The Path to Brexit
At the root of the ‘Brexit’ mess is a possibly unprecedented act of self-serving recklessness by the leader of a government in a democracy. It is in large part one which lays bare the sham of the UK’s primary democratic process – its system for electing representatives to its governing Parliament. For some years the electoral prospects and the cohesion of the UK Conservative party have been threatened by a relatively small, but vociferous and unscrupulous cabal of individuals and groups opposed to the idea of mutually beneficial co-operation with other European countries – either because it was a proxy for a mixing of UK (read English) ‘culture’ with that of ‘foreigners’ of different ethnic or religious identity or it was a plutocratic rejection of the co-operation for setting anti-exploitation rules as a basis for national and economic competition, or in quite a few cases – both.
In the winner-takes-all electoral system created by First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) the leaking of Conservative Party support (and even Parliamentary personnel) toward the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage was not an incremental risk but an existential one. The party risked being out of power perhaps indefinitely and even being reduced to a rump of MPs with little compensatory chance of UKIP allies, as the right of centre vote became split, allowing more EU-friendly left of centre parties to dominate. The Conservative Party, having little in the way of clear principles or ideas to bind it, requires the prospect of power and career advancement above all else to unite its members – particularly its Parliamentary contingent.
Under this pressure the Conservative Party leadership, headed by David Cameron and George Osborne, took the risk of a manifesto commitment in the 2015 General Election to an In/Out referendum on EU membership while at the same time committing themselves to advocating staying in the EU under ‘renegotiated’ terms (that would not become clear until the Parliamentary authority for the referendum had been given). The risk was perceived as being mitigated by 1) the unlikelihood – based on current polling – of an outright Conservative election victory; minority government or a further coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party being likely to require ditching of the referendum commitment 2) the likelihood – again based on current polling – of an ‘In’ (Remain) vote in any referendum.
The miscalculation (possibly involving criminal activity by campaigners for the ‘Out’ (Leave) option) of these likelihoods led to a referendum result more or less committing a government to huge constitutional, social and economic change, which it did not support, did not advocate for and had in no way prepared for. Those that had supported the policy change and had advocated for it had themselves done little analysis of its consequences or preparation for making the best of the post-withdrawal scenario for the overall economic and social welfare of the UK and nothing at all to prepare for the process of withdrawal from a 45-year system of close co-operation between neighbouring and increasingly interdependent states. Indeed it is pretty clear this was never their intention. Brexit was always a project of abstract political or cultural philosophy rather than a practical one on the one hand, or the project of a plutocratic and insulated elite on the other. The electoral system having failed to convert sub-Parliamentary grousing to practical legislative proposals that could be examined in the proper forum, these ideological or mendacious positions were allowed to gain a hold which proved difficult to dislodge in the heated, theatrical and artificial forum of a short referendum campaign.
The quasi-philosophical aspects of Brexit appeared to find resonance among many who had witnessed deterioration of the national public and social fabric since the financial crisis of 2007/8 without recognising this as a delayed consequence of the divisive policies of the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher. These effect of these policies failed to be fully alleviated by the more pragmatic governments of John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Those of David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg unforgivably failed to use the resources of government to repair the post-crisis negligence and pusillanimity of private business. This failure was amplified by a victim-blaming approach that led many to mistakenly lay what they witnessed at the door of those that suffered most: the poor, unemployed and immigrants from the less privileged parts of Europe and the wider world. The result we have now is a government composed in part of those who do not believe in the policy they are executing along with those who through ignorance, unpracticality and unpreparedness are unable to implement the policy in which they claim to believe.
This is a policy which cannot make anyone truly better off because it is the equivalent of restricting access to the nearest supermarket while barring access to the one a little further away on the grounds that the further away one is out of our sphere of regulation. The more distant supermarket will continue to trade; its external effects will continue to affect us – we simply cannot benefit from its provision. It is true that we can make some policy without going through the formal processes of the European Union – but that policy (if it is not to be wholly disastrous) cannot ignore the policies of the European Union, just as it will not be able to influence (as EU members we could) the connecting policies of other major trading blocs. It is as if we have disconnected our lever from the national gearbox and proclaimed our freedom to move it meaninglessly from 1st gear to 5th – as the vehicle itself remains relentlessly stuck in reverse.
 Under a more proportional electoral system several different scenarios – almost all preferable – would have likely played out. The Conservative Party leadership could have stuck to its principles (and remaining committed to staying within the EU without a referendum) at the cost of some lessening, but not annihilation of its representation – knowing that for the most part UKIP MPs would have supported the non-EU parts of the Tory agenda. To the extent that a referendum would have been the outcome of an electoral coalition between the Conservatives and UKIP – since this would not have been a manifesto commitment of the majority of governing MPs there would have been far greater scope for Parliamentary debate on the merits and demerits of risking a huge and unprecedented constitutional change for which no realistic preparations had been made.