Three years ago, along with a lot of other people in Britain, I placed my vote in the European referendum. The next morning I woke up to discover that overnight I had been labelled a “Remainer”, and was informed that my vote was on the losing side and that I therefore no longer had a voice in what would happen as a result of the referendum. All that has continued to be true ever since.
I voted to Remain for what I felt were uncontroversial reasons.
Firstly, in the last forty years or so I have travelled in more than half the European countries who make up the EU. Although none of the countries represents a perfect world, an ideal place, I grew to like the way European countries ran things. Social problems are everywhere but they appear to be dealt with more effectively, more humanely than here in the UK. From my personal perspective there was effective environmental legislation in place, the rights of workers seemed protected, and the arts were better supported. Going to a book fair in Spain, or a literary festival in France or Germany, is an eye-opening experience from a British point of view, and wipes away forever the conceit that the UK is one of the most literate, book-loving countries in the world.
Secondly, having worked in the UK court service for nearly two decades I have become thoroughly versed in the importance, subtlety and civilizing quality of the European Convention on Human Rights. Incorporated into UK law in 1998 it has had what I see as a profound and desirable effect, if largely unrecognized and sometimes misunderstood, on many aspects of daily life in this country.
Thirdly, I lived in the south coast town of Hastings for nearly a quarter of a century. When I moved in it was a seaside dump, with many closed businesses, deteriorating housing stock, a horrendous drug problem and a pretty view of the English Channel. The view never changed, but our partner countries on the other side of the Channel were feeding millions of euros in subsidies and grants into many derelict British towns, including Hastings. All through the time I lived there the town was being cleaned up, repaired, invested in. By the time I left in 2014 it had been transformed. Hastings has become an attractive, prosperous and interesting place, with many cultural and artistic activities. (Now that I am living in Scotland I am starting to find out what similar EU investment in the past has done to improve lives and the environment here. Scotland is already a mini-European country in outlook and effectiveness. NB to people in England: after a few years of moratorium Scotland has just placed a permanent ban on fracking.)
So in a mild way, I felt the EU to be in general a good thing. It never occurred to me that many other people would have the strongly antagonistic feelings about it appallingly revealed in the months that have followed the referendum.
The “Leave” campaign in 2016 was largely run by three secondrate Tory politicians (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith). They were a front for a sinister cabal of secretive businessmen and political opportunists. Laws were broken, and lies were told. Lies were told every day, in fact, some of them so blatantly untrue that they have become a sort of stock-in-trade for comedians. (Mentioning £350 millions a week for the NHS still gets a cheap laugh every time.) The campaign they ran was emotive, it fudged detail, it avoided real issues, it appealed to people’s baser instincts about foreigners and immigrants and hospital waiting lists. Again, these tactics were so conspicuously dishonest that I assumed most people would have the sense to realize what was being said.
Interestingly, as the weak Tory government has tried in recent months to negotiate what they always call a “deal” (a horrible word made popular by Trump’s dishonest practices), it has become blazingly obvious that none of the real issues of leaving the EU, none of the serious problems, were ever mentioned by anyone in the Leave campaign. Does anyone remember the Leave campaign explaining how the problem of the Irish border would be solved?
So it is apparent that many people who voted to Leave were either gulled by the lies (or chose to ignore them after they were exposed), or they were not informed of the reality of what they were voting for. They followed their instincts instead.
The referendum was an opportunity to succumb to the temptation to push a sharp stick into the eyes of the Tory nobs who ran the country. (Not such a bad idea, in socialistic fact: David Cameron’s cabinet contained a majority of public school boys, and at least eleven millionaires.) It was a protest about foreign workers taking up jobs that should have been given to British people. It was a fear of being swamped by immigration. It was a complaint that operations for varicose veins, cataract implants, replacement hips (and treatment for more serious emergencies, like cancer, stroke, etc) were the subject of long delays. It was anger that the schools were crowded and underfunded, that doctors’ surgeries were crammed with freeloading foreigners, that jobs were hard to come by …
All these are genuine concerns, and many people feel disadvantaged by them. But the root cause is not the arrival of refugees from dysfunctional regimes abroad, or Polish workmen, or Bulgarian fruit-pickers, or the policy of freedom of movement, or the unpoliced borders that inadequately protect our island. The truth is that we have been suffering from weak governments dominated by businessmen and hedgefund operatives, short-sighted policies, endless restrictions in the name of “austerity”, and above all a thoroughgoing lack of awareness about what many ordinary people care about on a daily basis, and the problems they have.
In case this seems to be a one-sided tirade against the Tories, let me add that I consider the principal scoundrel responsible for the Brexit mess to be the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Where was the opposition during the referendum campaign? Who challenged the glib lies? Who raised the problem of the Irish border? Not Jeremy Corbyn, who apart from one self-evidently insincere little speech about supporting the Remain side, was all but invisible. His absence created the unfailing impression that the referendum was really just a squabble between two factions in the Conservative Party. Since the referendum, Corbyn’s endless vacillation and unconvincing announcements have only added to the ineffectiveness of this man. He is more responsible than Cameron, May or even Johnson for the mess we are in. There is a place reserved in Brexit hell for Jeremy Corbyn – I’d like to think of him spending eternity in a cell with Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith.
Today was planned to be the last day of our membership of the EU. Thankfully postponed yet again, it has become instead the first day of the General Election campaign. I have never voted Tory in my life, and in the past I worked as a campaign volunteer for the Labour Party. But should you sense even the whisper of a bat’s wing of temptation to vote for Corbyn’s party, I recommend you first to read Tom Bowyer’s biography of Corbyn, just so you know what you would be voting for.
There is only one solution to this mess. The best “deal” is the one we have. Referenda have no constitutional position in the UK. They are advisory only. The next government should swiftly consult the advice of the 2016 referendum, disagree with it, politely reject it, then revoke Article 50 and mend fences with our European friends and say sorry for all the botheration. Corbyn’s head on a stick might be enough to soothe their justifiable irritation with our otherwise green and pleasant land.
Further reading, if you can find a copy – Amazon.co.uk have a few copies at 50p each: Yea or Nay? – Referenda in the United Kingdom, by Stanley Alderson.