Sunday, 30 April 2017

Brexit: A binary outcome for a non binary choice

Introductory Note: Ever since Brexit, I have ranted often and at length concerning the vote and the next steps. Here follows a multi part series where I attempt to condense these rants into structured arguments. As always, comments are positively encouraged.

When the electorate of the United Kingdom were presented with a sixteen word question on 23 June 2016 they did so in the knowledge that they were being afforded their say on arguably the most critical question ever asked of the nation. That this was the most important vote of their lifetime seemed to be just about the only matter that both the Remain and Leave camps could agree on, showcasing the difficulty of the dynamic that the country faces ten months on from this fateful day. Indeed, the question posed to the nation was remarkably simple - Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? - although the eventual outcome is anything but. Yet, the referendum was utterly incapable of determining the next steps.

Whilst the Leave vote did have official representation in the form of Vote Leave, they held no authority to determine what comes next. As a consequence, they were free to offer whatever they wanted safe in the knowledge that the eventual calories would never pile onto their waistline, or that their current waistline would ever be held to account.

You want immigration controls? Well, we can give you that. You want to take back control in general? Yes, we can offer that too. 350 million per week for the NHS? Let me get my chequebook. You want to sock it to the politicians? This is your opportunity. Iain Duncan Smith will even provide the transport. In comparison the Remain campaign, hamstrung by the actual and diplomatic realities of power, were constrained to offer such treats as 'No, Turkey is not in line to join the EU', and 'better the devil you know'. The latter in particular was a total misread of the public mood. A public who felt and continue to feel the actual effect of the late noughties financial crisis. A crisis in fact which the (otherwise miscast) 'elites' have been sheltered from and have arguably never fully understood the actual impact it has had on families across the nation.

Quite frankly, the standard of the discourse leading to the election was an all time low. At times it felt more like a Reality TV show chronicling the career of Boris Johnson than a discussion as to the future direction of a nation. Let alone the topic being arguably the most engrained and complicated of all issues facing the nation. Indeed, one could argue that leaving this option in the hands of citizens was an utter betrayal of the principles of representative democracy.

Immediately after the polls closed we were informed by some that a slender margin such as 52% opting to remain would not lead to the EU question going away. A message which curiously disappeared once 52% had opted to leave and which would subsequently lead to such farcical headlines as 'Enemies of the People', 'Saboteurs' and democracy deniers for anyone who dared to query the mandate offered by the referendum.

Still, what should the leave vote have led to? Well, in accordance with speeches by the only man with true authority, the Prime Minister, it should have been the immediate trigger of Article 50 and departure from the Single Market. Those two points, whilst actually countered by many of the leave camp who understood the immediate mess this would bring and possibly countered their otherwise legitimacy, were mainstays throughout the campaign but immediately discarded by the Prime Minister who recognised the fallacy of his position following the vote. So, the need to anoint a new leader of the nation.

However, ten months on we should now have clarity on the direction the country is seeking to go down. But not only do we not have that, we have polls showing that a majority of people still want to belong to the Single Market or Customs Union despite the new Prime Minister ruling these out. Worse still, the same polls show a staggeringly high proportion of Leavers undecided on these topics.

In law there is a concept of 'informed consent' whereby a contract can be declared null and void if one party did not fully understand the agreement. For obvious reasons this does not apply to political agreements, but one has to be concerned about the legitimacy of any agreement when there is substantial cloudiness over what has been agreed to. Even if one took the undecideds to remain so only on account of the complete picture being unknown (i.e. trading options are dependant upon other more important aspects), it still highlights the tenuous nature of the vote.

Now, the upcoming general election looks to set out even fewer certainties concerning the Brexit decision. What is the position of EU citizens? What is the divorce bill? What will be the future trading options? Do we need to cap immigration? What can we offer other countries we need to set up trade agreements with?

The same electorate who were entrusted with the future of the country ten months ago are now treated with the derision of vacuous soundbites concerning 'strong and stable leadership' and the need to give a 'strong hand' for negotiations despite the public already having voted for Brexit and Parliament having approved the official trigger to negotiations. However, the truth is that a General Election is not required or able to lend credence to Brexit. As it currently stands, it is nothing but an irrelevant sideshow.

Meanwhile, those who cite remainers as being democracy deniers could not be further from the truth. Brexit showcased a disillusionment with the current direction of the country but gave no mandate for next steps. The only democratic justification for Brexit can be a future referendum with specific options for the next steps, along with an option to remain. Then, and only then, can it truly be said that the British public have endorsed Brexit.

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