[SCMP Column] Brexit Madness Revealed

October 30, 2017

Perhaps the time has come for Britain’s troubled communities to think the treasonous unthinkable: perhaps Brexit was not such a good idea after all.

Perhaps, having had the opportunity to peer over the cliff edge, it is time for a pause, time to review, time to reflect on the harm a moment of summer madness back on June 23 last year might inflict on families, livelihoods, communities.

Already, the harm arising from the rash Conservative party decision to try to resolve a long-festering internal row by taking a Brexit vote to the nation is immeasurable. Families and communities have been shredded. The underpinnings of the economy have been put in serious jeopardy. Worst of all, the attention available to address pressing other issues – like education and health reform – has been decimated.

The time has come to ask some heretical questions. Is it really appropriate for such a massive and potentially catastrophic decision to have been left to a simple 50:50 referendum vote? Putting on one side the perfectly reasonable argument about whether a referendum is an appropriate way of making such major decisions –a massive abnegation of responsibility by Britain’s elected representatives in parliament - surely on an issue of such importance a majority of 70-75 per cent should be required?

Advocates for Brexit have succeeded in creating a trance-like consensus in the UK that the 52 per cent vote in favour of Brexit has created an irreversible commitment to exit that is treasonous to challenge. Why have the 48 per cent who voted to remain been forced into silence, regardless of the reality that every next negotiating round reveals further horrendous consequences for the UK and its future?

Why has it become a heresy to ask perfectly reasonable questions about the choices British people face? Why has the debate been confined to a choice between Brexit, hard or soft, instead of including at least two other options: a much longer transition, or a decision to have second thoughts, and not exit at all? Why has Britain’s democracy suddenly been strapped into such a cruelly ill-fitting straight-jacket?

Bear in mind anyway that many of the Brexit voters on June 23 were not so much voting in favour of exiting Europe as they were registering a protest vote against a deeply unpopular government and its policies.

The infamous awkwardness of referendums is that even if the question is crafted with exquisite subtlety and care – and this one very crudely was not – it is all-but-impossible for them to stay on script. Almost always, they become an opportunity to comment on, or protest against, the general menu of policies of the government in power. This was clearly the case in the fateful Brexit vote, and it is anybody’s guess what kind of “mandate” the Conservatives received for so radical a change of course.

The case for Brexit might over the past year have become more credible if there was any evidence within the government of a common view of what they want out of negotiations with the European Union. Instead, what we see is ever-deepening disarray. If there is civil war even inside the Conservative Cabinet, what chance of consensus for the country as a whole? Heaven help Britain’s diplomatic corps who are tasked and trained as technocrats to represent as best they can the defined foreign policy interests of the government of the day.

Sitting here in Hong Kong, 7,000 miles away from Britain’s political self-mutilation, I am not well placed to judge local concerns about the state of the economy or the country’s best interests on immigration, but on trade and Britain’s future business relations I am flabbergasted by the crass naivety of British politicians who claim to be economically literate, and who clearly should know better.

Have they really thought through what life would be like if negotiations failed and Britain was forced to fall back on the World Trade Organisation’s multilateral rules? Have they overlooked the fact that almost all of the WTO’s trade rules focus on trade in manufactured goods – border tariffs and the like?

Have they never noticed that the WTO is virtually silent on services, and the behind-the-border regulatory harmonisation that enables legal, financial or accounting professionals to work beyond Britain’s shores?

Have they even paused to calculate how many man-years (or woman-years for that matter) it would take for British trade negotiators to negotiate new trade deals with the hundreds of economies worldwide that have negotiated unique arrangements with the European Union?

Have they given no thought to the European infrastructure of regulations and standards that have been crafted over the past four decades, which would have to be drafted from scratch into British law? Have they forgotten the hundreds of European air services agreements that UK-based aviation groups would be excluded from? Or the fisheries or farm deals that underpin Britain’s agricultural sector?

Opinion polls across the UK provide a confusing picture of how people would vote if the Brexit referendum were to be re-run today. But I am absolutely certain that as more and more ordinary citizens discover the practical consequences – as they watch an increasing flow of large employers begin to hedge their bets – then the needle will swing.

Note only last week that the professional services group PwC calculated that foreign financial firms responsible for thousands of high-skill jobs in the UK contribute taxes worth £17bn to the British exchequer – half of the government’s revenues from the pivotally important financial services sector. It will be a brave Teresa May who risks taking the deal back to the British public for endorsement in a fresh referendum.

At present, there is a depressing irony that a government that claims to be democratic has declared jihad on anyone who has the temerity to suggest that we should have second thoughts about Brexit. Such wilful intimidation is at fundamental odds with any commitment to freedom of speech or democracy. But at the same time, there is an almost unforgivable political cowardice in the silence of those political representatives that have reservations. The sooner they come out of hiding the better.

Whatever the eventual decision on the Brexit package now being cobbled together by Teresa May’s cabinet, Britain’s voters deserve a second chance to review what is without doubt the most important decision of their generation.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own. 
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