A Perspective on Brexit: 12 months on

Following the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union just over a year ago, I wrote “Brexit: A Sleep Walk into Disaster.” You can read it here . A year on from the most unexpected and significant vote in my lifetime, it’s appropriate to return to this polarising subject. Now that Article 50 has been invoked by Westminster and Brexit negotiations have commenced in earnest, there’s no turning back. The divorce papers have been served, the lawyers have been instructed and all that remains (pardon the pun) is to hammer out the details of a potentially bitter and acrimonious deal. If that sounds unduly bleak, it’s nevertheless an accurate representation of the volatile times we’re living in. We’re deep into uncharted territory. Britain’s exit was always likely to be messy.

The highly charged and febrile atmosphere has only been heightened, of course, by yet another political miscalculation by a Conservative leader. A year has passed and we’ve been subjected to another unnecessary and unhelpful vote inspired by a misplaced sense of Tory arrogance. Incredibly, Theresa May, having initially indicated that her government would last its full term, made the catastrophic decision to ape her predecessor in calling a vote that a clear majority neither wanted or needed. As far as political miscalculations go, May’s volte face wasn’t far behind Cameron’s in terms of futility and ineptitude. The thought process was clear. Britain’s premier evidently believed that Jeremy Corbyn was too weak to mount any sort of credible challenge and that an enhanced parliamentary majority was virtually assured.

It sounded plausible enough but it didn’t quite work out like that. Corbyn proved much more durable and popular than May imagined and the Tory leader ended up losing her Westminster majority rather than augmenting it. Just like 2010, the UK was left with that most undesirable of electoral outcomes-a hung parliament. However, the context had changed so much in the intervening years that a desperate May was forced to turn to some unlikely and unorthodox allies to shore up her ailing administration. There were many Tories who’d been aghast with the Clegg coalition in 2010, but last month’s general election heralded an even more unlikely alliance. This time, the Conservatives didn’t turn to the Liberals for support but  Northern Ireland’s deeply contentious Democratic Unionist Party. Yikes!

Hardly the strong and stable environment we were promised for the critical Brexit negotiations. It’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it? And the early indications emanating from Brussels are that the discussions are going to be far from cosy and straightforward. The contrasting mood music from the competing participants is instructive, to say the least. While Britain’s negotiators have been at pains to seem all sweetness and light over the last year, Brussels’ approach seems altogether less accommodating. The British have seemed keen to present themselves as bastions of accommodation and compromise, while their EU counterparts have adopted an altogether stricter tone. All or nothing seems to be the essence of the EU’S position; as negotiators have been queuing up to tell the British that they can’t merely cherry pick the parts of EU membership that are most advantageous to them and ignore everything else. It’s not quite hard ball, but European politicians and negotiators are understandably loath to hand Britain’s leavers their wish list on a plate. Why rush to settle when you hold all the aces? Did anyone honestly think it was going to be any other way?

One might feel more sorry for May and her government if the wounds weren’t so obviously self-inflicted and avoidable. Britain’s prime minister now faces the toughest task of all: steering the UK through a time of unprecedented instability when the whole world must appear resolutely set against her. Attempting all this with no parliamentary majority and having been thrust into an arranged marriage with the unappealing DUP must be an extremely lonely place to be. How unnecessary this predicament was. If Cameron had only backed the courage of his convictions and stood up to his internal dissenters by trying to reform the EU from within, this whole unsavoury mess could have been avoided. Alas, that ship has long since sailed and we’ve all been subjected to crippling uncertainty and political chaos as a consequence.

A year ago I wrote about the law of unintended consequences and the period post the Brexit referendum has illuminated my point. While it didn’t take a clairvoyant to see that Brexit had the potential to unsettle the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, few could have predicted the remarkable way in which the Brexit vote has rekindled the debate on Irish reunification. Prior to June 23rd last year, the whole concept of Irish political unity (as it’s historically been understood) was completely off the agenda in any real and current sense. Even Sinn Féin seemed more than comfortable in their place atop Stormont’s power-sharing pyramid.

The Brexit referendum has changed that dynamic inexorably. For the first time in a generation, the Irish unity debate is firmly back on the agenda in a meaningful way. And a majority of unionists supported Brexit? Indeed, were the referendum to be reprised tomorrow, most of them would still vote exactly the same way. Maybe it makes sense to them! How Ireland will fare in negotiations is uncertain but there is no doubt that the Brexit discussions will shape Ireland’s political future in a profound way. Whether it’s hard or soft, centred on land or at sea, the Irish border is set for its biggest shake up since its creation in 1922. How the hastily arranged DUP-Tory love-in will affect these seminal issues is anyone’s guess.

The recent plethora of elections has left many cold and apathetic about Brexit and the immediate future. Increasing numbers are turning off politics. It’s easy, of course, to see European political machinations as remote and impersonal. But something extraordinarily significant and fundamental is happening over the next couple of years. And we all have a stake in it. It’s no exaggeration to state that the world as we know it is being turned on its head. Old certainties and ideologies are threatened as a new political order and arrangement presents itself. Maybe it will all work out okay in the end but nothing should be taken for granted. Everything is on the table and  it’s possible that the UK and Europe will  change dramatically over the next decade on the back of the landmark Brexit negotiations. The stakes have never been higher. I guess that’s what happens when you make yourself an unnecessary hostage to fortune. Strap yourselves in. We could be in for a very bumpy ride.

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

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Brexit: A Sleepwalk into Disaster

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union”

My alarm clock went off at 6:00 as usual on Friday morning, but the world I woke up to was markedly different to the one I left when I fell asleep. It was the dulcet tones of Conor Bradford that relayed this cataclysmic news to  me. For those unfamiliar with the broadcast journalist, Bradford is a newsreader and anchor on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme. His grand and patrician style is particularly appropriate for events of such significance. l couldn’t believe his words. Like most of us, I hadn’t seen this coming.

I’m a bit of political anorak and had spent most of Thursday evening watching the television analysis of the Brexit referendum. However, as I retired to slumber, all the meaningful early predictions and exit polls were calling a narrow but clear victory for the Remain campaign. Therefore, the mind-boggling news that the electorate had decided to end the UK’s 43 year membership of the EU came as an almighty shock. Coming from Northern Ireland, the Brexit debate has undoubtedly assumed a greater significance, given the complex dynamics of all-Ireland political and  economic structures. All of a sudden, we were facing the unsettling prospect of sharing a land border with the European Union. What would that mean for our industry and agriculture? On Friday morning, shock and confusion reigned above all else. Dismay was the prevailing emotion. The fact that Northern Ireland had voted to remain was scant consolation.

Once the shock had abated, my mind turned to a more rational analysis of these groundbreaking and unprecedented events. What did it all mean? How best to make sense of the madness? It occurs to me that whatever about the merits of the outcome, this was a decision made for the wrong reasons. My abiding impression of the Brexit fiasco is that this was a critical decision made by many without even a basic comprehension of the facts. I can scarcely recall a political debate where the campaign was so thin on information and rational argument. The Brexit referendum was a triumph of ignorance and alarmist rhetoric over rationality. There was plenty of noise, but no real substance. For a decision of such magnitude, the debate was painfully thin on detail. In fact, many people seemed genuinely confused about what they were actually voting about. Some folks seemed to think that the issue related to immigration. Although a misguided view, having regard to the EU’s insistence on the free movement of people, goods, and services, you can see how they came to that conclusion. Others strangely linked the referendum to terrorism. How bizarre! The idea that this unstable action has somehow made us safer in this volatile world must be the ultimate example of hysteria and ignorance triumphing over rational thought. The Brexit vote, it seems to me, is the result of a weird form of collective impulsiveness, individuals hastily making a vital decision without recourse to even the basic facts.

In truth, there are those who have no real interest in dealing with the facts in relation to this discussion . For events that are hijacked by such hysteria and febrile emotion, there is a form of “confirmation bias” at work here. Facts and details are consumed by a perfect storm of prejudice and preconceived ideas, sacred cows that cannot be challenged. It is my belief that the propagandists on both sides of this debate have no interest in hearing anything that remotely challenges their predetermined notions. For a debate of such fundamental importance, objectivity and emotional detachment were needed to drown out the rhetoric and emotion. Alas, the opposite appears to have been the case. As happens so often in these emotionally charged debates, individuals decide what side of the fence they’re on and then look for evidence, no matter how flimsy, to support and justify that preconceived view. That is an inherently flawed process when dealing with something so significant and fundamental.

The other curious factor was how many voters ostensibly sacrificed self -interest for  emotion.  It’s remarkable that Northern Irish farmers apparently derive over 70% of their income from the EU by virtue of the Common Agricultural Policy. And yet statistically, some of those same farmers must have voted for Brexit. In a region that is so dependent on EU finance and support, how can such actions be rationalised? And for that matter, it seems strange that the largest Unionist party supported a decision that seems, on the face of it, to be utterly detrimental to the stability and prosperity of their beloved United Kingdom. You wonder if they’ve given it any coherent thought. Maybe they want another Scottish referendum and the consequent break-up of the union they supposedly cherish?!  That’s before we even get to the dreadful miscalculation of David Cameron. The deeply flawed decision to hold this referendum is borne in arrogance and strategic senselessness. I’m no fan of Cameron and the Tory party, but I’ve always viewed Dave as an effective and clever politician; a consummate leader who  exerted an almost clinical control of an often dysfunctional and divided party. To have sacrificed his legacy, just a year after securing an impressive majority, is one of the greatest political errors of the last 50 years. Regret must be the least of Cameron’s emotions this morning.

In truth, Brexit has produced no real winners, aside from the remorselessly ambitious Boris and the eccentric, absurd Nigel. For all the well-meaning and naive talk of a second referendum, I think we’re stuck with this disaster. As someone living in Northern Ireland, we’re facing a particularly uncertain and potentially divisive time. What will the impact be in relation to our re-defined frontier? Surely there will be some form of enhanced demarcation and customs presence? No-one really knows for sure, but we’re about to find out. However, a time of great flux and uncertainty awaits the entire United Kingdom. Brexiteers. Strange term. Sounds a bit like musketeers. All for one and one for all? Not anymore following this seismic vote. Well, they’ve got what they wanted. The law of unintended consequences in all its dramatic glory. The UK has sleepwalked into Brexit. Now we all must face the consequences of this new and scary reality.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Boris_Johnson_July_2015.jpg

File:Boris Johnson July 2015.jpg

 

Twitter:@RoryMcGimpsey