I’ve recently returned from spending over three months travelling the length of Britain. It’s a long time, time enough to listen and observe and try to work out just what is going on over there.
The conventional wisdom – and certainly the perception we pick up here in New Zealand – is it’s all about migration. The true picture is somewhat more complicated.
When a slim majority of Britons voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union, it’s fair to say that not one in 100 would have known quite what they were voting for – or against. To use a weather analogy, it was a cloud of confusion. That cloud has not lifted; if anything it’s got thicker and murkier, only this time with thunder and lightning and winds taking people this way and that. It is not helped by the virtual civil war going on within the Conservative party.
The migration aspect is certainly part of the story. In recent years, a booming economy has attracted hundreds of thousands of people. Inevitably, this has resulted in more competition for jobs, and – as in Auckland – real pressure on house prices. As is often the case with migration, there is also a resentment and suspicion of “Johnny Foreigner”. There is a sense that exit from Europe would mean that Britain could have greater control over migration.
But it’s easy to overplay the importance of this. There is a bigger picture, one centred on the loss of control, and loss of identity and influence.
Let’s start with the loss of control. For many Britons, of both the left and right persuasions, “Europe” equals “nanny state bossiness”. They don’t like the mess of rules and regulations that have grown up over the years as the European project of integration gets further and further entrenched. They don’t see the benefit of these rules, such as the lower costs from harmonisation of standards, instead, they see a diminished ability to do as they please. In their view, leaving Europe means less bureaucracy. In particular, leaving Europe means taking back power. Given the mess that British politics has been in for a couple decades, the irony is inescapable.
My sense is that there is an even deeper issue for the ‘Brexiteers’, and that is their perception that Britain has lost its status and influence in the world. Britain may still be the fifth-largest economy in the world, by nominal GDP, a major player with a huge cultural influence, but many don’t see it that way. Britain had an empire, it had the world’s largest Navy in the early 20th century, and it invented everything from football to the Concorde to the Beatles. But try telling that to many people in the UK. Britain doesn’t count anymore, they say. Our cars are made in Japan and Korea, our TV shows more often in the US, our music industry no longer sets world trends. Let’s “take our country back”, and magically we will once again be listened to and respected.
Of course, a large number of people don’t see it that way. And it’s increasingly the case that a significant number of people who voted for Brexit are beginning to realise just what it will cost the UK, not just financially but in terms of influence and a major economic and political bloc. Tellingly, younger people by and large voted to remain – they are comfortable with Britain’s role and its “soft power” influence, they love the ability to travel to and from Europe seamlessly, building careers, working and living. And they are not happy that they, the inheritors of the future, are going to be disadvantaged by older Brexit-supporting people who won’t have to live in that poorer future.
So where will it end? It’s coming down to three possible outcomes. The current strategy of the British cabinet is the “soft Brexit" of a negotiated settlement. But as the days and weeks roll-on, that is looking harder and harder to achieve – or more accurately, that Europe is conceding less and less and Britain is having to concede more and more. Even achieving some sort of customs union comes with all sorts of compromises.
If the negotiations fail, Britain will crash out of the EU with no agreement – the “hard Brexit”. Many on the right would love nothing better than that. Then we can strike trade deals with whoever we like, they say. The immediate riposte: why would any country give Britain a better deal than they would give the EU?
Perhaps the most intractable issue is the latest version of the “Irish question” – if Britain is not in a customs union, then there has to be some sort barrier between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, which for fairly obvious reasons raises demons from the past that virtually nobody in Britain wants to do.
So I believe there is a third possibility – that Britain actually reverses its decision, and decides to remain. Looking at the media and from talking to people, I picked up a strong sense that many who voted for Brexit would be quite happy to stay if some of the more onerous rules and regulations can be changed - there is a strong sense that the EU does need some form of reform. If that could occur, it seemed to me that the majority of Britons would see the benefits of staying. They want to have influence, and staying gives Britain the best chance of doing just that. The British Parliament has already indicated its strong preference to have the final say in whatever the government negotiates. If the outcome of the negotiations is in essence, to still leave Britain subject to lots of rules and regulations, including free movement of people, a majority of MPs may come to the conclusion there may be little point in having the worst of both worlds: not in Europe, but subject to the regulations. Let's just stay in, they'll conclude and ignore the referendum. Parliament, which after all has the last say, can and may do just that.
Britain remains in the EU. Remember, you read it here first!.