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30 November 2019

The Brexit Factor

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics
 With less than two weeks to go until another General Election, the third in less than five years despite the Fixed Term Parliament Act, I want to post two blogs on the subject. Last week I set out the context in which we are holding this General Election with widespread attacks on democracy, particularly from the internet.  Next week I will attempt to summarise the main issues on which elections are usually fought: the economy. the health service, immigration and political leadership. But this week I want to focus on the one issue for which the election has actually been called – Brexit.

In 2016 David Cameron held a referendum in which the electorate were asked one question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” 72.21% of those eligible voted and 51.89% of those voted to leave. That was 17,410,742 voters, the highest number of people voting for any proposition In British political history. Only 25,359 voters cast an invalid or blank vote, a remarkably low number. When a referendum was held in France in 2005 on the European Constitution in a turnout of 69.37%, 54.67% voted against the EU and there were 730,522 invalid or blank votes. The EU simply put the constitution in a treaty, the Lisbon treaty, with a few minor changes and this did not have to go to referendum, but was ratified by the French Parliament.

David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and without a proper election Theresa May succeeded him. In 2017, without apparently consulting any of her senior officials, she called another General Election with the intention of gaining a mandate to negotiate the withdrawal from the EU. Instead she lost her overall majority and spent the next two years fighting and losing to Parliament. There was no majority for any proposition in the House of Commons and so she also resigned after three years of making no progress.

Her successor, Boris Johnson, was elected by Conservative Party rules, that is by making a short list of two supported by the Parliamentary Party and then gaining a clear majority among party members. He renegotiated some of the less acceptable parts of Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement and got support for that in the House of Commons. However the parliamentary arithmetic still prevented this from being implemented and so he also called a General Election in order to get an overall majority and in his words “get stuff done”.

What he intends if he gets that overall majority is to leave the EU in January on the terms of his revised Withdrawal Agreement. He would then have a year to negotiate a new trade deal. Critics say this is unreasonable as trade deals of this kind can take many years. Recently the EU concluded a trade deal with Canada and this took seven years to negotiate and two more to ratify. However, the UK would be starting from a position of zero tariffs with the EU and harmony in regulation. If there was goodwill on both sides then it should be possible to achieve a trade deal in such a time period. But there are two problems with this:
  1. There isn’t goodwill on both sides. The EU will want to make the UK suffer even if it means the EU also suffers. The EU has a large balance of payments surplus in its trade dealings with the UK but it will be prepared to put that at risk in making sure that no one sees that leaving the EU does not cost a member nation.
  2. If the UK does succeed in maintaining the same harmony of regulation and tariffs with the EU then it will be much harder to negotiate new trade deals with other countries like the USA.
The Labour Party has adopted a very strange policy. It says it will negotiate a new deal in three months that is much better than the current deal, (remember the current deal is not a deal; it is a Withdrawal Agreement prefacing a new trade deal) and then put that deal to the British people in a second referendum. Since the first of these promises cannot happen then the second becomes irrelevant. But even if we take it on trust, the Labour Party does not say which way it would recommend people to vote in this referendum. And the leader, Jeremy Corbyn refuses to say what his own position is. This is presumably because he is trying to keep the support of the Remainers in his party, the majority, while also keeping the support of those in his party, nearly 40%, who voted to Leave.

The Liberal Party’s position is at least clear. It says that if it gets an overall majority in the House of Commons it will revoke Article 50 and thus remain in the EU. It is clear what the politics of this are; it becomes the party that is unequivocally in favour of Remain. But it is unclear how this can be regarded as Liberal or Democratic. It isn’t going to happen so we don’t need to lose any sleep over it, but it is certainly a concern that a major political party could ignore the wishes of 17.4 million people, a clear majority in a clear referendum.

The Scottish Separatists are, as always, all at sea. But at least they are true to their own values. They argue that because a majority of voters in Scotland voted to Remain, then Scotland should not leave the EU even if the rest of the UK does. Firstly, it is difficult to understand why the Scots prefer being ruled from Brussels rather than Westminster where they have a significant presence and where they can vote on all issues, even those that have been devolved to Scotland. Secondly, surely they can now see that after 40 years of membership of the EU how difficult it is for the UK to extricate itself from the EU. So what will it be like when Scotland tries to leave the UK, assuming that it gets another ‘once in a generation’ referendum after just a few years? James VI, Stuart King of Scotland, also inherited the throne of England in 1603, and the Stuart kings and queens ruled both independent kingdoms until the Acts of Union in 1707 merged the two kingdoms into a new state, the Kingdom of Great Britain.

The main reasons for the union were economic. England had about five times the population of Scotland at the time, and about 36 times as much wealth. Scotland’s attempt to start a colony to rival some of England’s had resulted in the disastrous Darien scheme leading to the bankruptcy of thousands of investors. England carried out a massive bailout, worth many billions of pounds in today’s money. Just as the UK has apparently agreed to pay £39 billion to the EU as the price of withdrawal,  Scotland too would have to pay a similar sum in pro rata terms to gain its independence. And how would it manage the currency? In the Scottish independence referendum they argued that they would maintain the pound, but would the UK agree? And defence? How would it defend itself? And Embassies? How would it afford the countless embassies it currently enjoys as part of the UK? I could go on.

The Brexit party has resolved not to contest constituencies where there are sitting Conservative MPs. But for Boris Johnson to “get stuff done” he needs to not only hold all of those but also win a substantial number of other constituencies where Brexit runs the risk of splitting the Leave vote. On the basis of recent opinion polls it looks like Boris and his team have largely neutralised this risk, but these opinion polls are not sufficiently reliable that they can accurately forecast the result by constituency. In my opinion the opinion polls are no more than an indication of a range of possibilities.

After the 2010 General Election I wrote a blog entitled ‘It Was Old Media That Won It’ in which I reported on an event held by the Worshipful Company of Marketors to consider the role of different media in the Election.[i] While we heard of the role the internet had played it was limited and traditional media had remained dominant. In the decade that has passed that may have changed. While my generation still gets its information from traditional media like newspapers, radio and television, younger generations increasingly get theirs from the internet through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms. Most of this is likely to be biased and much of it will be fake. It remains to be seen how influential this is.

I told a friend who is a long term reader of my blogs that I would blog today on the Brexit Factor. He said all I needed to do is to repeat my blog on the Customs Union which I published in 2018. I thought I needed to provide more up to date political analysis but all the arguments about the Customs Union itself are still valid so here is the reference.[ii]

[i] It Was Old Media That Won It 29th May 2010
[ii] The Customs Union 26th May, 2018


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