London, June 24th (Photo: Mary Turner/Getty Images)
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Continuing from my previous post…
I came across just yesterday (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld) a comment by Nick Clegg—ex-Lib Dem leader and ex-Deputy PM—published in iNews on the eve of the referendum, “what you will wake up to if we vote to Leave…” This merits a copy-and-paste in its entirety
Are you still undecided? Are you someone who – pummelled by weeks of claim and counter-claim – has been left exhausted and annoyed? Have you been looking for answers, yet all you’ve encountered are insults and exaggeration?
Maybe you’re so fed up you think to hell with it, let’s throw caution to the wind and vote Brexit. Imagine, however, what happens next. Imagine how you will feel on 24 June?
Having woken on Friday to the news we’re quitting the EU, you will assume that those who persuaded you to take that leap of faith have a plan about what to do next.
So imagine how dismayed you will feel when you discover, instead, that Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson can’t agree among themselves what life outside the EU looks like? They may be united by a ferocious loathing of the EU, but they have no shared plan for the future.
So you will look towards our leaders in Westminster to sort out the mess. Instead, they argue among themselves: the Conservatives descend into a bloody leadership election; Parliament enters years of constitutional gridlock trying to extricate itself from the intricate legal stitching which binds us to the EU and gives us access to world markets.
Then you discover just how unprepared the Government is – that there simply aren’t enough trade negotiators in Whitehall, for instance, with the expertise to renegotiate 50 or so international trade accords.
As politicians bicker, you become increasingly unnerved by what’s happening in the economy, too: overseas investors take fright; money flows out of the country; our credit rating is slashed; the interest on our borrowing goes up; unemployment rises; sterling tanks; prices in the shops go up.
Nicola Sturgeon soon announces that preparations have started for a second independence referendum, claiming it is the only way to keep Scotland in the EU. And this time most commentators think that she will win.
Still, at least they will finally sort out our borders, right? After all, ending mass immigration was the Brexiteers biggest claim of all.
So imagine how you’ll feel when you discover that they don’t have a plan for that either? Some argue for a new land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to stop EU immigrants coming in through the “back door”. Others that a new border would harm the peace in Northern Ireland. The Australian points system which they advocate is no solution either – it has led to immigration levels twice as high as in the UK.
Panic starts to spread among the 1.3 million Brits who live, study and retire elsewhere in the EU. Spanish politicians start to complain about paying for public services used by British pensioners. If we start excluding Spanish doctors and nurses, why should they keep paying for our pensioners?
And then there’s that faintly queasy feeling you get when you see Donald Trump on the TV, visiting the UK on Friday, declaring his joy at the Brexit vote.
Meanwhile Angela Merkel invites President Obama to an emergency summit to discuss the fallout – the UK is, of course, excluded from what soon emerges as the new “special relationship” between the US and Germany.
The Brexiteers say you will “regain control”. But it won’t feel like that. Instead, the economy lurches to recession; there’s upheaval in Westminster; no plan to allay concerns about immigration; another referendum in Scotland; a steep slide in Britain’s standing in the world.
Our wonderful country adrift – not in control. And for what? Nigel, Michael and Boris still won’t be able to tell you why.
Talk about prescience.
On the wonderful United Kingdom adrift and no one being in control, The Economist’s Bagehot columnist posted a breathtaking commentary yesterday evening, “Britain is sailing into a storm with no one at the wheel.” No copy-and-paste here. Just click on the link and read the whole thing.
The tagline of Bagehot’s column is “Anarchy in the UK.” That this could be said about the United Kingdom is scary, indeed terrifying. If the UK—one of the most serious polities in the history of the modern world—can descend into political anarchy, then, well…
The “anarchy” in the UK is going to continue for months, no doubt about that, until David Cameron’s successor moves into 10 Downing and invokes Article 50 (thereby causing the £ to fall even further, roiling financial markets, and triggering or aggravating all sorts of other calamities). Or does not invoke it. And as I’ve been saying since last Friday, I am convinced that Article 50 will not be invoked. Brexit will finally not happen.
On the legal/constitutional side of the matter, see this nine-minute video explanation by University of Cambridge public law professor Mark Elliot, on the Public Law for Everyone website (his several posts on Brexit have been usefully collected on one page). See also the analyses by David Allen Green, who blogs on law and policy at the FT and his Jack of Kent blog: “This is what sovereignty looks like – where we are with Article 50,” and “Article 50 and the start of a political stalemate.” In the former post, he reminds us that
The referendum on EU membership was advisory not mandatory. It was deliberately drafted by Parliament not to have any legal consequences. (The last UK-wide referendum, on the AV voting system, did have such a binding provision, but this time Parliament chose not to include one).
As such, the result of the poll has no more legal standing than the result of a consultation exercise. It was a glorified opinion survey, and that is what Parliament intended it to be.
In the latter post, he says this
It would appear that no UK politician, including those who headed the Leave campaign, is in any rush to press the “red button” of the Article 50 notification. The now departing Prime Minister David Cameron says it is up to a successor. One likely successor, Boris Johnson, says there is no haste. The red button will be positioned behind a locked door in Downing Street with a protective case placed on top. It is not going to get pressed by accident, if it is ever going to get used.
And what will happen without the button being pressed may be a political phoney war. It may well be that nothing happens at all: that the referendum result just hangs there, and things carry on an institutional and supranational basis much as before.
And there are events which could make it plausible that the notification button is never pressed. (…)
One such event would be the PM deciding that Article 50 will be invoked only if approved by a vote of the House of Commons, 75% of whose current deputies are Remainers. In such a vote, MPs would necessarily be free to vote their conscience. As parliament in the UK is sovereign and reflects the will of the people—having been elected by the people—it is difficult to see how one could credibly argue that, in the event of a vote rejecting Article 50, it is countering the will of the people as expressed in an advisory referendum. And seriously, will the next PM and his/her majority in the Commons willingly provoke a crisis with Scotland and the Ulster Catholics—leading to the possible breakup of the UK—simply to respect the “will of the people” as expressed in an advisory referendum that should have never been held in the first place, and for a cause—Brexit—that the majority of MPs oppose?
On the matter of the referendum—and the institution of referenda more generally—Kenneth Rogoff had a totally excellent, must-read day after commentary in Project Syndicate, “Britain’s democratic failure.” Rogoff begins
The real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union was not that British leaders dared to ask their populace to weigh the benefits of membership against the immigration pressures it presents. Rather, it was the absurdly low bar for exit, requiring only a simple majority. Given voter turnout of 70%, this meant that the leave campaign won with only 36% of eligible voters backing it.
This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence – far greater even than amending a country’s constitution (of course, the United Kingdom lacks a written one) – has been made without any appropriate checks and balances.
Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Does a majority in Parliament have to support Brexit? Apparently not. Did the UK’s population really know what they were voting on? Absolutely not. Indeed, no one has any idea of the consequences, both for the UK in the global trading system, or the effect on domestic political stability. I am afraid it is not going to be a pretty picture.
Is it really enough to get 52% to vote for breakup on a rainy day?
In terms of durability and conviction of preferences, most societies place greater hurdles in the way of a couple seeking a divorce than Prime Minister David Cameron’s government did on the decision to leave the EU. Brexiteers did not invent this game; there is ample precedent, including Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995. But, until now, the gun’s cylinder never stopped on the bullet. Now that it has, it is time to rethink the rules of the game.
The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term. Modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles.
That’s why enacting, say, a constitutional amendment generally requires clearing far higher hurdles than passing a spending bill. Yet the current international standard for breaking up a country is arguably less demanding than a vote for lowering the drinking age.
Exactly. Now one may object to Rogoff that the 50%+1 rule of the referendum was accepted by all—that this was the rule of the game—and one cannot change that rule after the fact simply because one does not like the outcome. But that still begs the question as to the legitimacy of such a plebiscite—with consequences so devastating and unanticipated by the electorate—and why it should be accorded primacy over the sovereignty of parliament and on such a critical, complex issue no less—and in a polity with no plebiscitary tradition. Even in France, where the instrument of the national referendum is in the constitution and been employed ten times over the past six decades, parliament has the final word. In France—where Bonapartist reflexes persist—an issue of constitutional import cannot be decided by referendum only; it must be approved by parliament meeting in joint session and with a three-fifths majority. In the United States, national referendums are, of course, non-existent, and with qualified majorities in effect necessary for all major pieces of legislation, not to mention obligatory for constitutional amendments and treaties. And in Germany, there is no such thing as a referendum.
The general view at the moment is that, regardless of the arguments spelled out above, it is politically inconceivable that the PM or House of Commons would go against the “will of the people” and reject Brexit, and that those who say otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking. The above-cited Michael Elliot has said so himself. But politically inconceivable is not legally inconceivable, and what appears politically inconceivable today may appear less so in four months, if/when the public mood has changed and the calamitous consequences of Brexit have become crystal clear to everyone, including UKIP voters.
On credible scenarios for Brexit not happening, there’s the one by a Guardian reader, which has been viewed by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of readers over the past three days in social and regular media. And political scientists Richard Ned Lebow and Simon Reich—of King’s College London and Rutgers University-Newark, respectively—have a good piece in Washington Monthly on “How Britain can break from Brexit: A roadmap for how Britain can walk itself back from its disastrous referendum.”
The bottom line: If the polls in October show a portion of Leavers regretting their vote and a clear majority for Remain, Brexit will not happen. The Article 50 button will not be pushed.
More to follow.
UPDATE: In case one missed it, Guardian columnist Nick Cohen had a great commentary, dated June 25th, on the leaders of the Leave campaign, “There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Michael Gove: The Brexit figureheads had no plan besides exploiting populist fears and dismissing experts who rubbished their thinking.”
Also see, ICYMI, the enquête in Politico by Tom McTague, Alex Spence, and Edward-Isaac Dovere, “How David Cameron blew it: The behind-the-scenes story of a failed campaign to keep Britain in the European Union,” which is as damning in its assessment of Jeremy Corbyn as it is of the soon-to-be former PM.
2nd UPDATE: Ben Judah, who reported for Politico on the British public mood during the campaign, has offered extensive observations on his Facebook page. Having talked with hundreds of voters in Angleterre profonde, he came away convinced that immigration and identity were central in the motivations of Leave voters
Why is this anger at ethnic change flaring of such intensity?
This is the Leave campaign I saw on the ground.
I met dozens of activists and MP from both sides.
This was how Brexiteers framed the referendum.
This was a referendum on whether or not Britain remains part of a German-controlled banker-run bureaucratic pseudo-Union that will inevitably end British democracy, roll up Britain as a state and flood the country with unlimited numbers of Turkish and Eastern European migrants, ending the England we know.
These were the consequences of such rhetoric.
As a result I met simply hundreds of devastated people horrified to have learnt thanks to the messaging of the Leave campaign that Britain was really under camouflaged German diktat.
But such sentiments don’t exist in a state of nature. They have to be stoked up
The psychological mechanism at play reminded me of a conspiracy theory. It was as if something evil and secretive had been revealed.
I have come this conclusion because I was simply incessantly told by hundreds of frightened and vulnerable people that they had only just learnt on national TV and in the tabloids that the problems of their daily lives were the result of immigration.
There was desperation among many voters, as a result of this messaging, to save the England they loved and the public services they depended on. The majority of those I met had come to believe that a tidal immigration from the European Union was imminent due to what they believed was impending Turkish membership.
This process, of tele-populists frightening a vast chunk of the population reminded me of what I have seen reporting in two other countries I know well – Russia and Ukraine. Over and over, I was told my people with poor access to quality information that their way of life was facing extinction.
To a certain extent, given the historical scale of demographic changes, this did not surprise me.
What did, however surprise me, was the less dominant but nevertheless widespread belief that Britain was somehow liberating itself from Germany. Why was this so?
Politicians in this country like to speak of the “Air War” – or political messaging from above – and the “Ground War” or political campaigning from below. The Air War, through repeated comparisons of the EU to Hitler’s Germany, made by the Air War’s commanders (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage) implanted this idea in a poorly educated population’s head. The Ground War, which I witnessed, was direct. Activists and campaigners ceaselessly repeated that – “this was not what our fathers and grandfathers fought for” – or that – “A vote to Remain is a betrayal of our forefathers.”
Again, this Ground War worked somewhat like a conspiracy theory in the heads of those convinced by it: it had been revealed to them that Britain was under Germany rule. This is was successfully rammed home by the Air War with the slogan – “This is our independence day.”
Tele-populists. Demagogues. Playing on peoples’ fears. What a travesty it would be if those who engaged in this were rewarded with victory.
All the more reason for parliament to reject Brexit.
3rd UPDATE: Sean O’Grady—the deputy managing editor of The Independent—has a rather interesting commentary—in which one finds some of the arguments spelled out above—”Even though we voted for it, a Brexit won’t happen in the end. Here’s why.” The lede: “I voted Leave – but, looking at the reasons, it’s undeniable that we’ll stay in the European Union after all.” Money quote
Before long this uncertainty will feed through even more concretely from the slightly abstract world of financial markets and exchange rates through to jobs, savings, and, above all, the value of people’s homes, which is where most people’s wealth is stored (especially some of the less well-off voters who opted for “Leave”). This is really why I suspect Brexit won’t, in the end, come to pass – because most voters can’t afford it in the short run, whatever the longer term advantages.
FT columnist Gideon Rachman also “[does] not believe that Brexit will happen.” The lede: “There will be howls of rage, but why should extremists on both sides dictate how the story ends?” Rachman and other Brexit doubters think there will be a second referendum—that this could settle the matter—but I’m doubtful. A second vote would backhandedly legitimize the first and unless it requires a qualified majority (e.g. 60%), be too risky. Better to just go with the British tradition and assert the sovereignty of parliament.
4th UPDATE: So who will succeed David Cameron at 10 Downing Street? This guide on the BBC News website is useful. Not that I know a thing about this but somehow I don’t think it will be Boris Johnson, that a majority of Tory MPs—who are Remainers—would select him as one of the two or more candidates to be submitted to a vote of party members. And can one really see BoJo pressing the Article 50 button and then going to toe-to-toe with J-C Juncker, Angela Merkel & Co? As for the other possible candidates, Stephen Crabb could be interesting.
5th UPDATE: Andrew Moravcsik had a Facebook exchange the other day with a conservative reader, who opined that “[t]he number one reason to leave the EU is valid! British citizens should wish to grab power back from bureaucrats.” Personally speaking, I am so sick and tired of the pablum about the supposed “bloated EU bureaucracy,” which comes mainly from conservative Eurosceptics who lazily, reflexively mouth this because it’s just this notion out there that they all repeat because, well, everyone repeats it. Andy’s response set the record straight
I am sorry, but this is a laughable position, factually speaking. The bureaucrats? About 25,000 people work for the EU bureaucracy, less than a medium-sized city. The EU disposes of less than 2% of European public spending, almost all of which is non-discretionary, because the (directly elected) member states specify specific purposes in advance, and most of which is just recycled back into the same country. The EU Commission, the only body not run by directly-elected officials, has been declining in power for 30 years–thanks in part to British pressure. Only in a few areas (like banning state subsidies, which Margaret Thatcher and every UK government since, has strongly supported) does it have any autonomous powers. The all-powerful organization is the Council of Ministers and European Council, comprised of (directly elected) heads of government, and ministers from the member states. A bit of power comes from the (directly elected) Parliament. All laws are implemented nationally, not by EU officials. Finally, there is a small amount of independence for the court, as in most countries, but even here everything is interpreted and implemented by national courts. And let’s not forget that all decision-making is essentially by quasi-consensus now–not really by majority, as the formal rules state–so individual countries have considerable power to block legislation–far more than minorities in the UK. The only exception to all this is the Euro, but–because the EU respects each country’s sovereign and democratic right not to participate in the Euro and to control its own borders by not being part of Schengen–that is not an issue for the UK. Hardly a bureaucratic system! But the fact you believe it to be such is good evidence of how successful Messrs. Johnson and Gove have been at convincing people to believe the big lies.
Touché! Couldn’t have said it better myself.
6th UPDATE: See the very good analysis, “Looking behind the Brexit anger,” on Flip Chart Fairy Tales, a sharp business blog of a blogger named Rick.
See as well the very good analysis by LSE director Craig Calhoun, “Brexit is a mutiny against the cosmopolitan elite,” in Huff Post’s The World Post.
7th UPDATE: Alex White, director of country analysis at the Economist Intelligence Unit, has a sobering assessment, in 24 Twitter tweets, of what Brexit will mean.
8th UPDATE: A prominent personality in the Conservative Party gave an off-the-record talk yesterday (June 29th) to the managerial personnel of a London firm for which he is a “special adviser.” He said the following, according to an interlocutor of mine who was privy to the talk:
– The new Conservative party leader will be under immense pressure to issue the article 50 notification shortly after appointment on 9 September.
– This pressure will come both from the electorate (NB leave voters here already getting very agitated) and from other EU leaders.
– His view is that the notification will be issued within a week or so of appointment.
– Parliament will be asked to approve the notification. He cannot see Parliament not doing so given the clear mandate from the people to withdraw from the EU
– No prospect of a second referendum on the same issue.
– No prospect of a general election. No one wants a general election and the Conservative party still has four years to run so no incentive to call one. Opposition party in disarray so no incentive either.
My questions to my interlocutor:
Three questions I would put to [the speaker]: 1. Will Article 50 be invoked before or after a vote of parliament? 2. What happens if public opinion polls show a clear shift toward Remain and with Leave voters expressing regret? 3. Is it conceivable that Article 50 notification will be issued without prior concertation with Scotland?
I agree that there will be no second referendum and no early election.
His view was that the new PM will get Parliament to approve the article 50 notification. His view was also that the large majority of MPs have no appetite for doing anything other than implementing the will of the people.
I don’t think they will care about what the polls say!
On the Scotland point I’m sure there will be consultation and of course MPs from Scotland will have their say in Parliament. No doubt some will also vote against article 50 notification.
I am becoming a little less confident in my categorical assertion that there will be no Brexit.
Wait and see. On verra.
9th UPDATE: A few good pieces I’ve read today (June 30th): “The EU is democratic. It just doesn’t feel that way,” By Amanda Taub, in the NYT; “Brexit, seen from the top of Europe,” by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker; “Brexit’s false democracy: What the vote really revealed,” by Georgetown University professor Kathleen R. McNamara, in Foreign Affairs; “Post-Brexit, the U.K. is in its worst political crisis since 1940,” by Johns Hopkins-SAIS professor By Matthias Matthijs, in WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog.
10th UPDATE: Simon Tilford, deputy director of the indispensable Centre for European Reform, has one of the best commentary-reflections on the Brexit vote that I’ve seen, “Dear EU leaders, please handle Britain with care.” In hypothesizing that the UK may seek an EEA/Norway-style arrangement with the EU—and possibly asking to rejoin the EU down the road—he submits that a “chastened, more modest Britain can emerge from this debacle…” That would be salutary indeed.
If one is interested to see what an intellectually high-powered debate on a Facebook comments thread (and its sub-threads) looks like, see this one on the Brexit, initiated June 30th, on Andrew Moravcsik’s timeline, with the participation of professors of international relations and modern Europe.
11th UPDATE: Turkuler Isiksel of Columbia University’s political science department has a sharp post (July 1st) in WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog, “The British people have spoken. But what exactly did they say?,” in which she weighs in on the pitfalls of the instrument of the referendum. Money quote:
Here’s the problem: Most referendums do not allow for specifying alternatives, giving and weighing reasons, or ranking preferences. And they give no indication of what tradeoffs the electorate is willing to tolerate, or guidance on how to proceed with the vast number of decisions that must be made to implement the people’s will.
Referendums commit leaders to a mandated outcome, regardless of the costs and consequences. And this makes it tougher for democratically elected legislatures to deliberate, compromise and forge consensus.
Phillip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations—who served in various foreign policy posts in the Clinton and Obama administrations—makes a similar point in a piece (July 1st) in Politico.eu, “How Britain stays in the EU.”
The main problem with the June 23 referendum was not its rules, or the false promises of the Leave campaign. The problem was that it offered a choice between a clear alternative — remaining in the European Union according to existing rules and the specific deal that David Cameron negotiated in February 2016 — or leaving it in favor of some unspecified, unknowable alternative. This was not a fair fight: Political scientists have long known that in any election between a specific candidate and a generic “Mr./Mrs. X,” the latter always wins. It is only when both sides are obliged to put up an actual and specific alternative that an accurate test of public preferences can be made.
The lede of Gordon’s piece is “If the withdrawal process is long and protracted, Brexit could very well end up getting reversed.” Inshallah.
12th UPDATE: Philip Abbot, professor emeritus of international public law at Cambridge University, has a must-read opinion piece (June 30th) in The Guardian, “Forget the politics – Brexit may be unlawful.” The lede: “Panic not: there are good reasons to believe the government’s decision to withdraw from the EU would not be legal, and that the UK is not going anywhere.” Inshallah.