Steve Richards has recently published a new book: Turning Points, which explores ten critical moments that have shaped modern Britain. Some turning points are immediately apparent, such as the Brexit Referendum result on 24 June 2016; others are only obvious retrospectively. In my view, the surprise Tory overall majority in the 7 May 2015 General Election was the most significant turning point in the UK so far this century. I was more horrified by this result than with any GE before or since (my arrival in the UK, from Ireland, was in 1981,) and it started a train of events that made the Brexit result almost inevitable.
Opinion polls lent very strongly towards a repeat Lib-Dem/Tory coalition. It was immediately evident that the Brexit Referendum (the bastard child of an internal civil war within the Tory party), which I thought was a bargaining chip and likely blocked by the Lib-Dems, would go ahead. In addition, there would be a far more right-wing ideology, moving the country in the wrong direction after five disastrous years of austerity and likely a lot more corruption (remembering the Major era when the Tories last had an overall majority).
The Brexit referendum
It was the referendum that terrified me most. Referendums are very difficult for governments to win. Winning 50%+ of the vote significantly differs from the 36.8% of the vote Cameron had just achieved in the 2015 GE. Leaving the European Union was a dreadful idea on so many levels. There was, however, a large tranche of right-wing media readers such as the Mail, Sun, Telegraph and Express who have been fed lies and gaslighted for decades who would vote for Brexit, but were in a minority. Given obvious messaging, an ad hoc coalition of voters could be easily assembled such that Leave could win the day.
I am a veteran observer of Irish referendums. Ireland is now very good at referendums, but there have been disastrous ones in the past (e.g. the 1983 Abortion Referendum). Ireland is only good at them through experience (sometimes bitter). When you have referendums on average around once per year, you learn what checks and balances are needed and what works and what doesn’t. There is no such experience in the UK, and the likelihood of overcomplacency and a poorly designed one was not only high, but without proper external advice, almost inevitable.
Referendums need to be used frequently or not at all. This one also made no sense. Britain already had the best deal of any EU country. I thought leaving the EU would be in approximate order of damage:
- Potentially destabilise the peace in Northern Ireland, as it would lead to a sea border, which many Unionists, particularly those who voted DUP/TUV would detest.
- Be economically damaging. I could see no possible outcome that would be beneficial; it was just a matter of how detrimental. The likelihood was there would be anaemic growth, putting Britain in the slow lane, compared to its EU peers, for decades to come.
- Brexit would be such a fillip for the right and far-right of the Tory Party, that Leave would almost instantly move the country towards the right and probably far-right. A kind of bloodless coup. The likelihood of a left-wing Brexit (Lexit) seemed minimal to zero.
- Brexit would reduce sovereignty. The Brussels effect would ensure that Britain would become a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker, particularly in standards. Also, If you are not at the table, you are on the menu. The ability to project power overseas would be vastly diminished. Sovereignty might be increased in the narrow Juche sense, but the North Korean model seemed very unattractive.
- Talk of improved trade with the rest of the world was nonsense. Ireland, for example, is very successful at exporting from within the EU and exported around five times as much per head as the UK to countries such as China, Japan and Malaysia. The likelihood that the UK could negotiate better trade deals than the EU seemed fanciful.
- Freedom of Movement (FoM) would disappear in the event of a hard Brexit. Many Britons only saw FoM in the negative and could not distinguish between it and immigration. The ability to live and work in 30 other European countries was a fantastic opportunity. Brexit might be attractive for old people, but the young, once again, would be shafted. In any event, non-British EU citizens who moved to the UK were a massive positive, economically, culturally and socially.
- Environmental standards and workers’ protections were likely to fall.
- Areas such as fishing, farming and the automotive industry were likely to be hit particularly hard.
- Models predicted that Brexit would not only damage the UK economy but also that of its closest neighbours, in particular Ireland. As a Dubliner, this seemed a bad idea.
The last item, damaging your neighbours, may have seemed collateral damage or even welcomed by Brexiters, but it is unlikely to make friends or create goodwill abroad.
The referendum subsequently proved to be disastrous on every level. Even the day after the General Election, I thought leaving the EU was almost inevitable as the odds were stacked so firmly against Remain. I was worried that Cameron would be overcomplacent and vastly underestimate the protest vote. I had little faith, given the UK’s inexperience, that the referendum would be well-designed. I was fearful that the referendum campaign would be very poorly run and easily hijacked by malignant forces, both internal and external.
My three initial concerns were overcomplacency, underestimation of the protest vote, and the fear that protest movements could hijack the referendum. I underestimated the interference of external actors.
AV was a topic with very little salience for the general public and only produced a turnout of 42% and failed to change the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. Cameron would have been delighted as FPTP skews GE results dramatically in the Tory direction.
The Scottish Referendum was hard fought but again went in Cameron’s direction. The wrong lessons may have been learnt, and the “project fear” strategy crystalised. Brexit was an entirely different kettle of fish. Given the lack of similar referendums, opinion polls would likely be next to useless.
There is also a hubristic belief that the UK does things better than its closest neighbours and has little to learn. Cameron came across as smugly complacent and totally out of his depth. Enda Kenny, the then taoiseach, offered to help Cameron but was politely refused (The Brexit Referendum had major implications, particularly for Northern Ireland, and Dublin was not neutral, unlike the Scottish Referendum).
Never underestimate the protest vote
Even in Ireland, with a best-in-class voting system (as judged by the Electoral Reform Society), Proportional Representation (PR) with a single transferable vote, some people feel disenfranchised and view a referendum as an opportunity to give the government a bloody nose. This seems to occur totally independently of the topic of the referendum and is estimated to run to 5-10% of the electorate.
It was always likely that this effect would occur in the UK and, indeed, be amplified for five reasons.
- The antiquated UK First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system disenfranchises voters in all but a handful of marginal constituencies. In a referendum, all votes are equal.
- While Irish people grumble a lot, the economy has generally done very well. The UK’s economy has not, and especially after five years of austerity, the government was likely to be deeply unpopular in vast tranches of society.
- The Brexit Referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people to have a meaningful vote. This is a very different dynamic than averaging a referendum once per year, massively amplifying the protest vote.
- There is far more regional inequality in the UK. There have been, since the Thatcher Reforms, many “left behind” areas in the UK desperate to make their voice heard. Although Brexit would likely harm these areas most, a cry for help and the temptation to give the government a “real kicking” would be too great.
- The Irish PR system means there is fierce competition in every constituency. TDs (the Irish equivalent of MPs) need to be very responsive towards their electorate. With a safe seat under FPTP, sitting MPs can be very complacent and distant from their electorate. This is a further incentive for a protest vote.
Referendums can be hijacked by protest movements
In addition to personal protest votes, a referendum gives an opening for protest movements to organise and create an anti-referendum movement again totally independent of the actual referendum topic. Many Britions had been gaslighted for years by the right-wing press and would have been all too easily swayed by immigration and Euromyths such as “Bendy Bananas“.
Knowledge of the EU was extremely low. I suspect the vast majority of voters didn’t even know the difference between the Customs Union and the Single Market or had any fundamental understanding of the Lisbon Treaty. It’s fertile ground for conspiracy theories and other shenanigans.
The odds were stacked against the Remain campaign. The size of the natural Leave vote was insufficient to carry the day, but adding the likely size of the protest vote made a Remain result nearly impossible. It was essential that the referendum was exceptionally well-designed, and run. The design is discussed in the next instalment, “A Disastrous Referendum Design and a Fatal Flaw“, which will be published on or around 9 November.
This article was first published in Progressive Pulse.
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