The Brexit Mess

I’ve avoided politics in this blog until now, but my frustration with what is happening in UK has reached the point where I really want to write something down. Apologies to my readers, and I promise my next blog will be related to NLG!

I believe the UK should stay in the EU, and indeed I campaigned for this in the 2016 Brexit referendum; I also campaigned later for a “People’s Vote” (a second referendum on leaving the EU). However, I realise (in part because of my campaigning) that many of my fellow citizens have real concerns about the current situation, and I respect these, and would accept an outcome which honours their concerns whilst also respecting my views. The failure of the ruling Conservative Party to push such an outcome is infuriating (to put it mildly, I would use stronger language in private). Below I summarise how I see things have evolved over the past 3.5 years

2016: Referendum on Leaving EU (PM: David Cameron)

When the referendum on leaving the EU was announced, I decided to actively campaign to stay in the EU. The first time I have ever done this, and I quickly discovered that I wasnt very good at it. I think I’m OK at talking to people 1-on-1 about issues, but I dont have the right personality to thrust leaflets at people who are walking by me and clearly have their minds on other things.

Anyways, one thing that quickly became clear to me was that the biggest concerns that people had about EU membership was uncontrolled immigration, especially from Eastern Europe. Under the EU’s “freedom of movement” policy, citizens of any EU country can move to any other EU country. I certainly think that overall freedom of movement is a good thing, but it causes some problems, and I think those of us who favour EU membership need to acknowledge and understand these problems.

To give a bit of background, Aberdeen has always had lots of incomers from all over the world, including long-term immigrants (like me!), short-term workers (spending a few years in Aberdeen and then moving on), and visitors. If you walk through downtown Aberdeen, you’ll see people from all kinds of ethnic groups, and hear many languages spoken. But until 2005, there wasnt a dominant single group of immigrants.

Then Poland and other Eastern European countries joined the EU and started to move to Aberdeen (and other parts of UK) in large numbers. Within a few years, almost 10% of the people living in Aberdeen were Polish. Aberdeen had never seen this kind of mass migration before, and I think on the whole handled it well and welcomed its new residents. But it did cause problems, perhaps especially for people “at the bottom of the heap”, with jobs, public services, and culture.

For example, for the past 20 years I have regularly eaten at a supermarket cafe on the outskirts of Aberdeen, which is a convenient lunch place for many walks that my family does. Before 2005, the cafe staff were local people. But then the cafe transitioned to Polish workers (over time – they didnt sack anyone, they just replaced leaving locals with Poles). This was great from my perspective as a customer, because the service became much better. But it was not great for local people at the bottom of the job market, who now struggled to get a job at this cafe.

There were also problems with schools and public services. In the area of Aberdeen I live in, which is dominated by council (public housing) estates, there is one decent primary (elementary) school, and several awful schools (not just academically, kids at these schools get beaten up). The good school (where my children went) is a Catholic school, which prioritises Catholic children. This wasnt a problem before 2005, because there werent many Catholic children in the area. But after 2005, when so many Catholic Polish families moved to Aberdeen, it became much harder for non-Catholic children to get in to this school. Which meant that poor parents living in rough parts of local council estates had a much harder time getting their children into a decent school.

Last but not least, some people complained that they felt they were now living in a foreign country. Speaking personally, I remember being surprised when I started hearing customers and cashiers in our local supermarket regularly speaking to each other in Polish. And I am an immigrant myself, this kind of thing was probably a bigger shock to people who had lived in Aberdeen all of their lives.

One of my daughters had a really good friend, Megan (not her real name), who lived in a rough area of one of the council estates. Megan, her parents, and Megan’s brother and sister were squeezed into a two bedroom flat (apartment). Megan’s parents were good people who had no money, but cared deeply about their children and did their best to provide a good environment for them. Did freedom of movement (as above) make it harder for Megan’s parents to get jobs and a decent education for their children? I dont think it made a big difference, but if it hurt them in any way, then we need to explain to Megan’s family (and Megan herself, who is now a voter) why being the EU is still overall a good thing for them.

Dont get me wrong, I am a strong supporter of EU membership and freedom of movement, and Aberdeen benefitted in all sorts of ways from the influx of Poles!   And freedom of movement also gives Megan and her siblings the opportunity to work in other EU countries, which  is a real plus.   But we need to respect and address the genuine concerns that people like Megan and her family have about freedom of movement, and hence EU membership.

2016-2019: Political Failure (PM: Theresa May)

Althought Aberdeen and indeed Scotland as a whole voted strongly to stay in EU, across the UK as a whole 52% voted to leave. Which was a real blow and disappointment to me (I’d perhaps been misled by the fact that Aberdeen was strongly for staying in the EU; unfortunately Aberdeen was not representative).

Anyways, after the referendum, I thought that there would be a period of national discussion about how to proceed, which would end in either

  • UK leaving EU but staying very close to it. What is sometimes called the “single market”, “Norway”, or “soft Brexit” option. This would seem to best reflect the very close outcome in the referendum.
  • UK ending freedom of movement (which concerned many people, as described above), but otherwise staying as close to EU as possible, especially in trading relationships. This is sometimes called the “customs union” option. This addresses the biggest concern that people had about EU membership, while also respecting the views of people like me who want to stay close to the EU.

Unfortunately, there was no such discussion, indeed the new prime minister (Theresa May) seemed to pretty much ignore the “what kind of Brexit” issue, and instead repeatedly said platitudes like “Brexit means Brexit”. The Labour (opposition) MP Yvette Cooper gave an excellent speech in 2019 saying that immediately after the referendum, there was a real opportunity to build consensus and heal wounds; but the PM refused to do so. I’ll repeat one paragraph from Cooper’s speech

She [Theresa May] refused proper consultation with business, unions and the public on what kind of Brexit we should have. She did everything possible to avoid or frustrate Parliamentary votes. We’ve had more consultation on inland waterways or door closures on the DLR than on the Brexit options. Instead of reaching out, the Prime Minister has bunkered in. Instead of talking with people across the country the Prime Minister has been talking only to her party.

The PM seemed far more interested in building a consensus within her party than within the country, and showed little interest in the opinions of opposition parties, business, labour, citizen’s assemblies, etc. She made no serious attempt to heal the wounds of the referendum. If May had done these things, she would have been remembered as one of the UK’s best prime ministers. Instead, she will be remembered as mediocre at best, and possibly as one of the worst PMs in recent history.

Anyways, in summer 2018 (two years after the referendum), May finally explained the kind of Brexit she wanted, which was a “hard” Brexit that involved leaving the EU customs union and single market. I was astonished. Since business overwhelmingly wanted to stay in the customs union and the general public didnt care (no one ever complained to me about trade or customs union while I was campaigning), it seemed like a no-brainer that we should stay in the EU customs union. But as always, May was more interested in finding a solution which worked for her party than in finding a solution which was good for the country. Even at the very end, when her Brexit deal had been rejected three times by parliament, but opposition parties said they might be able to support her deal if it was changed to keep UK in the EU customs union, May refused to budge.

Another thing which infuriated me was that in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, there was strong support in parliament and in public-opinion polls for guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals currently living in the UK. People wanted to control future immigration, but they did not want to kick out EU nationals who were already in the UK! But May refused to do this, because she saw such people as bargaining chips. This is morally unacceptable, and also led to a quite a few EU nationals (including people I know) deciding to leave the UK, since their future was so uncertain, and also because they did not like being bargaining chips.

2019: Democracy Under Attack (PM: Boris Johnson)

Bad as things were, they took a sharp turn for the worse when Boris Johnson took over as PM in July. Whatever her other faults, May respected Parliament and the rule of law, and cared about the Conservative party as well as her own career. Johnson has shown contempt for Parliament by suspending it for 5 weeks against the wishes of MPs, and has effectively said that since he doesnt agree with a law passed by parliament last week, he might just ignore it. He is also purging the Conservative party of anyone who disagrees with him, and is trying to recreate it as a hard-right instead of centre-right party.

In short, Johnson is a threat to democracy in the UK.

I think I will stop here, otherwise my ranting will get out of control…

Future

What I would love to see is

  1. an election where Conservatives crash and Johnson’s political career ends. And the Conservative party either disintegrates or is reborn as a law-abiding centre-right party which is committed to democracy (ie what it used to be).
  2. a second referendum where voters are give a choice between staying in the EU and a Brexit option that makes sense, like “Norway” or “Customs Union”. Where hopefully “remain” wins, but either way the mess is resolved and we move forward in manner that makes some sense.
  3. reform of the UK political system, so that the mess we’ve seen over the past three years, and the anti-democratic stunts we’ve seen over the past month, cannot happen again.

Hopefully this is not just wishful thinking!

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