Monday, 27 June 2016
There is an inherent risk in trying to evaluate any moment of historic import so soon after the fact. Only the passage of time will truly determine the full impact of the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union, but even at this early stage the sheer gravity of the situation is becoming clear: both institutions face a very real existential threat in the coming years.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has resigned. The Pound Sterling has fallen to its weakest value in thirty years in the largest single-day drop for decades. The markets have crashed, jobs are already being taken out of London, and the complete break up of one of the world's oldest and most historically significant nations, as well as the most successful supranational entity in all of human history, may be on the cards. This is just the first day after the vote.
Credit outlook downgrades, the Calais Jungle moving to the UK, the Leave campaign admitting it can't follow through on any of its promises? That's day two. The Shadow Cabinet resigning, protests all over the UK and calls for a constitutional crisis? Day three. Yes, it appears all the "scaremongering" predictions that Brexit voters were so keen to ignore are indeed coming to pass. Two days and the country is already in turmoil, unfortunately we're not done yet, not by a long shot. "Project Fear" is starting to look more like "Project Understatement of the Century". It's too late to go back and change that now, all we can do is look at what lies ahead.
The Fall of the European Union
When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, what's going to happen? The EU needs the economic strength of the UK, and the UK needs access to the single market. The obvious mutually beneficial answer is to strike some kind of a sweetheart deal along the lines of the agreements that currently stand with Switzerland and Norway.
The danger the precedent that this would set in Europe. The UK is not alone in euroscepticism at the moment, and if they manage to withdraw and strike a deal that allows them to retain most of the benefits of membership without the commitment, then why in the world wouldn't the likes of the Netherlands or France try to do the same? A successful Brexit could start a domino effect that in all probability would result in the devolution of several of the EU's most developed nations, a setback from which the Union can not possibly recover. There is no easy answer to this. If the EU gives the UK what they want, the EU will face a serious existential threat. Yet if they make an example of them, the economic consequences for both entities could be dire which might plunge all of Europe into recession. The question is whether a balanced solution can be found.
But even if the EU doesn't completely unravel, which it could well do, the fact still remains that one of its core members has left. Europe is divided again for the first time in decades. Whatever happens from here on out, the dream of a united Europe, that so many have fought for through history, is broken.
The Fall of the United Kingdom
Already calls are being made for a second vote on Scottish Independence. Scotland voted emphatically to stay within the EU. That they are being forced to leave anyway by Westminster confirms all the worst fears of the Scottish Independence movement. I used to be a passionate advocate of Scotland remaining in the UK, but now even I would support their independence. It is not right that a whole nation of people should have so little right to self-determination that so consequential a result as leaving the EU can be forced upon them in spite of near unanimous opposition. This is the opportunity that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have been waiting for, the single greatest chance Scotland will ever have for independence, they will certainly try to take it.
It's the same story with Northern Ireland, who voted resoundingly to stay in the EU, but now face having their will overridden by the English. The Irish situation is even more perilous since leaving the EU will necessitate a hard land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a move that is certain to provoke old tensions between the two. This is a major problem. Decades of work, of violence and suffering, a hard fought and hard won peace between the Unionists and Republicans, it could all be about to be undone by Brexit. Irish reunification talks are now set to reopen, paving the way for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join ROI in order to remain a part of the EU.
Might that even not be the end of it? What of Gibraltar, who voted 95% to stay in the EU? There has even been talk of London independence! After all, London essentially props up the rest of the UK with its huge amount of tax revenue, and now as thanks the rest of the UK has voted to trash London's economy, and are forcing that result upon them against the will of 75% of London voters. Why give away all that revenue to a country that clearly doesn't care about London's interests?
This vote has left the UK more divided than it has ever been, as whole regions find themselves being dragged out of the EU against their will. It looks increasingly inevitable that, at a minimum, both Northern Ireland and Scotland will seek independence referenda in the coming years. If this happens, Scotland will almost certainly vote to leave the UK, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Northern Ireland followed suit. London meanwhile looks set to seek special status to allow separate ties with the EU.
I would simply ask the Brexit supporters this: if Scotland and Northern Ireland break away from your newly "independent" UK, effectively bringing an end to the Kingdom, was it all still worth it?
The End of the UK's economic Golden Age
Even putting aside the very real threat of geopolitical fracturing of the UK, what of the economy? Barely two days later and the markets are crashing, the currency is worthless, jobs are leaving, and our credit outlook has been downgraded. Is this all an overreaction, or is there more still to come?
Unfortunately this is rolling out exactly as predicted by the much maligned "experts". There is nothing irrational about it, the UK is a much less attractive prospect for investment than it was a few days ago, and that will have dire consequences for everyone in this country.
One of the lines most frequently used, ironically, by the Leave campaign, was that the UK is a rising power, a new economic juggernaut at the centre of global commerce. This is all true; London's, and by extension the UK's economic development in recent years has been astonishing, described as an economic Golden Age for the country. What they evidently failed to realise is that this enviable position is a direct result of the UK's unique position as the world's gateway to Europe. English language, stable, secure country, close cultural and political ties to America, and where American money flows, so flows they money from East Asia and the Middle East.
The UK had found itself in the perfect position to be one of the world's centres for business, but without European access that all goes away, along with the UK's new Golden Age. We had the opportunity to place ourselves at the centre of the global market for a generation to come, and now we've just pissed it away.
David Cameron's big gamble
The ridiculous thing? None of this had to happen. The man who called the referendum, David Cameron, didn't even want it to pass, and never for a moment believed that it would. This was a referendum called as an afterthought, a token gesture to a certain demographic.
Flash back to 2015 general election. David Cameron's Conservative party won an outright majority for the first time, having spent the previous five years in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. At the time this came as a huge shock. None of the polls predicted it, conventional wisdom held that a coalition was an inevitable outcome, with Ed Miliband slightly favoured to be the next Prime Minister.
So in a moment of desperation, faced with the prospect of losing power, or at best having to share power with the nationalist UKIP, David Cameron hatched a scheme, as legend has it while eating at the Chicago Pizza Kitchen at Logan Airport, to bring those nationalists (xenophobes) under the Conservative banner. That plan was the EU referendum. Cameron didn't believe in it, and he certainly didn't think there would be any appeal except to a small demographic. It was a low risk gimmick that promised to boost him a few seats in the next election.
In retrospect, this shortsighted, yet seemingly insignificant powerplay would prove to be the end of his career, and a blunder of historic proportions. There is something almost Shakespearean in the way that Cameron's blind power-lust has led to his own ruin. Barely a year later, he had lost the vote and lost his job. Even worse, he effectively wrote his own legacy. No matter what else he has done during his time as Prime Minister, he will be in the history books as the man who broke the European Union, and maybe the man who broke the United Kingdom, a nation that had survived centuries of conflict and change, two world wars, and now has been undone by a greedy, foolish man eating pizza. Think Neville Chamberlain has it rough in the history books? Just wait.
So what now?
This is the million dollar question. The UK doesn't officially withdraw from the EU until it invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, at which point it will have two years to negotiate its exit. The referendum is only advisory, it does not legally bind the country, so that responsibility will fall to Parliament.
Parliament's ratification is considered to be a formality. For a liberal democracy to reject the popular vote of a referendum would be simply unthinkable and lead to a serious constitutional crisis. Technically it is possible for the left wing parties and a small Tory rebellion to block Brexit, but the outcry would be considerable, and few MPs would be willing to go along with it, even those who want to remain the EU.
Still there are hurdles to cross before that Article gets invoked. First, the terms of Cameron's resignation, which states that he will remain in power until October, and only after that point will his successor move forward on leaving the EU. It shouldn't escape notice that previously Cameron had insisted he would pull the trigger instantly. His delaying tactic might just be one last Hail Mary designed to prevent Brexit. Just look at how the economy has struggled in just a few days; by the time October rolls around, the full catastrophic impact of Brexit will be felt, and public opinion might even be turning the other way. Who would be brave enough to go through with this when it's unpopular and tanking the economy?
Then there's the additional complication of a likely early general election, which Boris Johnson has indicated he would call upon being appointed leader of the Conservative party. If an opposition Government takes charge, who's to say they will stick with the result of a referendum they had nothing to do with? Going further, it's likely we will see EU policy take a central roll on manifestos, perhaps even opening the door to an opposition party taking power with a specific mandate to block Brexit.
So in other words no one knows. No one knows what party will be in charge, what platform they will have been elected on, and what the national conditions at the time will be. It's far from certain even that Brexit will happen. We are entering uncharted territory, and the country has perhaps years of crippling uncertainty to look forward to.
So once again, it is clearly problematic to try and evaluate a moment of historic import so soon after the fact. But David Cameron's unnecessary gamble has just broken the EU, and may yet break the UK, with referenda on Scotland and Northern Ireland sure to follow at a minimum.
The UK's new economic Golden Age appears to be dead in the water just as it was beginning, and will certainly lose its status as the centre of global commerce. Europe is divided once again. We are all entering a long period of sustained uncertainty, and no one knows what the political landscape of the country, or indeed the continent will look like once the dust has settled.
It will surely go down as one of history's legendary moments of over-confidence and folly. That's some legacy Mr. Cameron.