I am writing this post from the Isle of Man, which is a small island off the coast of Britain. I arrived here just over a week ago. Before you start saying “Isle of What?” and reaching for Google maps, that’s not important right now, and I’ll tell you all about it another time. I was planning to write this blog post about why I’m here and what I’m doing in the Isle of Man, but six days after I arrived, the Brexit fiasco erupted so I thought I’d better write about that instead.
Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last week, you’ve probably heard about Brexit, but just in case you’re a bit confused about the facts, I’ll try to bring you up to speed.
“Brexit” is short for “Britain’s exit from the European Union” (EU). The back story to this is as follows: Britain joined the European union as a result of a referendum held in 1972. The British Prime Minister David Cameron (shortly to be ex-prime minister, see below) organized a second referendum of the British people to ask whether they wanted to leave, or remain in, the European Union, which was held on 23 June this year. Quite why he thought this referendum would be a good idea is unclear; it seems to have been an attempt to gain some kind of edge over his political rivals. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, there was intense campaigning by both the “Leave” and “Remain” factions, but nobody seriously doubted what the outcome would be: there would be a lot of impassioned speeches and a lot of grumbling, but at the end of the day the British people would vote to maintain the status quo and continue membership of the EU.
Everyone, including the “Leave” faction, was therefore stunned when the result of the referendum was announced the morning after: the British people had voted, by 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the EU. This was not supposed to happen, and consequently, nobody had prepared for it. In the days following the result there was intense political bloodletting, with Cameron resigning as Prime Minister, and a vote of no confidence being called to oust Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition. Right now, it’s not clear who is in charge of anything or what is supposed to happen next. The problem is, anyone who campaigned strongly to “Remain” (like Cameron) would be unacceptable to half of the electorate, anyone who campaigned strongly to “Leave” (like Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party) would be unacceptable to the other half of the electorate, and anyone who sat on the fence and didn’t declare strongly for either side (like Corbyn) would be unacceptable to everyone.
The “Remain” campaign focused mainly on the economic benefits of staying in the EU. The “Leave” campaign focused mainly on immigration. In the end, concerns about immigration trumped concerns about the economy. There have been attempts to portray the immigration issue as “racist”, but that would be to either misunderstand or misrepresent what the campaign was about. It was not about racism, but about sovereignty. Membership of the EU is based on free movement of people, goods and services, and the EU Commissioners have pursued these goals with an obsessional, almost puritanical zeal, allowing no compromise. You have to allow total, unrestricted immigration or you can’t be a member of the club. The problem is that this conflicts with the basic right of a sovereign country to exercise control over who enters, and who remains in, the country
Despite the global hysteria I find it difficult to get excited about Brexit for two reasons. Firstly, the countries of Europe have been dancing a complicated dance with each other for over two thousand years. In turn, they are sometimes the underdog, sometimes dominant, sometimes at war with each other, sometimes at peace, sometimes they trade with each other, sometimes they put up trade barriers and embargoes. Sometimes the ruling class of one country will impose itself by force on the ruling class of another, sometimes they will forge alliances by intermarrying. This is particularly true of the Big Six countries: Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, England. All of them except Germany have at one time controlled a world class empire (Germany had a stab at this in the 20th century but didn’t get very far) and all of them have at one time been a collection of primitive tribes under the control of a more powerful neighbour. Britain joining the EU and then leaving it again are the latest iterations of this dance which is likely to continue for many centuries after the EU is disbanded.
Analysis of the referendum results suggested that older people were more likely to vote “leave” whereas younger people were more likely to vote “remain”. I suspect that is because to get a grip on this thing, you need to have a historical perspective on it, and older people are more likely to have that perspective. As a card carrying wrinkly (I’m 56) that probably explains where I’m coming from.
The other reason I can’t get too excited about it is because the whole question of EU membership could well become irrelevant in the near future. The free movement of people, goods and services presupposes that we have the physical capability to do this. Most of this movement is made possible by fossil fuels. Two little words which were not heard at all during the campaigning were “peak oil”. If the world is currently at or just past peak conventional oil, then this unrestricted free movement may only be possible in its current form for another couple of decades, after which it will be a moot point.
My predictions for what happens next: I think there will be continuing political and economic instability for several years until a new equilibrium is found. It’s difficult to be sure what that will look like, but it will probably be something like the pre-1972 situation. I would also guess that the next crisis to hit the EU may be “Grexit”, or “Greek exit”. The Greeks are probably assessing the situation right now and wondering whether they would be better off defaulting on their mountain of unrepayable Euro debt, leaving the EU and forming a closer alliance with other non-EU countries like the UK, North America and Australia.
Good luck everyone, and I’ll keep you posted.