Monday 10 December 2018

Thoughts on Brexit

I find the whole Brexit thing very frustrating, and thought I would get some thoughts down to at least get things clear in my own head.  I'm going to try and keep this post free of partisan views as much as possible and just concentrate on the facts rather than debating whether or not leaving the EU is the right thing to do.

Brexit has been billed as one of the largest democratic exercises in British history.  But I think, however it turns out in the end, it will have failed to pass the "democratic" test for numerous reasons.

Due diligence requires that, before putting this to a public vote, people be well informed as to what they are voting on and the expected impact of each of the options.  Whilst forecasts are often not completely accurate, it does seem reasonable to at least make an attempt at forecasting the impact of each option.  Unfortunately no forecasts were produced by the government before the referendum, so the idea that people (on either side) were making an informed choice seems a bit bonkers to me.

Over the past 2 years, I've seen lots of claims that people "obviously" knew exactly what they were voting for, but if we take a critical look at what was said prior to the referendum, this seems like a very revisionist view to me.
  • In 2013, Nigel Farage, a prominant figure in the Leave.EU campaign, was advocating that the UK's relationship with the EU should be like Switzerland's.  Like the UK, Switzerland are part of the European Economic Area, and unlike the UK they are part of the Schengen Area and therefore do not operate passport checks on their boarders.  Due to their participation in the Schengen Area, in many ways they have less control over EU migration than the UK does.
  • The official "Vote Leave" campaign, along with various politicians who were involved in that campaign such as Daniel Hannan and Boris Johnson explicitly said that, following a vote to leave the EU, the UK would still have access to the EEA ("single market").
The referendum question was "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union" and these days we're being told that this was a simple question and that everyone understood that leaving the EU also meant leaving the EEA.  It sounds pretty suspect to me to claim that everyone understood this to mean the exact opposite of what most of the campaigners were saying it meant.

Anyway, so referendum done and the result was 52:48%, which is a pretty marginal thing to do.  The country was very divided, so the government needed to lead the way and bring the country back together again.  So in order to do that they told 48% of the population that their views would be completely ignored.  Disenfranchising almost half the population by writing off their views entirely doesn't sound like the best way of running the country, and seems to me to have set the government on a course that they can't possibly win.

Still having done no impact assessments and having no idea how to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, parliament then triggered Article 50 and started the UK's withdrawal.  The government's view seemed to be that we could just demand whatever we wanted and the EU would be forced to comply.  Now that it has become clear that this isn't going to work, the EU are often being painted as bullies, which is something I don't understand - it is the EU's job to look after the best interests of the remaining members, not to cut us a deal that is not in their interest.  The fact that the EU is not cutting the UK a great deal simply demonstrates the weakness of our negotiating position and has nothing to do with "bullying" - if the UK had a negotiating position that was as strong as the government lead us to believe, "bullying" from the EU would not be possible.

In the lead up to the referendum, both sides of the debate put forward a number of arguments that, at best could be considered very misleading, and at worst outright lies.  For example, the £350M/week claim that was made by the official Vote Leave campaign - Dominic Cummings, director of the campaign said all of their research indicated that they couldn't have won if they hadn't made that claim.  On top of that, campaigns on both sides of the debate have been found guilty of breaking electoral spending rules, and independent research conducted by Professor Philip Howard suggests that the illegal spending could well have tipped the balance in favour of leave winning.

I don't expect the government to cancel Brexit outright on the first sniff of misconduct during the referendum, but I do expect them to conduct research to determine whether the misconduct could have influenced the result.  So far, the government has roundly refused to acknowledge any possibility that the referendum result could have been influenced by any of this behaviour, whilst failing to actually present any evidence to support their position.

Now, assuming we're going to leave, lets examine how we can do so.

The UK joined the EEC in 1975 and over the following 40 years, numerous other agreements have been build on top of this foundation in small increments.  To my mind, the idea that you can completely remove this foundation overnight without everything that was build on top of it collapsing seems like nonsense.  The only sane way I can see to leave the EU without catastrophic collateral damage, is to leave in the same way as we entered: Start by leaving the EU but remaining part of the EEA and the various agencies and agreements that we participate in.  Then spend the next 30-40 years incrementally unpicking the tangle of agreements to gradually extricate ourselves from the parts of the EU that we want to be rid of.

There are a few, very vocal, people shouting "just leave".  Promoting the idea that we should just bomb out of the EU without any kind of an agreement to ensure an orderly withdrawal.  They remind me of some customers I have to deal with who, when faced with a problem just yell "I don't care, just fix it" despite us making protestations that "it's quite complicated".  When dealing with those customers, I can always guarantee that any problems created by "just fixing it" will be considered our fault rather than the fault of the customer for refusing to listen when we tried to explain what collateral damage may be caused.  The people shouting "just leave" never seem to be able to present a coherent idea about how they can mitigate the myriad of agreements that will inevitably collapse when their foundations are pulled from under them.  The most obvious is of course the Good Friday Agreement, the collapse of which could well lead to a reformation of the IRA, regular bombings and the breakup of the UK.

So there we go, however this turns out, this will be an utter failure of democracy:
  • Information regarding the impact of leaving was not made available to the public prior to the referendum, so there was no chance of an informed choice being made by the public.
  • Information regarding the impact of leaving wasn't made available to parliament, so there was no chance of an informed choice being made by MPs.
  • There is no way to know from the referendum result what the people who voted leave actually wanted in terms of things like EEA membership.  Never the less, the result is being used to support a course of action which is the exact opposite of what the campaigners said that voting "leave" would mean.
  • No matter how much evidence is presented to support it, any suggestion of the result being influenced by any wrongdoing is being shouted down whilst no counter-evidence is given.

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