Since the EU referendum, I am often asked if other parties should trade with, visit and study in the UK. My answer? Stay awayby AC Grayling / March 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
Since the European Union referendum of 2016 I have visited the United States, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, the UAE, and a dozen of our EU partners.
Across their diverse audiences, one question came up again and again: what attitude should these countries, their politicians, businesspeople and intending students take to the UK in its present post-referendum guise.
Should they sign agreements with the UK? Should they trade, visit, study with us?
It has been a bitter experience finding that, in the interests of truth, I have had to say: stay away. Don’t trust the UK while it is in this condition.
I said this for two reasons. One is that the UK is, compared to most modern European democracies, a politically dysfunctional state, with an unreliable political order.
The problem is not just the government, which is hostage to its own profoundly toxic internal party political problems, but the whole machinery of politics, for the chief opposition party is no better, and the two main parties keep in existence an outdated system of elections and governance in their own party-political interests—a system that is serving the country very ill.
Agreements and treaties with governments formed from this political order—whose tribalism and self-obsession blinds it not only to national interests but to the interests of partners, including the EU—makes the current UK a poor bet as a partner in any arrangement.
The second reason is that the EU referendum has exposed deep-lying problems in society, especially English society, relating to xenophobia, introversion, a prevailing sense of historical unreality, a dangerously distorting popular media, and a poor general level of understanding among Britons of Europe and the world.
Our fellow Europeans who have lived, worked, raised families and paid their taxes in the UK for decades have been shocked to find how fragile is the welcome they thought they had, and how selfishly disregarded their contribution to the UK’s economy, culture, health service and education system has proved to be.
If one is to be rigorously honest about today’s UK, one would not advise anyone to come and live or study here, or trade with us. In short, we should be put into purdah until we have sorted ourselves out.
Consider the EU, and the UK in it. Conduct the following experiment: look at a couple of minutes of YouTube footage of Europe in 1945. Look at a couple of minutes of YouTube footage of Britain in the 1970s. Look at the growth in British GDP since the beginning of EU membership.
These three tasks can be completed on the internet in under five minutes. It might take a little longer to note how, as one of the big nations in the EU, British influence on the world stage has been potentiated. Consider how small a country we would be if outside the EU, and poorer.
“Europeans who have lived in the UK for decades have been shocked to find how fragile their welcome is”
Then spend a few minutes looking at the institutions of the EU and how they operate. They are far more democratic than in Britain, with a tiny civil service for the entire EU compared to Britain’s massive bureaucracy.
Finally, look at Europe’s post-1945 reconstruction, peace, sharing of standards, the overall growth in the economies of all member states, and such examples of common purpose as shown in the management of significant Eurozone teething problems in the southern member states. Put these things together and draw some inferences.
Hostile eyes will search out the inevitable problems and challenges of such a great, imaginative and ambitious project as the EU; truthful eyes will see it as an extraordinary achievement, from which the UK has benefited greatly.
I start with this point because “Euroscepticism” and tabloid hostility has for decades done everything it can to distort, disguise and poison British attitudes to the EU—to the point where the various groups of “Leave” voters on 23rd June 2016, even those who were not voting about the EU but just using the opportunity to protest at Conservative government austerity policies, could feel that the EU was dispensable. What a travesty, in light of the facts.
Moreover, an honest reader will have to admit that there was no reason to hold a referendum on EU membership in the first place—other than as an attempt to placate the relentless hostility of the right wing of the Conservative Party, which has made life perennially difficult for successive Conservative leaders. (An ancillary reason was fear that Ukip would take some votes from the party.)
There was no problem with the EU or the UK’s membership of it that prompted a rethink. On the contrary: the UK has an excellent membership deal, having been granted many concessions by fellow-EU states to placate the bilious reluctance of the British political right, in a generous effort to give the UK time to get over its nostalgic and profoundly erroneous post-imperial self-image, and to grow up into the modern world.
What’s more, once it was called, the referendum was poorly thought-out and managed. It was stated both in briefings to MPs and in parliament itself that it was advisory, consultative, non-binding on parliament or government.
The electorate enfranchised for the referendum consciously excluded groups of people with a very material interest in the outcome—groups for whose inclusion there was a precedent in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, namely 16-17 year olds, citizens of other EU countries resident in the UK, and many UK expatriates.
In the event, 37 per cent of that restricted electorate voted Leave. It is startling and extraordinary that this fact carried no weight whatever with British politicians, who did not ask themselves: is just over a third of those entitled to vote a sufficient quantum for major constitutional change, together with a loss of a number of significant citizen rights for all?
Note this: it takes 40 per cent of the total membership of a trade union to trigger a strike. It takes 66 per cent of all MPs to trigger a general election outside a parliament’s term. The idea of a threshold or a supermajority is therefore not alien to our system.
It happened that 51.9 per cent of votes cast on the day were for Leave. If that figure had been 51.9 per cent of the total electorate it would still not be enough for constitutional change of this significance. What has happened to our political order that those who manage it, and most of the rest of population with them, refuse to see this?
“The government seeking election to power on a Brexit ticket lost its majority: what clearer message than that could be given?”
How the referendum vote was treated is a stark symptom of something very wrong in our politics. It was a naïve reaction, a hasty one, as thoughtless and crass as holding the referendum in the first place.
We have, technically speaking, a sovereign parliament in the UK, and as the body with the sole authority to decide what to do about the referendum outcome it should have assembled to reflect upon and debate that outcome—to see whether it should accept the “advice” proffered by 37 per cent of the total electorate.
It should have debated the questions: would it be in the country’s interests to leave the EU? What would the consequences be? Did those who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU offer a plan, a roadmap, facts and figures, projections, impact studies, to help a mature consideration of whether to act on the “advice” of one third of those who were invited to vote? Had the national debate before the referendum been a well-informed, mature, considered discussion of pros and cons? Had there been misinformation, false promises, interference, and if so, should that not be taken into account?
Yet there was no debate. There has never been a debate in parliament specifically on the outcome of the referendum, or on the proposition “That the UK should leave the EU”; nor has there ever been a vote on that specific proposition.
Our parliament has been bypassed, its sovereignty delegated by imputation or implication to an advisory-only plebiscite. No debate at all! Instead there was a hasty leap to the absurd and false view that “the people have spoken”; “Britain has decided.”
Repetition of these profoundly misleading mantras is yet another symptom of the sickness of our politics. A big part of the reason for this is that the UK political system lives on the toxin of a “first past the post” (FPTP) voting system, in which it often happens that many MPs and governments are elected on not much more than a third of a popular vote.
The main political parties at Westminster maintain a hideously outdated FPTP system because it suits them, and only them. They treat a plurality of votes cast as a mandating quantum.
They treat a simple majority similarly, even if the votes constituting it add up to less than a majority of the electorate—in the case of the EU referendum, a mere third or so of the electorate. This distortion of democratic process used by our politicians for their own benefit is greatly to the country’s disbenefit.
In the summer of 2017 the prime minister called a general election, stating that she was seeking a mandate for Brexit. Apart from the fact that this acknowledged that the referendum did not constitute a mandate, the sequel further confirmed that there is no mandate: for she lost her majority in parliament, and survives by bribing a group of ten MPs with hard right-wing views.
In this circumstance you would think that the Brexit process would have been revealed as bankrupt, and a rethink initiated. The government seeking election to power on a Brexit ticket lost its majority: what clearer message than that could be given?
Instead, it was not even questioned whether the election and the new circumstances had introduced the need for a reconsideration of Brexit. This sclerotic, inflexible, unintelligent and doctrinaire attitude is an extremely bad sign for the health of our state.
“Would I advise anyone to enter treaties with a British government drawn from this current political order? No”
Yet the facts continue to pile up. In fact, facts have accumulated relentlessly ever since the EU referendum, showing with complete clarity that it is woefully against the UK’s interests to leave the EU. If there were a free vote in parliament on whether to continue with Brexit, based on MPs’ independent judgment and conscience, it would be stopped in its tracks.
Given that the majority of MPs and members of the House of Lords are Remainers, what explains the grip that party leaderships—or, more accurately, the interest groups that manipulate them—have on the process? It was mentioned above that we technically speaking have a sovereign parliament in the UK; why does it not take hold of the process and act in the national interest?
The answer is: the party machines. The party system of discipline—the whipping system and all that it means—reduces MPs to mere ciphers, so that what gets represented in our “representative democracy” are party interests, not the country’s interests. This is starkly manifest in the Brexit case—the most dramatic example of how our political order is sick to its roots.
(Others will add that a few wealthy media barons wield influence through promises and threats relating to election support. If this is true, it is yet another symptom of disease.)
The obsession with internal party political matters, and maintenance of the party machines is alone what threatens to take the UK out of the EU. The Conservative Party’s better MPs are not in power; without exception, the chief figures in play are by any standards third-rate individuals—if that—whom one would not put in charge of a bicycle shop: Theresa May, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Michael Gove.
It is incomprehensible how the Chancellor Philip Hammond can remain in office with them, and how the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and other “hard Brexiters” can succeed in exerting such influence over the Brexit process.
The Labour Party is no better. There is no evidence that Jeremy Corbyn is the intelligence behind the different, but equally indefensible, pro-Brexit stance of that party; for that, one must look to John McDonnell and Seamus Milne, both dogmatists for an ideal that was killed by the harshest of facts.
The great majority of the rest of that party, both inside and outside parliament, supports Remain—but apparently, those inside parliament are incapable of exerting themselves against the small group of Brexiters leading them.
The result is that despite this week’s customs union announcement, the party still advocates a hard exit. This is another symptom of the badly corroded nature of our politics.
The Brexit debacle has exposed the UK finally and fully as a country “governed” by an outdated, cabal-led, tribalist political order. And what they “govern” is a society too many of whose members have been made ignorant, inward-looking, ignorant of history, ignorant of the truth about the benefit of the UK’s EU membership, and—alas!—in some cases xenophobic or even racist.
This is disgraceful, not least because a social conversation that was generous, open-minded, sensible and truthful in character would result in a very different national mindset.
So: would I advise anyone to enter treaties with a British government drawn from this current political order? No. It is unreliable, self-obsessed, not prepared to commit to shared endeavour with partners, indeed ready to renege on those commitments on such flimsy pretences as the EU referendum.
Would I advise anyone to come and live in the UK? No. Too many of the British have been outed as unpleasant in their attitudes to people from other countries.
Would I advise you to come and study here? Well, we have many brilliant schools and universities.
But what would you learn outside their walls from our society, from the too-prevalent backward-looking fantasist attitudes which have been exposed by Brexit, and not least by the leaders of the Brexit movement; or from the extremely deep divisions Brexit has caused?
You would learn that cooperation, unity, progress, working together, being open to others, forward-looking and future-looking—the values of the EU—are worth treasuring and abetting: and you can learn that in your own country. Don’t come here to learn the opposite of these things.
And that is what I have said when I have been asked, everywhere I have been since June 2016.
You will, especially if you are a Brexiter, call me a traitor. No, I am not. I am speaking the truth: the UK needs reform. Brexit has ripped the sheet off us, and the rank decay, the corrupted nature, of our political order and social debate are now naked to view. The traitors are the leaders of the Brexit movement, who want Britain to reflect their own attitudes and self-image.
Until they are defeated, Brexit stopped, and reform of our political arrangements effected, we are not going to be good friends to our neighbours—or even to ourselves.