Brexit musings

This blog was set up mainly for me to share my thoughts and resources about teaching history. I am going to make a little exception today because I have something to say about the Brexit situation we’re in and this is as good a platform as any to say it on. Besides, it is quite obvious that Brexit and its aftermath will form an important part of our history curriculum in years to come, and if my career lasts as long as I hope it will, then I’m sure I will be teaching it at some point in the future and will benefit from looking back on this as one of my sources. That’s my justification anyway.

Let me put my cards on the table. I voted Remain, and if voting again today would still opt for Remain.  At the time, the Remain choice seemed so obvious that I really struggled to understand the mindset of those in the Leave camp. On a personal basis, membership of the EU has been a win-win proposition for me and my thinking was “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.

The free movement of people has made my city, London, more cosmopolitan than ever. I can nip down the road and eat delicious pizza at Franco Manca, baked to perfection by Italian artisans. The brickwork on my house was beautifully re-pointed by Polish builders and internal refurbishments were done by a conscientious Romanian. That’s not to say that all the improvements on our “bit of a wreck”, fixer upper house, were done by foreign EU nationals. We obtained our restored Victorian front door from a born and bred Londoner, whose craftsmanship was excellent but time management left something to be desired. We had our sash windows made by a local family-run firm. The movement of people within the EU has simply meant we had access to a greater pool of talent.

And also, let’s not forget, this freedom of movement works both ways. On a whim several years ago, my sister decided to leave the rat race in London and move to the south of France. She didn’t have to fill visa forms or get a job interview, she just literally packed her bags and upped sticks. There’s a delicious freedom about being able to move to any country you fancy within the large EU family, without obtaining a bureaucrat’s permission. And while I’m firmly rooted here in London, every so often on a holiday trip, I fantasise about moving to this or that delightful place I am visiting, be it the Austrian Alps or the Italian lakes. Possibilities are endless. Leaving the EU represents to me a narrowing of these possibilities.

Lastly, being in the EU has made our country more prosperous. Unlike many, I remember what London was like in the Seventies. It was rather grim and drab. This was a time when the population of the city was shrinking and there was a palpable sense of decay, except perhaps in the rich and exclusive neighbourhoods. I remember in 1980, when I was 10 years old, we spent two months in New York as my father had some work to do there. It felt dazzling. Multitudes of cable channels to surf through, multiplex cinemas, shops that sold toys and gadgets that I could never dream of, restaurants serving the largest pizzas I had ever seen and pancake stacks, and just that hustle and bustle of a vibrant city made me gasp in wonderment. When I returned to London at the end of that summer, it felt more grey than ever before. Fast forward to today, and London can easily hold its own with the likes of New York.

Of course, some will say I’m an out-of-touch member of the elite. I’m well aware that the prosperity I’m talking about has been unevenly distributed. Even wealthy London has its fair share of poverty and deprivation, as the fire at Grenfell Tower has thrown into sharp relief. But I can’t in all honesty blame our housing deficiencies on Brussels. I’m not going to accuse immigrants of putting pressure on our public services when, without the economic growth they have helped us create, there would be even more pressure on these same services. So many of the remedies for our ills are well within the remit of our government, regardless of the EU. There has been a chronic under-investment in housing, health and education, and both main parties can shoulder responsibility for this. Some areas of the country have been adversely affected by immigration, such as parts of the north east. They voted Leave in large numbers, and understandably so. Even in those areas, more could have been done to mitigate the impact. But if it were simply up to those pockets of Britain where immigration has had a negative effect on the native population, the Leave vote would not have won the referendum.

What is sometimes forgotten is that the 52% who voted Leave represented a coming together of various different factions. On the one hand, we have the people I have already mentioned, for whom mass immigration to their small town has irrevocably changed its character and increased the competition for jobs. But there are others, such as my in-laws who live in the leafy Home Counties, whose Leave vote was distinctly xenophobic. There’s the people who craved sovereignty, whatever that means in our increasingly interconnected world. There’s the likes of Daniel Hannan, who dream of free trade and deregulation. There’s my former colleague, for whom the EU was a corrupt and unrepresentative institution, who wanted out of that quango. There’s the people who felt economically left behind, for whom the vote was an opportunity to thumb their nose up at central government. There’s the people on the left of the political spectrum, like Kate Hoey (and, I suspect also Jeremy Corbyn and John Macdonell) who have a deep seated mistrust of the liberalism at the heart of the EU project. So many different agendas, and quite clearly, Brexit is not going to be able to deliver them all. Undoubtedly some Brexiteers are going to be disappointed when the deed is finally done.

It is this disparity of opinions that makes it hard to come up with a negotiating position. In a negotiation, you need to be able to articulate what your red lines are and where you are willing to compromise. And I guarantee, you will have to compromise, you can’t have your cake and eat it. I’ve heard one MP recently state that unless we control who comes into the country, have the ability to make trade deals with whomever we want and come out of ECJ jurisdiction, then we won’t have Brexit. Another chestnut I’ve been hearing is that 80% of the electorate voted for Brexit as clearly stated in both the Conservative and Labour manifestos and that this represents a strong mandate for leaving the single market and customs union. Let me say this: if people only voted for parties on the basis that they agreed with everything in the manifestos, then only the die-hard party members would vote. Voting for an MP from a particular party is not an endorsement of every single policy in the party’s manifesto.

Let’s inject a dose of realism here. It’s guaranteed that we will not get everything we want in the negotiations. So where is it that we compromise? Is control of our borders more important than our ability to make trade deals? Or do we want to be able to pursue trade in India and America but don’t care so much if we continue to allow EU nationals into our country? Do we want to pursue all the above at the expense of diminished trade with the EU and the likely economic fallout? The result of the EU referendum doesn’t answer these questions. A minority government doesn’t have the mandate or wherewithal to answer these questions either. It must be decided by parliament and it must, of necessity, be a cross-party, consensual process. And I can guarantee, it will be a fudge.

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