Reflections on Brexit and Moving Forward

 Map of the United Kingdom displaying the results of the EU referendum via the strength of the Remain/Leave vote in each county/council area. Image Credit:  Mirrorme22  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

Map of the United Kingdom displaying the results of the EU referendum via the strength of the Remain/Leave vote in each county/council area. Image Credit: Mirrorme22 via Wikimedia Commons cc

     It has taken time for me to get my thoughts together on the aftermath of the unexpected Brexit vote. Indeed, I fully expected that the United Kingdom would retain its membership of the European Union in last Thursday’s referendum, with the result being a close one, but still being a Remain vote and the country moving forward on that basis. There would need to be national healing and reconciliation of course after such a bruising and personal campaign, but the status quo would hold and potential constitutional, political, and economic disruption would be avoided.

     However, that did not happen and the decision to leave the EU was quite a shock to just about everyone, including those who voted Leave and expected to Remain.

     To be sure, it was a clear result, narrow but clear at 52% for Leave and 48% for Remain, and it was the express will of the British people, which must be respected. Nevertheless, the result has made a divided nation ever more divided, as new rifts have opened up and existing ones further exacerbated, as the country enters into a period of uncertainty as it confronts the future.

     David Cameron has announced his resignation as prime minister in the wake of losing the historic vote and Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn has been facing calls to stand down from the leadership of the Labour Party and even threats of a leadership challenge as many of his MP’s are unhappy with what they saw as his lackluster support for the Remain campaign, and are not confident in his ability to lead the party to a general election victory – either in 2020 or sooner depending on the outcome of the Conservative leadership election.

     That very election appeared to be almost a formality with former London mayor Boris Johnson as the favorite to succeed Cameron in large part to his leading role in the Leave campaign. Yet, this has been upended by another prominent Brexiter, Michael Gove, who was expected to back Johnson, but has announced he will stand for the leadership on the basis that he does not believe Johnson is capable of uniting a fractured country. Not long after that, Johnson pulled himself out of contention for the keys to Downing Street – throwing more another lump of uncertainty into the repercussions of the referendum.

     Those repercussions include the impact on the economy; financial markets throughout the world tumbled upon the news of Brexit and the pound plunged to levels not seen since the 1980’s. Both have since become more steady since the initial first couple of days, perhaps in part due to the behind-the-scenes work by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in reassuring the markets and taking appropriate measures to promote stability and mitigate the fall-out from the vote on the 23rd.

     Still, the UK having its credit rating downgraded from (gold-standard) AAA to AA status by rating agencies who have also downgraded the UK’s economic outlook is concerning and ought to be concerning for everyone as seemingly abstract economic and financial forces have real impacts on people’s lives. In addition, much of the economy’s future will hinge on the results of UK’s exit deal from the EU and the ability of Britain to obtain favorable free-trade deals with the EU itself (with access to the single market) as well as several individual countries.

     Furthermore, there is the issue of the racist incidents and hate crimes that have occurred since the vote. To be fair, such things have happened before and are not entirely new, but given the role of the immigration issue in this campaign, it has only confirmed the view of some people that Brexit was driven by a dislike for immigrants and is not a good show for a country known for its sensible nature and general tolerance for foreigners. These incidents need to be condemned in the strongest terms and action must be taken against those causing unnecessary societal disturbances and making people feel unwelcome in a country where they have made a home, built a life, had children, and been contributing to the economy for years.

     On this point, there is the question of what happens to those non-British EU citizens who currently live, work, or study in the UK, as well as British citizens living abroad in other parts of the EU (of whom I know quite a few), and this has to be solved in a manner that is fair to all parties as well as humane, for real lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.

     In the week gone by, I’ve been concerned about all of these things as the reality of Brexit settles in on people, just as I was concerned about them before the vote. Now that it was happened and will in all likelihood be made official by Parliament and invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (to begin the official two year process of terminating EU membership), minds will be focused on negotiations that will take place and the result of them.

     There will also be a focus on the internal struggles within the UK itself, for though the UK as a whole voted to terminate its membership of the EU, London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all voted to have the UK keep its membership of the EU and the realities of a country divided were seen in stark relief on the maps displaying the results of the vote.

     The capital city, with its global financial services industry and culturally diverse population, is concerned about the effect of Brexit on its economy and ability to be a critical gateway and international hub. In Northern Ireland, there is concern over the peace process and the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – the only land border which the UK shares with another country – which in part have been underpinned by the Republic and the UK both being members of the EU. These issues will have to be resolved in a suitable manner.

     With regard to Scotland, I had hoped that with the SNP losing its majority and support for separation appearing to stagnate at best, that perhaps we had gotten to a turning point away from the inward-looking constitutional obsessions of the SNP.  Even with the Nats preparing for their summer independence campaign (a.k.a., the “Summer of Love”), it appeared that things had gone somewhat muted on the separation front. This may have been due to the EU referendum taking up much of the political space in Britain, but even then, I had a feeling that Scotland was moving forward as part of the UK with no immediate threat of another referendum and it appeared that the UK was going to vote Remain in the EU referendum – therefore avoiding further constitutional disruption.

     The surprise Leave vote has – at least for the time being – upended that prospect and the SNP has been given new life to go about its grievance-mongering and push for a second independence referendum on the basis that Scotland voted 2-to-1 for the UK to retain its EU membership while the UK overall voted to terminate it on a much more narrow vote. This was the nightmare scenario in which the SNP could complain that Scotland was being “dragged out” of the EU “against its will” due to the strength of the Leave vote in England and Wales, and then claim that this was a “material change” in circumstances from when Scotland voted to keep the UK together in September 2014. Indeed, there were many people who rejected independence back then on the basis that the UK held EU membership and Scotland did not, but may well vote the other way in a future referendum – especially if Scotland became a member of the EU in its own right or they saw independence as the means for Scotland to attain EU membership (notwithstanding the steep obstacles to EU membership for an independent Scotland, which are laid out in this blog post by my Twitter friend, Keith Steele, as well as in The Scotsman by Bill Jamieson).

     Before long, a Sunday Post poll claimed that support for separation had surged to 59% – just short of the 60% Nicola Sturgeon has cited as the number she needs for a consistent period to move forward with a second referendum and win it. But if that appeared scary, another poll by Survation reported (perhaps a more realistic) 49% support for separation and 42% support for staying in the Union, or 52%-48% when don’t knows are stripped out, which is still a ten point swing from the last time that poll was taken in April, which showed support for the Union at 47% and separation at 44%. Yet, that poll also showed that 45% of Scots opposed a second referendum in contrast to 42% in favor, which may indicate that while independence may be somewhat favorable, there is a lukewarm appetite for yet another referendum.

     Furthermore, it is totally possible that this is a knee-jerk reaction in the face of the Brexit result and that with time, any bounce for the separation cause will cool off (and it may also be of some worth to note that more Scots voted to keep the United Kingdom together on a much higher turn-out than for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU).

     Nonetheless, anyone who supports continuing the United Kingdom ought to be concerned about any polling which shows independence in the majority, or at least with more support than staying in the Union. It does no good to discount polling simply because it offers results going in contrast to one’s preferred option, for all that will do is engender a sense of denial and complacency which will prevent pro-Union supporters from fully understanding what needs to be done now and in the weeks, months, and years to come. Indeed, it was – I believe – complacency and a lack of imagination which cost pro-Union folks the 70-30 victory they had wanted to put the independence issue away for a long time.

     Of particular concern will be those who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016. There are many among that group of people who feel, at the very least, disillusioned with the UK in the aftermath of by what happened last week, possibly even betrayed. For them, there is no sense in denying that circumstances have changed and it is severely unhelpful to browbeat them by claiming that they are unpatriotic, traitors, or the like, and furthermore, they have every right to re-asses their position on the Union.

     My pitch to them would be that they should think of bigger picture with regard to the UK as a whole and not go down a path of creating more uncertainty piled on the uncertainty which already exists. Another way to put it is that current situation is precarious enough and need not be further exacerbated. Yes, you did not vote for this result, but neither did millions of your fellow citizens in Scotland and throughout the UK, and breaking up the UK will not be helpful to you or any of them. On the whole, the UK is still a better option than separation; for example, the rest of the UK and the UK’s domestic single market is of more importance to Scotland than the EU, with vastly more Scottish exports going to the rest of the UK than to the EU. Going forward, I hope this reality and other things will weigh on the counsels of people who may be thinking again about whether they support continuing the UK, and that they will take time for the dust to settle and think with a good mix of rationality and emotion to come to the conclusion that sticking with the UK is the better deal, for the world still needs the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom still needs Scotland.

     Indeed, everyone throughout Britain would do well to keep calm and take things a day at a time, especially after this referendum which proved to be so divisive, just as the one in Scotland had been to the point of causing horrible rifts between friends, within families, and young and old. The referendum and since have brought about an undeniably an ugly tone in British politics and society these days. I have see it every day on Twitter and Facebook, where people are demonized for what they believe in, shouted down and told to f**k off; where unfair accusations are made against those who hold those beliefs and where tempers flared and emotions were overflowing.

     Really, it is very sad to see the UK as bitterly divided as it is along so many fault lines. On a personal level, it has been painful and disappointing to watch friends and acquaintances from the campaign to keep the UK together going at each other over this issue and other that are related to it.

     Going into this referendum, I was concerned about the potential consequences for the economy, Britain’s standing in the world, peace and security, the impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, and the UK itself. Those concerns are true today and have been heightened by the edginess of the political atmosphere which took hold during the referendum and has been carried into the current circumstances.

     The nation needs to needs to heal itself in a big way following these last couple of years of constitutional wrangling between Scotland and the EU. Indeed, it may have been better to have held the EU referendum much later, so as to give it more space after the Scottish referendum and allow for the passions and feelings emanating from it to calm down before going onto another emotional and divisive vote affecting the constitutional structure of the country (which I believe ought to only be valid with a vast majority of the voters electing to change it).

     As with the Scottish referendum, this one was motivated by dissatisfaction with the status quo, the feeling of alienation from the political establishment, and a distrust of elites of all kinds. In many ways, those in power over the generations have themselves to blame for where we are currently, for it was they who failed to provide adequate answers to the issues of ordinary people who struggled with the effects of an ever-changing and increasingly global economy, as well as economic and societal pressures of immigration. The killing of MP Jo Cox, though it may not have been motivated by politics, still added to what has very much become an ugly atmosphere as discontent with the present system bubbled to the surface, and of course, this discontent is felt throughout the Western world, including America.

     Going forward now that the referendum has passed, everyone needs to reflect upon what has happened and go forth to work together to hammer out a just and fair settlement. In this light, it would be preferable for the SNP to be at the table of the UK team to offer assistance in these efforts, for there is a long and proud history of Scottish influence on the shaping of British diplomacy and foreign policy. My hope is that whatever happens, the United Kingdom will stay together and that people of goodwill will strive to make it a better place for everyone.

     Indeed, I must say that I love Britain. I value Britain. I respect Britain. I think highly of Britain and have given the better part of two years focused on keeping it together. I deeply care about Britain and its people, and wish nothing but the best for it in the years to come as it looks forward to its future.

     Along with Jo Cox, the beloved husband of one of my very good friends in Britain also passed away that day after a long and well-lived life. He served his country in the armed forces, and was from all accounts, a good patriot, father, husband, teacher, and all-around gentleman. Like Cox, I’m sure that he wanted was to pass on a better country and a better world to future generations.

     Their passing can be a reminder of the fleeting nature of life and the need to live our lives to the fullest extent, stop bitterness and needless violence against one another, and to work in a common effort to solve the problems we face with debates, discussions, and solutions befitting the lives they led.

     To the people of the UK, I say that in these challenging times, you need each other now more than ever. You’ve all been through so much over 300 years – fighting together to save the country from tyranny, exploring and trading with the world, exporting yourself culturally, standing up for basic rights and freedoms, pushing to advance social justice, and so much more. The centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme beginning on Friday are a testament to that.

     Indeed, you still have much more that unites you than divides you, and you need to move forward together as one country with a positive attitude and vision for the future, so as to aim for securing the best possible deal with regard to the EU and trading relationships with countries throughout the world, which means working toward a settlement which is beneficial for the UK as a whole, including its constituent parts and projecting Britain as an outward-looking and forward-thinking country robustly engaged in world affairs to help tackle the problems facing us all while taking care of its citizens at home, which are not mutually-exclusive.

     Perhaps this positive hope for the future can be expressed in the patriotic tune I Vow to Thee, My Country, which speaks of a love of country and doing good for it and the people, without malice or prejudice toward others.