The recent referendum on the whether or not Britain should leave the EU has captured the imagination of those with any interest in public affairs wherever they may live. It is being cited as a part of a pattern of international events, things including for example; the rise of Donald Trump in United States public life, and the failure of the Liberal Coalition to secure an election night majority in Australia. It is seen by some commentators as an electoral revolt throughout the western democracies against the established political order by people who think their votes no longer count in the democratic process. Others in the commentariat are horrified to even contemplate that Britain might withdraw from the EU characterising in advance anybody who might vote for exit as racist, homophobic, anti-immigration and “little Englanders” (it never occurs to these people that to characterise 51.9% of all British people and a good deal more English and Welsh people in this way that if their silly bumper stickers mean anything they should be applied to themselves). On the other hand those who voted to remain the commentators say sensibly listened to the warnings emanating from Whitehall that should the leavers carry the day; the economy of the country would suffer irreversible damage, the share market would go into a sustained free fall, the pound would suffer a severe and sustained loss of value. Britain it was said would be alone in a hostile world without trading partners, and European security so painfully secured since the end of the war by the gradual dissolution of the sovereign states would be fatally compromised. These were weighty considerations coming as they did from a range of international experts even President Obama weighed in on the side of the remainers and warned Britain that if it voted to leave it would “go to the back of the bus on trade issues.” Quite what he meant by that is unclear but it must have sounded ominous to the voters. Then there was the threat of Prime Minister Cameron that if pensioners voted to leave he would take away their free bus passes and TV licence concessions. Not to mention the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s threat that if the leave vote won he would raise taxes. If any of that were remotely possible or true it is a wonder that anybody voted to leave.
The astonishing thing is that millions of ordinary English and Welsh people saw this for the sham it was; scare mongering by the great and the good to retain a system which suited them, and instead voted “out.” And as events soon demonstrated they were right to reject the official case to remain, and ignore the threats: The share market recovered not within weeks or months but within three trading days, the UK economy remains the fifth strongest in the world. As to the demise of Britain’s trading prospects this is laughable and evidences a total lack of any historical perspective. Britain has been trading with the world for a rather long time. The Eastland Company was established in the thirteenth century to trade firs with the Baltic States later maturing into trade with the North German Hanseatic League throughout the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The English East India Company was incorporated by Royal Charter on December 31 1600 and began as a Company of Merchants of London Trading with India and South East Asia, later expanding its reach into China in the 19th century. Britain (or England if Scotland goes) will not allow itself to become isolated in the world of commerce. To the contrary it is membership of the EU which has prevented Britain from pursuing trade links with its historic trading partners around the globe including for example: Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. If the EU introduces some swinging diktat forbidding any member country to trade with Britain except on prohibitive terms then it is Europe which will suffer as the balance of trade between Britain and the EU is massively in favour of the Union. Perhaps Mr Juncker might want to cut off his nose to spite his face but it is unlikely any of the member countries will. Traders worldwide pay little regard to politics in making their decisions; if it sells at a profit and the buyer has the means and morality to pay, trade will continue, and woe betide the politician or bureaucrat who gets in the way. As to the demise of the pound it is recovering from the temporary shock and will soon be governed by the usual currency considerations which determine value. European physical security, another of the remainers’ bogeys has never been secured by any of the post war collective European political arrangements from the time of the 1951 European Coal and steel Community (comprising France, the Netherlands, the Benelux countries Germany and Italy) down to the European Union of today. None of these trading block has ever had armed forces. It is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) largely funded by The Unites States of America which has secured The EU boarders, and Britain will remain a fully paid up member of that organisation.
So having seen through the wilful deceit of much of the “Remain” campaign exhortations what persuaded the ordinary voter to opt to leave the Union. In my view it can be summarised in one word; sovereignty or more accurately the loss of it.
In contrast to Germany, the powerhouse of the EU which became a sovereign state in 1871, England has been a sovereign nation pretty much within its present boarders since the Scandinavian Norman (note not French) Conquest of 1066, Ireland was added in 1171, and the conquest of Wales was complete by 1283. Scotland after much Anglo Scottish warring formally became part of Greater Britain by the Act of Union of 1707. So Winston Churchill was correct to observe when defying Hitler in 1939 that “we are a very old country;” one which has been deciding its fate and for a time between 1600 and 1945 much of the shape of the rest of the world, without external interference from others. In addition it has been a Parliamentary democracy governed by the Rule of Law since 1649 (some would say 1215 on the signing of Magna Carta), when Charles I bet his head on the divine right of kings and lost. Of course it was not until the nineteenth century that the voting franchise became universal but the countries which make up Great Britain (except the Republic of Ireland which became independent of Britain in 1922) have had a single sovereign Parliament at least for the past 367 years. In that time the country developed a sophisticated legal system which is the envy of much of the world. Its Parliament structures are to be found around the globe in countries large and small mostly courtesy of the days of Empire and it is still referred to as the Mother of Parliaments. After three Hundred years or so these arrangements are firmly embedded in the English genes and it would seem the Welsh, but not so a majority of the Scottish. It has long been a fraught relationship and there is no love lost between the two. As the recent Scottish referendum and the threat of another would indicate many in Scotland no longer wish to remain as part of the United Kingdom. So be it, but that says nothing about the English/Welsh attachment to their sovereignty. It is a long time since I learned history at school in the United Kingdom but I have no reason to doubt that the Island story is still told in the classrooms and that it is embedded deeply in the nation’s psyche. This is something that many in the commentariat are quite unable to understand. Their horizons are limited to the here and now and largely their own self-interest. The notion of a sovereign state and all that entails is alien to most of them.
It was this heritage that Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath put at risk when he took Britain into the European Common Market in 1973 (earlier applications made in 1963 and 1967 were vetoed by France’s President De Gaulle because he doubted Britain’s political will to remain a member-how right he was). Britain’s membership has long been unpopular with a section of the UK public. Their champion was Margaret Thatcher who went to Brussels and “recovered some of “Britain’s money” giving Jacques Delors a hand bagging for good measure prompted the popular tabloid headline of “up yours Delors”, accompanied by a well understood Churchillian hand signal. The payments which Britain makes to the EU remain a contentious matter and are variously calculated at between six and sixteen billion pounds per annum depending on how one calculates the benefits flowing from the EU to Britain. It is impossible to do this because the Brussels bureaucrats refuse, without any sanction to publish audited accounts as they are required to do by the EU Constitution.
As the EU became more entrenched behind its massive bureaucracy and toothless “Parliament” it emitted a steady stream of directives which for whatever the motive became increasingly unpopular in the UK affecting more and more the daily lives of ordinary people. There can be no doubt that if questioned the response would be that this interference is part of the price of membership of larger Europe, cold comfort if you can no longer buy you fish and chips in newspaper. If the niggles remained only at this level then it is doubtful that Prime Minister Cameron at the last election would have found it necessary to offer a public referendum on membership to placate the mounting unease about Britain’s continued EU membership among many of his back benchers, and as it turned out some of his cabinet colleagues. But of course there were far greater issues than the petty niggles about straight bananas, a pint of beer, and cucumbers. As the EU grip tightened on its member states each lost control of the ability to legislate in what it considered to be its own public interest in a number of areas such as social policy and employment, and for those in the EMU, but not including Britain (economic and monetary union) even to control their own economies. The Greek shambles is a logical outcome of the central control of the economies of countries which have little in common with each other socially, politically or economically but are forced to accept the dictates of Brussels. Of equal concern to Britain it lost control of its courts, and the decisions of its Supreme Court (The previous House of Lords) became subject to the decisions of the European Court of Justice in areas over which the EU has legislated. The European Court comprises 28 Judges appointed for six years. These terms of judicial appointment infringe what has been a main constitutional tenet of British law that Judges are appointed during good behaviour and it requires an address from both houses to remove them. This has long been a necessary safeguard to the independence of the judiciary but quite lost on the EU. The Court sits as a panel of either three, five or fifteen and as early as 1964 it established the principle of the primacy of Community law over domestic law. The net result is that if there is a long standing decision of the UK courts at the highest level which will have settled the law for all it can be, and often is overturned by the European Court if that decision does not accord with EU law. Decisions of the EU Courts must be implemented by a member state and there are sanctions for not doing so.
The combination of an inability to legislate for its own people and the loss of judicial independence effectively removed British sovereignty from the British people in an ever growing range of public policy areas and submerged it in the Brussels bureaucracy. In short for the first time in 368 years Britain ceased to be a sovereign state governed by the Rule of Law as understood in that country (and a number of others). It is unsurprising that possibly without being cognisant of the detail, the ordinary Englishman or Welshman understood that a massive constitutional shift had taken place and they wanted none of it. The result was a powerful affirmation of the common sense of ordinary men and women to set aside their own self-interest and vote in the greater public interest. To accept there might be short term downsides to their decision such as trade and possibly travel restrictions but nevertheless be able and willing to consider, and act on the matters of wider public interest.
As our cousins across the Tasman have found the ability control who comes to live in one’s country is an important ingredient of sovereignty and something the public takes very seriously. All western economies suffer from degrees of unemployment and shortages of essential services and housing. So any new migrant will at least for a time add to those numbers and stresses. When Mr. Abbott promised to and did regain control of Australia’s borders he found a ready electoral response and swept to power on the back of it. His replacement as leader of the Liberal Party was careful not to disturb that policy. The situation in Britain – mostly England – is far worse and has been for many years. Immigration on a substantial scale from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean began after the war and has continued apace. When one adds the numbers of migrants from African countries, the Middle East and more latterly the EU countries there are now an unknown number of migrants both legal and illegal living in Britain – mostly England. Certainly Mr Cameron’s promise to restrict the numbers to 200,000 a year has been woefully wide of the mark. All of this before the current Middle East refugee crisis took hold (one million refugees and economic migrants into Germany alone last year). All attempts to renegotiate the basis on which EU migrants can come and work in the UK have been rebuffed by the EU Commissioners, and being the haven of relative peace and prosperity that it is, the numbers are set to rise exponentially if, for example, Turkey becomes a member state. The strain on the British taxpayer and on the services it provides has become intolerable and while every allowance is made for the contribution which some migrants make to the economy and society when to this is added the security threat presented by Islamic terrorism – all of it imported – it is clear beyond argument that Britain must regain control of its boarders.
Given the urgency of finding a solution to this problem before the face of Britain is changed beyond recall it is a wonder that so many people voted to remain. They seem to have fallen into a number of categories: Those who genuinely believe against all the evidence that for all of its problems the EU is the way of the future. Those who were frightened by the Whitehall propaganda, and snide attacks upon the leavers – David Cameron described those who voted for the United Kingdom Independence Party as being “fruit cakes and racists.” Those who don’t care either way and out of inertia voted for the status quo. Then there those who think they have something real and personal to lose if Britain leaves the EU. This latter group comprises all of those who are doing nicely thank you out of membership of the EU and damn waffly notions such as loss of sovereignty, and the Rule of law.
On the day of the referendum the British Broadcasting Corporation published a map of Britain and as the results came in coloured the areas where each side succeeded; “leavers” blue and the ”remainers” yellow. When voting was complete most of England and Wales was coloured blue except for London and the stock broker belt to the north which is within easy commuting distance from London. This outcome is unsurprising. In a very funny but well researched recent book “One Thousand Years of Annoying the French” Stephen Clarke opined that there are over four hundred thousand French people alone living in London and most of them are young professionals. To this must be added the nationals of the other EU countries, not to mention Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians (the governor of the Bank of England is one), Americans, South Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, and all the rest of the young adventure seekers, the resultant number is substantial. Of course youth wants the world at its feet, lots of travel, good jobs wherever they may be found, a security net when things go wrong, and a stable democracy in which to work and play. Certainly if one looks at the woad painted faces of the demonstrators pressing for another referendum (as Boris Johnson said it is not the best of three) they are mostly young people. Their votes must be and were counted but one does wonder how much they were actuated by purely hedonistic and short term considerations rather than give any thought to the long term damage they along with others will suffer if sovereignty and the Rule of law is fatally undermined in the United Kingdom.
The will of the people
The people have spoken and – if Scotland with its increasingly tenuous connection with the United Kingdom is removed from the equation – spoken decisively. It now remains for Parliament to give effect to those voices and take Britain out of the EU. It is unthinkable in a democracy that some elements in the Parliament will seek to water down the clear mandate they have been given or obstruct an early withdrawal. Those other countries within the EU which are currently stirring uneasily under the dictates of the Brussels bureaucracy will be watching the outcome carefully, as no doubt will be the other great democracies.