Columnist A. Miller-Draper shares his thoughts on Brexit
As a British expatriate, I just happened to be back in Britain for the vote on the EU referendum. Not that I was eligible to vote myself, but I did wonder which side I might have supported. Initially, I was in favour of the union. Yet, after listening to the arguments, and discussion with family and friends, I think I would have voted to Leave.
I left Britain in the 60’s, half-a-century ago. My ties to my homeland and Europe are not so strong. I feel a stronger loyalty to my father’s country New Zealand, where I now live. Europe is still a lovely place to go for a holiday, even if it is so far away. And I am relieved to be nestled deep in the South Pacific, free of the vexations that so beset Europe, the travails of the single currency, the flood of refugees, the sclerotic demands of the welfare state, inadequate leaders and an increasingly hysterical electorate.
The initial concept of the European Union was widely applauded – to bring the nation states of Europe closer together, so that enmity became obsolete. But what began as a trading bloc has transformed over the decades, since its founding 50 years ago (Britain joined in 1973) into a supranational state with many member states signed up to the single euro currency, with the concomitant, inexorable drive to a single tax code and ultimately a single polity. The individual nation states are thus conspiring in their own demise, or, are they? Are the individual electorates aware their days are numbered? Are their political leaders confident they are making the right choices? One gets the feeling the European Union is sleepwalking towards a catastrophic denouement, with riots and collapsing economies. The centre cannot hold. Unless that is, deception, and sleight of hand come in to play.
It is no coincidence that the bureaucrats in Brussels and the various national leaders fear the involvement of the electorate. The people could stop the European Project in its tracks. Southern Europe desperately needs to devalue, but cannot. It is held captive by the euro. A generation of young people may never know full employment, and what of their children and their children’s children? Helots of a superstate.
Referenda are to be avoided at all costs. When they are held, as was the case with Ireland and the wrong reply received, it was politely suggested Ireland hold another referendum, and the Irish people duly came to their senses, and said yes.
Britain has said no. Neither is there a suggestion from Brussels that Britain should hold a second referendum. If Britain wants out, let them leave. It may not be an amicable divorce but, as several European notables have pointed out, it was never a happy marriage. The wretched British were always banging on about their individual national rights, that the various funds dispensed by Brussels should be more accountable, that the single currency was a mistake. Perhaps, the British should have held a referendum after Maastricht in 1992 or after Lisbon in 2007. But successive British governments feared the outcome. And, as recent events have so eloquently demonstrated, they were right to be wary of their own electorate.
But the reality of domestic politics in Britain forced a reckoning. The conservative party was riven by constant, profound dispute over the European Union. The coalition of the first Cameron government was never regarded as satisfactory, and temporary at best. UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, was on the rise, eating into the conservative vote. Ironically, it was increasingly eating into the opposition Labour Party’s vote too.
Cameron and his supporters resolved to put the issue to bed once and for all, and so promised in their party manifesto, at the most recent General Election in 2015, that a referendum would be held during the next parliament, confident that a majority would vote to remain in the European Union. After all, remaining a member was a central tenet both of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, with whom the conservatives had recently shared power. And enough conservatives followed their leader that the Remain vote seemed more than secure.
That the conservatives under Cameron won the 2015 General Election with a clear majority, albeit a slender one, surprised all the pollsters and the pundits, and even Mr Cameron. O! dear, now he really was committed to holding a referendum. Yet how did he come by that majority? Why did no one see it coming? Indeed, why did the same pollsters and pundits, and Mr Cameron call the referendum result so wrong?
The common man stepped forward. He doesn’t say much most of the time, except when it matters. He had noticed the vital inclusion of the referendum in the conservative manifesto. A significant number of Labour voters quietly gave Cameron the nod. Then the common man bided his time, till June 23, 2016. Gotcha!!
The politicians had continued to ignore the British people at their peril and the feelings of animosity ran deep. Of course, immigration was an issue; uncontrolled immigration is a nonsense. Even Australia imposes benefit restraints on New Zealanders, who have a right to settle in Australia – a mutual right incidentally, though not many go the other way. It is unfortunate, however, that Brexit attracted so many xenophobes and bigots. And the media made much play of their unpleasantness. Yet they in turn were in a minority. The common man welcomes strangers and puts them at their ease. Britain has been a sanctuary for refugees down the ages.
The fundamental position of the Leave campaign was the question of sovereignty. Was the nation state slowly to wither on the vine while the grander butterfly of the United States of Europe emerged? Or weren’t the people ready and willing yet to let go? Britain was not prepared to stop being Britain. She has an illustrious heritage. Being an island nation has cultivated a sense of individual identity. Britain of the Magna Carta, Nelson and Wellington, Churchill going it alone in 1940 was not so easily to be swept aside. Romantic clap trap it may be, but it’s what the people feel. British laws are made in Westminster, not Brussels. Why should the British people stand idly by, while their heritage is whittled away?
The irony is that in the rest of Europe the past, and particularly the immediate past, exercises no such siren call. The Germans have Kaiser Bill and Adolf Hitler as their forebears. France has had five republics since their murderous revolution and the Napoleonic experiment, just over 200 years ago. Italy has Mussolini to forget. Spain has Franco. The East Europeans have Stalin. No wonder so many European countries feel compelled to draw ever closer, seeking some new supranational identity.
So, I am not sure whether Brexit is a good thing or a bad thing. As I said, I think, on balance, I would have voted for it. Of course, it leaves the future uncertain. Scotland may insist on yet another referendum for independence. Northern Ireland may even be forced to the ballot box. We may end up with a united Ireland, a separate Scotland and a very much diminished England and Wales, no longer able to afford Trident, or its relocation to the Lancashire coast, the loss of its seat on the UN Security Council, a substantial dilution of its role in NATO. How are the mighty fallen! Britain may never, never be slaves, but they may yet disappear beneath the waves!!
Or will Britannia rise again, a free, kind, prosperous place, full of poets and entrepreneurs, thinkers and inventors, and the common man, lousy weather, home to the mother of parliaments, a beacon of hope to oppressed people everywhere? Fingers crossed!