Dr Helen Parr
Senior Lecturer in International Relations – SPIRE
Saturday 25 June 2016
48 hours after the referendum, the calculations made by Britain’s most senior politicians are becoming obvious. What those calculations reveal is a complacency that has led to the deepest and most irrevocable change in Britain’s politics in the post-war period.
David Cameron thought he could win the referendum. He thought this because all referenda to date have voted for the status quo. He believed it because in 1975, Harold Wilson’s Labour government won a referendum on staying in the European Community with a large majority. Mr. Cameron allowed himself to think a referendum could be won because he was under pressure from the Eurosceptic right in his own party and in UKIP.
Astonishingly, if news coming out of the remain campaign is accurate, he continued to believe, despite the evidence of the polls, that remain would win on a last minute surge, as people voted to protect their economic interests. They did not. His gamble was reckless, and the consequences are irreversible.
Boris Johnson, it would seem, probably thought he would lose the referendum. He probably thought he could play the principled ‘leave’ leader and strengthen himself to take over after David Cameron’s authority was weakened in a narrow ‘remain’ vote. He almost certainly liked the limelight he got by becoming the acceptable face of the leave campaign. His calculation may well have been decisive in explaining the vote. His affable exterior is popular and he lent gravitas, sucking some of the poison from the sense that the ‘leave’ campaign relied for its momentum on playing up fears about immigration. On Friday morning after the referendum result he looked chastened, uncomfortable, even shocked. He certainly did not act as a man who had just won the principled victory of his political career.
As for Jeremy Corbyn, by most accounts he could not bring himself deeply to care about the referendum. For Corbyn, Britain’s membership of the EU was never the most important issue. A day after Labour was defeated – for Corbyn did say that he supported remain – Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that the government should abandon its budget surplus targets and concentrate on an investment programme.
Corbyn’s calculation seems obvious. Let the Conservative Party tear themselves apart, and wait to step in with a genuinely socialist alternative. If Corbyn believes he can win a general election on the back of Conservative in-fighting, then he too is blind to all the evidence. His support amongst Labour’s membership is largely metropolitan and young, (exactly the people who voted to stay in the EU) and in the elections in May, he failed already to make gains, particularly in Scotland (who were supposed to come back to a less ‘new’ Labour party, but didn’t.)
And now the calculations of the serious pro-leave Conservatives are becoming obvious too. Daniel Hannan MEP’s appearance on Newsnight on the evening of Friday 24 June was widely quoted. He made plain what has been kept under wraps during the campaign, as Conservative Eurosceptics threw in their lot with Farage’s message of ‘take back control’. Many leavers support free movement of labour and do not envisage a significant restriction of immigration. Now, some of those same Eurosceptics want to work for a Britain outside of the EU’s political institutions, but wish to remain part of the single market. They have calculated that the referendum was the best way of getting better special privileges from the EU. It is a calculation that is on a continuum with Mr. Cameron’s moderate Euroscepticism, except that they maintain that by pulling out, they will secure the same or a better status for Britain, without having to accept a tier of government in the EU.
They have won. Their vision is now the most attractive of a series of unattractive options – none of which will be as favourable as the settlement Britain has thrown away. Nevertheless, it feels that there is no choice now but to hope that Britain will be able to negotiate status either as a Switzerland, or a Norway and member of the European Economic Area, and thus to retain free movement of goods, services and people.
But there is no guarantee that Britain will be able to do this. The complacency of the serious Eurosceptics is their belief in Britain. Partly, they believe that the strength of Britain’s economy would make it impossible for the EU to rupture its free trade with Britain; partly they believe in British financial services, technological innovation and much vaunted ‘creativity’; and partly they believe that Britain, because of its imperial and wartime history, and – in another paradox, its unbroken parliamentary sovereignty – is different to the continental European countries.
They have disregarded the potential force of what a ‘Brexit’ might do in domestic constituencies of EU countries, as the far-right leaders Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders, and others, celebrate leave’s victory. They have disregarded too the core of Britain’s foreign policy in the post-war period: that Britain always wanted European integration to work, as the best way to preserve peace and stability; and that Britain’s influence in the EU, and the world, depended on Britain’s full participation in the EU’s institutions.
It is still not clear how the EU can now play the ‘Brexit’ negotiations. Angela Merkel is urging caution, but the statements by the leaders of the European Parliament and the European Commission, as well as the special meeting of the six founding states suggest that they want Britain to hurry up and leave. They are fed up with the amount of time this ‘internal rift in the Tory party’ has taken up. Goodwill takes time to build, and the EU have put up with Britain’s renegotiation and referendum because they wanted to keep Britain in. In addition, the EU cannot risk the unravelling of its own structures by appearing to acquiesce to Britain’s demands for special status on the outside.
This is a political crisis of enormous proportions and we should not forget that this is happening because of a political misjudgement. Britain has voted for something that it cannot revoke. Exactly what post-exit settlement it can get is, to a large extent, out of Britain’s hands. Membership of the EU was the backdrop of our economic, social and political lives for the last 40 years. We can’t know what will happen next.
Dr Helen Parr is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her research focuses on contemporary British history and British foreign policy, particularly towards the European Community in the 1960s and 1970s. She has published widely in these areas, and is currently working on a history of the Falklands War. More on Helen’s research can be found here.