Here in Brexit Land, political tension is running at fever pitch, and the United Kingdom (UK) is competing with the United States and Venezuela to see who has the world’s most dysfunctional political system. Almost three years ago, the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU), and with the leaving date almost upon us, we still don’t know whether we will actually be leaving, and if so when. Brexit has been dominating the news media both in the UK and across the rest of the world, and thousands of gallons of metaphorical ink have been spilled in newspapers, TV and radio broadcasts, podcasts, websites and blogs as people try to understand what it all means. Here is my contribution: a beginners’ guide to Brexit, in question and answer format, written from a “collapsitarian” viewpoint.
What is Brexit?
BRitain’s EXIT from the European Union.
When will it happen?
A good question. The date originally set for Brexit was 29th March 2019. Because the UK Parliament couldn’t agree on what terms we wanted to leave, and rejected the deal negotiated between the EU and the British Prime Minister Theresa May, the EU granted us an two week extension of time until 12th April, which at the time of writing this blog is only a week away. There are still frantic negotiations going on between the political parties (Labour and Conservative plus several minor parties), between front-benchers and back-benchers, between the Prime Minister and her cabinet, and between Britain and the EU, the outcome of which could be that Brexit is postponed by up to a year, or we leave without an agreed deal on 12th April, or we have another referendum which reverses the decision of the original referendum, or one of several other options. Right now, nobody knows.
Why are we leaving the EU?
Because we had a referendum on 23 June 2016 in which the British people voted to leave by a narrow margin (51.9% to 48.1%).
Why did we have the referendum?
Because the former British Prime Minister David Cameron held the referendum in the course of manoeuvring for political advantage, expecting that the electorate would back him and vote for the status quo. They didn’t do either. That’s the trouble with democracy: voters sometimes just don’t understand what is expected of them and do the wrong thing, causing endless headaches for the political and financial elites.
Why is the Brexit issue so divisive?
Friendships, families and political parties have been torn apart because some members are Leavers / Brexiteers, some are Remainers, and they find it difficult to find common ground or even have a civilised discussion without getting emotionally overheated. Feelings are strongly held on both sides. The main point of contention between Leavers and Remainers seems to be the economy. Leavers think Remainers place too much emphasis on the economy; Remainers think Leavers don’t pay it enough attention. In the interests of balance, I am going to try to summarise the main arguments of the Leavers and Remainers.
Leavers: their slogan during the referendum campaign was “Take back control”. They think that the amount of control of our national affairs which we have surrendered to the EU jeopardises our integrity as a sovereign nation. EU laws take precedence over British laws, the European Court takes precedence over the British courts, and perhaps the most emotive issue of all, the EU requires us to accept an unlimited number of economic migrants from other EU countries – basically anyone who wants to live and work here can come. One of the fundamental principles of the EU is that there must be free movement of people, goods and services across the borders of member states. Leavers are concerned about the impact which unlimited immigration has had, and would continue to have, on British jobs, culture and way of life. The flow of economic migrants is mainly in one direction: into the UK. It’s not like there are lots of British people leaving the UK for better paid jobs in, say, Greece or Poland.
Leavers don’t want to send large sums of British money to the EU to be redistributed to member states which are struggling economically (Greece again comes to mind). Before it joined the EU in 1973, Britain managed perfectly well by trading with both EU and non-EU countries, particularly the Commonwealth countries (the former British Empire colonies) and can do so again. There are 195 countries in the world, only 28 are in the EU, the remainder (167) are outside the EU and trade with each other and with the EU quite happily. Statistically, older people are more likely to be Leavers, one reason perhaps being that they can remember the days pre-1973 and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Remainers point to the economic benefits of remaining within the EU. Because of the harmonisation of regulations and the free movement of people, goods and services within the EU, it is easy for businesses to export and import goods with the minimum of red tape. Many businesses operate long supply chains and just-in-time inventories with components being manufactured in Europe and sent to the UK for assembly, or vice versa. If we left, it would be an economic disaster for Britain, because our access to European markets would be restricted, and there might be customs duties and tariffs to pay on goods moving across borders – if, indeed, the goods are allowed to move at all. Essential supplies like medicines may become more expensive or unavailable. If our goods for export don’t comply with EU regulations they might not be allowed into the EU. Leaving would deny our young people the opportunity to live and work in EU member countries. Now they can move freely, but if we leave they would need visas and work permits which might not be granted. The EU (then called the Common Market) was formed in the aftermath of World War 2, and it has helped to maintain peace between European countries for more than 70 years. Statistically, younger people are more likely to be Remainers, one reason perhaps being that they have never known anything other than being in the EU.
How many British Prime Ministers have resigned or been voted out of office in connection with Britain’s membership of the European Union?
So far, three.
Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 in connection with her opposition to joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Most of her cabinet were in favour of joining the ERM.
John Major lost the General Election in 1997 in connection with Britain’s subsequent exit from the ERM. Major was a supporter of the ERM but was forced to withdraw from it in the wake of the financial turmoil of “Black Wednesday” demonstrating, in retrospect, that Thatcher had been correct.
David Cameron resigned after the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU. Cameron campaigned to “Remain” but resigned after the referendum voted “Leave”.
The jury is still out as to whether the current British Prime Minister, Theresa May, will be the fourth to lose office in connection with the EU.
What do doctors’ organisations say about Brexit?
The British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners (both of which I am a member of) have come out strongly against Brexit:
Where do I stand personally on Brexit?
As I already stated above, I have done my best to present a balanced view of the main arguments put forward by the Leavers and Remainers. However, I am now going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I am firmly in the Leave camp. This is partly because of my age: older age group, and therefore statistically more likely to be a Leaver. It’s also because I can foresee significant societal disruption, if not collapse, coming upon us in the next few decades as a result of resource depletion, climate change and the failure of growth-based economic policies, and I think Brexit is more consistent with what we need to be doing, and where history is taking us anyway whether we like it or not. I find the Remainers’ arguments unconvincing for the following reasons:
Most Remain arguments focus on the economic benefits of remaining in the EU. The implied assumption is that global trade with its long fragile supply chains and just-in-time inventories will continue as usual, economies of member states will continue to grow at 2-3% per year, and we will continue producing and consuming stuff at an ever increasing rate. However, I believe that future economic activity will be increasingly constrained by resource depletion, particularly oil, and that far from expanding, the global economy will soon begin to contract, long supply chains will start to break down, and economic activity will become more localised, with producers and consumers in a much closer geographical relationship with each other. I think this will happen regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU, so we might as well get used to trading with each other locally sooner rather than later. Or to put it another way, “Collapse now and avoid the rush”.
I am also mindful that every environment has a carrying capacity – the maximum number of individuals it can support. The British Isles is no exception. The population of the British Isles at the start of the Industrial Revolution – around the year 1800 – was around 10 million. Today it is is around 66 million. Most of that growth was due to abundant fossil fuels which revolutionised our ability to grow and distribute food, manufacture goods and power our homes and workplaces. Take the fossil fuels away, and the carrying capacity becomes much less, perhaps approaching pre-Industrial Revolution levels. If we already have 56 million more people than our carrying capacity can support, it would folly to increase that number even more by unrestricted immigration – we need to adopt policies to gradually downsize the population. However, the concept of carrying capacity is deeply taboo at the moment and is not at all part of mainstream political, economic and media discourse.
I am also unconvinced by the “EU prevents war” argument. Between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the start of World War 1 in 1914, Europe enjoyed 99 years of relative peace even though the EU didn’t exist. In contrast, the United States went to war with itself in 1861 even though it was supposedly a single political entity. War is a state of mind, not a trade agreement.
Aren’t Leavers just racists and xenophobes in disguise?
Absolutely not. It is an indication of the emotional intensity of the issues that name-calling like this occurs in the debate. There are probably some racists and xenophobes on the fringes of the Leave movement, just as there are in any movement, but having legitimate concerns about immigration does not make one a racist or a xenophobe.
Why is the Irish Border issue such a stumbling block in the negotiations?
Because it’s basically an insoluble problem. To understand the Irish Border issue you need to rewind through almost 500 years of Irish history, back to 1541 when thousands of English and Scottish Protestants began to arrive and settled mostly in Northern Ireland. This resulted in communities of Irish Protestants descended from the settlers, and communities of Irish Catholics descended from the indigenous peoples, who had, and still have, an intense, lifelong and completely irrational hatred of each other. It’s rather like the hatred which has existed, or still exists, between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia, or between the supporters of rival football teams.
In 1921, in an attempt to keep the two factions apart and keep everyone happy, Ireland was partitioned into mostly Catholic Southern Ireland (now the Irish Republic) and mostly Protestant Northern Ireland (still part of the United Kingdom). That was when the Irish Border was created. However, you can’t legislate to make people like or trust each other, and sectarian violence has continued to periodically flare up between the two groups. A particularly bad patch occurred between 1968-1998 when there were bombings and shootings nearly every day; this period is referred to euphemistically as “the Troubles”. During this period there was increased security at the Irish Border to prevent armed gangs crossing the border to attack the other side. Since then things have been calmer and border controls have been relaxed, but ethnic tensions have always simmered below the surface. If the UK leaves the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would become the border of the EU and would be subject to increased security, which might cause ethnic tensions to flare up again. However, if the EU is to maintain its integrity, there has to be a border there: hence the problem is insoluble.
Most kids in Ireland go to either an all-Catholic or all-Protestant school, and never get to know each other. The long term solution would be to teach the kids in integrated schools instead of having segregated schools, so they grow up together and learn not to hate each other. Then the Irish Border issue would become irrelevant, or at least much more easily solved. However, this suggestion would horrify most Irish parents and church leaders and as far as I know it is not on the table for discussion.
What will happen on Brexit Day?
In my opinion, very little. It won’t be the economic disaster forecast by the Remainers or the economic Promised Land forecast by the Leavers. Life for the most part will just carry on as normal. The more serious problems will come further down the line, compared to which Brexit will just be a footnote in history. For example, the British Houses of Parliament lie 10 metres above sea level. If the polar ice sheets melt due to global warming, sea level may rise in the long term by up to 58 metres, putting the Houses of Parliament and much of London underwater. However, while the minds of our politicians are focused on Brexit, sea level rise is not up for discussion.
But that’s assuming there is a Brexit Day – we will know within the next week. As we wait, you may want to ask yourselves, “What might a society in the early stages of collapse look like? Might it look something like this?”
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin