South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Kevin Rafferty says having voted to leave, Britain risks even more dire consequences if it rushes its exit from the European Union
What folly of British Prime Minister David Cameron pandering to the demands of his Conservative Party right wing to allow a simple “in or out” referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union. The country will be haunted forever by the decision, if it survives. Instead, Cameron should have asked a bright young video gamer to devise a thriller fantasy, The Deadly Curse of Brexit, in which players would dare to enter the dark caves of life inside and outside the EU. They would grapple with lying politicians, overreaching bureaucrats and greedy business executives, struggling with the evil forces of war and hatred, dreams of a better world, nationalism, recession and depression, unemployment and refugees. They would chase unicorns beckoning to a brave new world of peace that would dissolve upon touching. Players would quickly realise there is no simple “yes or no” solution to any decisions, and certainly not to the larger question of whether the UK is better off in or out of the EU.
Too late, the voters decided and the UK is going out of the EU. Or is it? Given the obvious flaws, and the destructive force of the result, influential politicians and business leaders have called for a new referendum or for the result to be ignored. There is force to their arguments. The UK is a parliamentary democracy and Parliament is sovereign. The referendum has no binding legal force. Many countries which use referendums set tough conditions, for example a 75 per cent turnout or a two-thirds majority, before the result can be binding. In the case of the UK, the turnout was 72.2 per cent, but the narrow result – 51.9 per cent for leave and 48.1 per cent to stay – masks divisions.
Given that much of the campaigning was based on exaggeration, if not lies, there is surely a case for having a second look at the implications of a hasty retreat. Having seen sterling plunge and markets shaken, some remorse has already set in. More than four million people have signed a petition calling for the referendum to be rerun.
Two main claims of Brexit leaders have already been shown to be false. The cash-strapped National Health Service is not going to get the £350 million (HK$3.5 billion) a week promised after coming out of the EU. Justice Minister and failed prime ministerial candidate Michael Gove said it would be only £100 million. And he drew back from pre-referendum promises to reduce immigration to 100,000 a year. If the UK wants a trade deal with the EU, it will have to accept the EU’s policies on migration and free movement of labour.
One of the UK’s brightest minds, Professor Danny Dorling of Oxford University, claims that austerity, not immigration, is to blame for the country’s economic woes. He writes in the medical journal, The BMJ: “The UK has been systematically underfunding education and training, increasing student loans and debt, tolerating increasingly unaffordable housing, introducing insecure work contracts, and privatising the services the young will need in future.” Immigration of “healthier than average young adults, educated at someone else’s expense” has been a net benefit to the UK’s hard-pressed economy.
Controversial TV personality Jeremy Clarkson, among others, called for a second referendum because of the economic winter that will follow an exit from the EU. But there is little chance of it happening. Brexit leaders are determined to have their victory. Dominic Lawson, son of prominent former minister and Brexit leader Lord Lawson, who lives in France, predicted in The Sunday Times that, “OK, you’re angry. But ignore the vote and tanks could be on the streets.”
The leading candidate to succeed Cameron, Home Secretary Theresa May, has converted to Brexit, though she wants to wait to invoke Article 50 until the UK has a plan. Her chief rival Andrea Leadsom wants to get on with the departure immediately. Across the English Channel, EU leaders, with the notable exception of Germany’s Angela Merkel, are wishing the UK away as fast as possible. Dublin, Frankfurt and Paris are planning to snatch financial business from the City of London.
On the British side, Leadsom suggested quickly getting new trade agreements and “upskilling” workers, as if any of these could be done with a wave of her wand, magically putting years of social and economic ties to right.
This rush by leaders who should know better is disturbing. Unravelling a 43-year-old relationship is complicated. British officials say they do not have enough experts to negotiate new trade deals with the world. Hosts of problems include the status of Britons in Europe and EU nationals in the UK, involving holidaymakers, workers in finance and industry and Premier League football superstars.
However much Little Englanders, or EU apparatchiks, might wish it, the UK cannot pull a foggy curtain to cut its island off from the world. In or out of the EU, the UK is part of Europe. Let’s get that video game made so both British and EU politicians can play it and understand the complex world they live in before taking simplistic decisions that can destroy millions of lives.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator