Brexit - Out of the maze

by Tony Copple

15 Dec 2018

This morning I woke with one thing on my mind - Brexit. During the night I had repeated dreams of a clear pathway through this cataclysmal mess. Here is what the dreams suggested, amplified in the light of dawn.

It is well known that democracy only works well with an educated population who take the time to research issues and vote from a position of knowedge. Ideally they should vote for the candidate who would best benefit the country, but in practice most people vote for the candidate who will benefit them personally. We elect a parliament because we can't all become knowledgable in the vast panorama of issues. It's hard enough for the elected members, but at least they have better access to experts, and research assistants. Members of parliament then debate and vote, and laws are made and budgets are decided on for spending taxpayers money wisely. In some countries corruption, and at it's most virulent level, state capture, can divert the money to enrich criminals, as has been the case in South Africa. When people come together in parliaments, or small committees, to make decisions, the more people there are, the more argument there is, and the more aspects of the decision will be taken into account. But above certain numbers of people engaged in the decision, the decision itself can become tantalizingly out of reach. There is an optimum number of decisionmakers for each decision. That number may be counter-intuitive. Some years ago the mayor of our town was forced to resign following her recommendation to reduce the frequency of garbage collection. Now that is a subject that every councillor, and every resident understood and had hard views on. It was never considered that the mayor's view, arrived at from the recommendation of a study group, had any more validity than theirs. Instead of accepting that the views of people who had extra expertise in the matter should be respected, every person in town seemed to get in on the act expressing their personal preferences (rather than the good of the municipality). It probably required five people at most to decide the issue. By the same token, some parliaments have way too many people than are needed for making the right decisions. Case in point - South Africa - where salaries and pensions for politicians are far too high resulting in people running the country for whom the 'honour' of a position (eg MP) is far more important to them than their ability to do the job. Huge savings could be made, and better decision-making, by a smaller parliament.

A referendum is an alternative way to discern the will of the people, but referenda should only be used when the amount of education necessary to vote on an issue is minimal. For example, it would be appropriate to use a referendum to decide whether to put the clocks forward each spring, as the British do (but not the South Africans). All of us have experienced the pain of getting up earlier, and the pleasure of having more light in the evening. We know what we are talking about, and the only issue is personal preference. Great subject for a referendum. If however a country wants to decide on whether to develop nuclear fusion for power generation, or whether to go to war with another country, or whether to cut income taxes by 50%, then these issues require detailed scientific or other knowledge which the population as a whole does not have. For example, the public will always vote for lower taxes because the only aspect they care about is the 'pound in their pocket' to quote a former Bristish prime minister. Would they take into account where the money would then come from for their pensions? Of course not. Most have no clue where that comes from, and they would find it too boring to have to learn.

How simple is the choice of staying in the European Union or leaving? On the superficial level of guessing the answer to the question, it seems simple - the kind of thing a referendum could be used for. But this is an iceberg issue. 90% of its mass is underwater, and was never taken into account by the majority of the referendum voters. Untangling a nation from the myriad aspects of its integration with the EU is a massive task. For forty years business and cultural connections had been put together painstakingly and with creativity and great skill. Many of these processes would never have included mechanisms to dismantle them; why would it ever be relevant? The benefits of a union of nations across the whole of Europe were self evident. United we stand; divided we fall. The economic potential was clear. The human benefits seemed unquestionable if only to reduce the likelihood of conflict, the scourge of Europe in the 20th century. And the economic benefits to being part of the EU since 1973 when Britain was allowed in have proved substantial and a stabilizing force for the economy.

I believe that the choice of a referendum in 2016 to decide the fate of the nation was fundamentally flawed, and the result of a lack of competant political leadership at the time. To abdicate their clear responsibility of decision making, and pass it to the people as a referendum was a cop-out like Pontius Pilate passing the responsibility of trying Jesus to Herod. Among the people eligible to vote in a referendum is a sizeable minority of uneducated misfits, troublemakers, limelight seekers, drug addicts and dealers, sufferers from Aspergers syndrome, hardened criminals, flat earth society, Holocaust deniers, drunks, anarchists, populists, football hooligans, ISIS supporters, creators of computer viruses and confidence tricksters. This segment was far larger than economists, statistitians, historians and politicians who may have had a clue about the real results of a wrong decision. A 4% swing towards the qualified voters and away from the others would have yielded the opposite result. Yet to hear the current prime minister talk, these are the salt of the earth who have spoken and whose will must be upheld at all costs.

So far I have looked at what has brought us to the present crisis. Let us now see if there is a way out of this maze. What has changed since the referendum? First, and most importantly, it is now clear to all that the practical issues with leaving are humongous. The rules have been spelt out in a 500 page document, but the implementation of those rules will demand huge effort by businesses. Most businesses have sufficient capacity for making small profits, and nothing to spare for new ways of doing business demanded by government, so many business owners will close and start new businesses with the new rules. Second, there has been a polarization within each political party between those who want to stay in the EU - the 'remainers,' and those who want to leave - the Brexiters. Thirdly, many more young people are now of voting age, and the majority of young people generally voted to remain in the EU. Fourthly, President Trump seems to want to influence the British to remain in the EU, even going as far as threatening the relationship as trading partners. These changes mean that noone can predict the outcome of a new vote.

The next general election is not scheduled till 2022. It could be called sooner if Theresa May felt that doing so would benefit the Conservative Party. But she believes that the will of the people has been stated in the referendum, since when her goal has been to see Brexit accomplished. Calling an election early would only offer a result other than the status quo if one of the other parties would do an about face and stand for remaining in the EU. This would be such a change in strategy it could not be done without serious loss of credibility, and therefore very little appeal to the public. For it to happen, a dynamic and charismatic and intelligent statesman/woman would need to emerge from the ranks of the Labour party and take over from the undynamic Jeremy Corbyn.

A second referendum is being promoted by some as a way out of the stalemate. Presumably they believe that it would yield a different result due to the changes since the first one that I have detailed above. Let us look at the results of both possible outcomes. If the result were unchanged, all political parties would continue to be duty bound to accept the 'will of the people.' The status quo would then resume, with Britain continuing to seek further concessions from Brussels, which Brussels may or may not entertain. The present stalemate could deteriorate to a 'no deal' situation where Britain discovers it has separated from the EU with no benefits to doing so, and serious potential economic problems needing solutions from a position of isolation and weakness.

If a second referendum reveals that the population has changed its mind, then we see a glimmer of light. The government considers referendum results to be sacrosanct (despite the many issues I have outlined in referenda generally). But in accepting a change of heart, after giving such huge credence to the first referendum, they are in effect accepting the failure of the referendum process to produce a logical result. First they treat the referendum like a god-spoken decision, and then they have to accept god made a mistake. This impossible situation is why Theresa May fights so strongly against a second referendum. The process her government selected will have been shown to be unreliable. This damages their credibility in a future general election.

In November 2018 some British politicians visited their EU counterparts to clarify an area of the constitution. They were able to report that a unilateral decision by the British to turn back the clock and return to the situation of EU membership would be legal, bringing back the status that existed before Britain declared her intention to leave. I believe that this action should be taken, and as soon as possible. Moving from a place of maximum uncertainty back to a workable situation where businesses and citizens would know once again where they stand is a win-win situation. I can't resist suggesting an analogy with the story of the prodical son. There would be, I am sure, great rejoicing with fatted calves as Europe made it clear how much they welcomed Britain back into the fold. Such a situation would provide a breathing space for the British to reconsider what they really want. So much more is now known than was in 2016. A general election could be held if one of the two large parties were prepared to run on a platform of remaining, or if a new party were formed with that agenda. Such an election would allow the winner either to put leaving the EU on the back burner, or to renegotiate a Brexit from a position of knowledge, experience and unity. It would also allow enough time for each party to argue among themselves until reaching a concensus, and then speaking with one voice.

Even though I have argued strenuously against the use of referenda, in this situation I can see no alternative to holding a second one, in order that the chaos unleashed by the first one may be neutralized. Let the flawed process defeat itself. My expectation would be that the result would favour remaining in the EU, because the alternative has been found to be so excruciating in practice. The grass was thought to be greener, with diamonds beneath it, but getting there proved beyond human capacity, and - guess what? - the acres of diamonds are right here beneath British feet as members of a great brotherhood of nations.

I have been saddened as a spectator that at no point has the British government shown the humility of dedicating a day of prayer, or similar action, to ask for wisdom in a process that cannot succeed without the blessing of the One from whom all real power comes. In the drought six months ago in South Africa, the government department responsible for water supply did just that - inviting the nation to pray for God to bring rain after three years without it. Whether it was these prayers or those of Angus Buchan followers at a huge rally in Cape Town that we attended, the rains came and all's been well since on that front. But I guess the general attitide in UK these days is that people who believe in the power of God to make a difference are out of date. Politicians therefore, whatever their personal beliefs, and personal prayers, which I am quite certain have been offered to God in this crisis, would risk political sidelining in advocate bringing God into the equation. However, after a no-deal Brexit, even they could change their minds and get on their knees if supermarket shelves are bare. Why do they have to wait until all is lost before turning to God?

In summary, the timeline should be as follows:

  • Day of prayer to humble the nation before God and seek divine guidance and blessing.
  • Unilaterally revoke the decision to seek to leave the EU. This buys time.
  • Hold a second referendum.
  • If the result is to remain, do so. If the result is to leave, hold a general election. The result may not answer the quesion of whether to stay or leave, but it will give the winning party the mandate to make that decision.

Langebaan, South Africa


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