable, given a concerted political will.

If and when the UK withdraws from the EU, all of us will be diminished. It will mean a dwindling of European influence in the world. The EU as a collective force for good will founder and the European project will fail under the weight of a wobbly France, a Germany overborne by financial and immigration pressures, the moribund economies of southern Europe and the machinations of rogue member states like Serbia and even Austria.

The UK breaking with Europe is an act of reckless folly

For all the above reasons and for the EU to survive and mobilise for its citizens, it is vital that the UK asserts its moral authority as founder of some of the most robust institutions in the world, to ensure that decentralisation and ‘subsidiarity’ means real power at the local level, not compliance with top-down diktats. The UK breaking with Europe will not in itself be enough to shock the sclerotic system into changing. It will simply be an act of reckless folly at a time when such a great opportunity for reform leadership presents itself. A good start would be holding each other to account for breaching basic undertakings like not allowing national budget deficits to exceed 3% of GDP.

Thus, it will be left to our MPs to determine our fate when they come to vote on the withdrawal bill once it can be drawn up. In all conscience they must decide what is truly in the national interest and vote accordingly. This is clearly a case where they, as elected representatives of the people, may believe that country is more important than party. One can only hope that they have the fortitude and courage to vote the bill down in all good conscience and clear the way for a proper and positive engagement with the EU.

Prevail on your Croydon MP – whoever it may be – to put country before party to vote the bill down. The lords will assist you in this cause – they are the true guardians of the country and will prevent the people from chucking it away on a whim. Brexit wrecks it.

Barnaby Powell

I'm a former development banker (in Europe and East and South-East Asia) and a Croydon resident for over 25 years. Currently I write and speak (mainly to schools and universities) on China and the impact of its rise on the rest of us. I'm also a school governor at Archbishop Tenison's School and a leader of the Croydon U3A China Group.

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  • lizsheppardjourno

    Fabulous article, Barnaby.

    “In all conscience, our MPs must decide what is truly in the national interest and vote accordingly. This is clearly a case where they, as elected representatives of the people, may believe that country is more important than party. One can only hope that they have the fortitude and courage to vote the bill down in all good conscience and clear the way for a proper and positive engagement with the EU”.

    I wish I saw any sign of this in Croydon.

  • Michael Swadling

    Your premise that we don’t have to leave the EU is fundamentally a stance against democracy. If someone is elected by one vote or tens of of thousands of votes they take office. The biggest vote in all of British history was to leave the EU. If we don’t fully leave and respect that vote British democracy has ended.

    I’m pleased you quoted Chris Pattern and his comments on Mussolini and Hitler. Everyone time a member of the political class makes those sort of comparison I know the resolve of Brexit voters only hardens.

    The record inward investment, and generation low unemployment would suggest the 78,000 Croydonians who voted to Leave did so entirely “rationally with regard to the economic consequences”.

    Northern Ireland boarder is incredibly solvable as with most land borders between friendly countries – ignore it. Enforce laws within the countries not at the boarder. It’s what we do today for the tax boarder in the island or Ireland, we can add customs to that. The only conceivable way a boarder will exist is if the EU imposes it. Giving in to the bully tactics of the commissioners in Brussels is something I would hope we can all stand firmly against.

    The idea that the vote was somthing to do with the Conservatives ignores the many campaigns running for 40 years to leave the EU and 17 million votes. In our own borough go to Selhurst and New Addington areas that are not naturally conservative that voted Leave.

    In asking for people to prevail on their Croydon MP ask. I agree – prevail on them to remember they only enjoy their position with the consent and acceptance of the people the people have spoken they would be best not to ignore that. At a constituency level of course in Croydon Central the majority voted to leave the EU I am sure Sarah Jones will remember that. Gavin didn’t to his cost.

    I would of course state I was the Croydon EU Referendum Vote Leave Borough Manager.

  • Bill Smoker

    Croydon for Europe is a non-partisan, grass roots group based in Croydon campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. You can find us on Twitter here and on Facebook here