The Brexit vote was a reckless gamble

by Robert Patman / 25 July, 2016
The British Government must immediately halt its plans to exit the European Union and organise a second, legally binding, referendum on the question.
Anti-Brexit campaigners crowded Trafalgar Square several days after the shock result. Photo/Getty Images
Anti-Brexit campaigners crowded Trafalgar Square several days after the shock result. Photo/Getty Images

Unlike authoritarian states, democracies have an inherent and dynamic capacity to correct policies that are not living up to the expectation of their citizens. It is imperative that the British Government and Parliament now demonstrate that capacity by reconsidering the outcome of the referendum on British membership of the EU.

Within hours of the result, the British Prime Minister announced he would resign and insisted that the victory of the Leave camp (by 52% to 48%) would provide the basis for a British exit from the EU.

The willingness of the Cameron Government and the Labour leadership to immediately commit to such a big decision on the strength of such a narrow victory in what was a non-binding referendum is self-serving.

Last week’s referendum was not the product of broad popular demand. Instead of confronting anti-EU elements in his own party, Cameron promised a referendum to buy peace and offset the electoral challenge of the rival anti-immigrant UK Independence Party. This was despite the fact the EU has been central to Britain’s fast-improving economy. Almost half of Britain’s exports go to the EU, whereas Britain takes less than 10% of its imports from the EU.

The EU referendum was a reckless gamble that backfired, and Cameron is apparently keener to move on than deal with the catastrophic consequences of this manoeuvre.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn also finds it politically inconvenient to grapple with the Brexit outcome. Like the Conservatives, Labour has a significant anti-EU wing, and although Corbyn campaigned for the Remain camp, he appeared to be going through the motions. He is unlikely to keep his job, but whoever succeeds him will still have to deal with a significant Euro-sceptic faction in the ranks.

In short, the main parties have continued to put their own internal interests above the broader interests of Britain, its European neighbours and the international community.

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

UGLY realities

The British public have now had a chance to view the realities of what they voted for and it is clear they do not like what they see.

The Brexit camp claimed that Britain’s economy would be more competitive because the UK would be able to negotiate its own trade deals; billions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money spent on EU membership costs would be invested in the underfunded National Health Service; and the UK would be able to control immigration.

But leading politicians in the Brexit camp are now backing away from these pledges. The claim that the British economy would be fine after Brexit is plainly false.

The economy has been in free fall since the referendum. The pound is at its lowest level for three decades, UK bank stocks have collapsed, economic growth forecasts have been slashed, and there are indications of a significant exodus of capital and investment from the UK.

The Brexit camp has confirmed that the promise to invest more in the NHS was a “mistake” and the same goes for the immigration control pledge. Senior figures in the Leave camp now concede that the UK may have to keep its borders open to EU workers if it wants to trade freely with the rest of Europe.

At the same time, Brexit has made Britain something of a pariah state. A leading supporter of the Remain camp, British Labour MP Jo Cox, was brutally murdered shortly before the referendum, and racist attacks have risen sharply after the Leave victory.

Britain’s international reputation has been severely tarnished. It has not only let down its European neighbours, allies and close friends, including New Zealand, but also started down a path that is actively harming their interests.

Furthermore, Scotland and Northern Ireland are determined to remain in the EU, so if the current Government continues to implement Brexit, the UK will almost certainly break up.

Enough is enough. The British Government must halt its plans to proceed with Brexit and organise a second legally binding referendum to determine Britain’s future relations with the EU. If it wants to regain the confidence of its people and friends around the world, it should do this promptly.

Robert Patman is a professor of International Relations at the University of Otago.

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