An armchair reflection on a terrible week for Britain in Europe.
The last seven days have been a Septimana horribilis for those within the UK who wanted to remain in the EU and for those who thought that their football team could triumph against an island the size of Coventry. Roy Hodgson seems to have been the only public figure with a clear plan for taking England out of Europe whilst ironically ensuring that his team maintained the free movement of other Europeans within and around their own penalty area. Fiscal instability and civil division appear to be the only certain consequences of decisions that have exposed a gaping chasm in British society. Electoral polls indicate conflicting opinions between: young and old, those with degrees and those without and those in London and the devolved regions of the UK versus the hinterlands in-between. We may never know accurate polling figures for last week’s election but despite Nigel Farage’s pea-cocking in Brussels, it is unlikely that UKIP will have 16 million supporters when the nation next goes to the polls. Those who roared against membership of the EU were doing so for many different reasons, suggesting that a disparate electorate deserves a more devolved parliamentary system. An election that was about membership of an imperfect but honourable institution was eventually fought over mass-immigration and false financial claims. The great British public has spoken but what could have been done to avoid Brexit becoming the proxy stick with which so many chose to beat the government?
We can’t be shocked when democracy doesn’t give us the answers we want and should instead recognise the dangers of disenfranchisement. In 2011, the UK was given another referendum opportunity – to reform the electoral system by moving to an Alternative Vote system. Over 65% of the 42% turnout voted against this change but would this have been the case if real reform in the form of Proportional Representation had been on the table and if the campaign hadn’t fallen victim to coalition infighting? If Britain had really wanted to stay in the European Union, perhaps it should have recognised earlier the discontent felt by so many of its people and done more to give them a voice. Farage may well be a spitting image puppet on tour but he has succeeded in rallying a significant number of supporters under the UKIP banner. 3.8 million people or 12.6% of the voter turnout voted for UKIP in 2015 but only Douglas Carswell kept his Clacton seat. Compare these figures to Scotland, where a total population of 4 million are represented by 59 members of parliament. It can be no surprise that the villagers came marching with their pitchforks the next time the village hall opened its doors.
The majority of the UK’s European neighbours have in place a form of proportional representation. Rather than thwarting decision making and giving extreme minorities overwhelming influence over political decision making, this more egalitarian system ensures a greater sense of representation. The Brexit irony is that so many who voted leave seem to have done so out of some sepia tinged nostalgia for an imperial England. On Friday morning, Nigel Farage proudly exclaimed that he had ‘got his country back’ as though it was a football he’d booted over the neighbours fence. However, neither Farage, nor those echoing his victory cry really seem to know what this means. Giving political voice to the confused ideals propagated by the Leavers is not an easy solution but it is a democratic one and a PR system could have helped to include these voters in a dialogue that may have helped to avoid Brexit. Many Leavers seemed blind to the risks attached to such a significant step into the unknown but had they had earlier political opportunities to lobby against poor domestic decision making, this vote may not have been seen as the solution to all their problems.
If Boris Johnson is deemed worthy of the punishment of premiership, he will be faced with a country shorn in half by the recent election result. Many people who voted to leave have publicly stated that they regret their decision and never actually believed that their side would win. This fantastic naivety belies the deception and spin at the heart of a campaign that sought to exploit immigration fears and harness antipathy towards the Westminster elite. Brexit is a decision rooted in confusion and riddled with irony. In his address to the European Parliament and one that is ripe for ‘historical comparison’, Farage claimed Brexit as a victory for the ‘little people’, the anti-establishment, anti big-business. However, with a tanking pound and rumours about corporate withdrawals from the UK rife, one wonders how the ‘little people’ will fare if the UK enters the kind of recession that many are now predicting. The result also begs the question: when the facts are laid bare, how can the government unite such a disparate group of supporters without the amplified soundtrack of ‘Project Fear’?
The European Union is an imperfect organisation but it does embody a peaceful ideology and provide strength in numbers. On a global scale; international terrorism, climate change, dwindling resources and refugee displacement are problems best addressed together. Domestically, the current housing crisis, falling wages and fear of asylum seekers and mass immigration are not issues that Brexit will fix. Furthermore, the kind of special EU relationship that the UK hopes to share with Switzerland and Norway does not mean immunity from accepting those seeking refuge and in 2015, the UK accepted fewer than both nations above.
Ultimately, we have been the architects of our own confusion and must find a way to consolidate and reconcile ourselves with the new status quo. Earlier electoral reform may have facilitated greater political enfranchisement and thus prevented such a visceral leap into the unknown.