The results of the British referendum aroused feelings of shock, horror and shame to the many millions of British people who wanted to remain in the European Union. The outcome has been welcomed by such divisive figures as Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of European extreme right-wing parties, but greatly regretted by all Britain’s real friends.
How could a majority of British voters have decided to ignore the advice of the leaders not only of all Britain’s allies and partners as well as of their own party leaders and the vast majority of experienced economists? Why did they vote for Brexit without any clear idea of what future arrangements can be made for Britain’s trade and economic well-being, and of how new and satisfactory terms can be agreed?
The leave campaigners repeated lies ad nauseam and peddled myths. They circulated stories about Brussels’ bureaucratic meddling and regulations. They recycled untruths about how much membership of the EU cost Britain. They promised to spend many times the alleged savings on crowd-pleasing measures such as more funding for the National Health Service and abolishing value-added tax on energy bills. They appealed to nostalgia for a time that never was and banged on about regaining sovereignty and security which they never defined or explained.
They dismissed all warnings from the remain campaign as “scare-mongering” and indulged unscrupulously in populism. They claimed to represent the “common man” against the “establishment,” which they asserted ignored the interests of ordinary people and was only concerned with the elite. They encouraged a protest vote against globalisation and the dominance of multi-cultural and relatively more prosperous London. In doing so they managed to obscure the fact that many of the leading figures on their side belong to the “establishment.” Boris Johnson, who was wheeled round the country as leave’s leading spokesman, was, like David Cameron, educated at Eton College and Oxford University.
They appealed unscrupulously to the latent xenophobia of the “man in the street” by harping constantly on the increasing number of immigrants. They alleged untruthfully that Turkey would join the EU and that Britain would be open to 80 million Turks. They asserted that Britain, whose population has been rising and is now around half of that of Japan, was overcrowded and that immigrants were putting unacceptable pressures on the National Health Service, schools and housing. They ignored the fact that many business rely on overseas staff to function and that immigration has contributed significantly to economic growth.
Referendums should not be necessary in a parliamentary democracy. This referendum need not have been held at this time nor governed by rules that prevented voting by 16 and 17-year-olds, and long-term British residents overseas who are likely to be seriously disadvantaged by the result. The referendum, which was supposed to settle the long-standing split between Euroskeptics and pro-European members in the Tory Party, has in fact deepened and exacerbated the rift. It has also split the country geographically and by age group.
The British government faces many serious problems. A new leader of the Tory party has to be chosen. Boris Johnson’s naked ambition to fill that role is patent, but there are many in the party who think that he is unfit for high office. He is a populist and admitted philanderer, but more important he is a peddler of untruths who tries to bluff his way out when faced with awkward questions. So there is an ABB (anyone but Boris) movement in the party.
The opposition Labour Party is also in difficulties. Jeremy Corbyn’s performance during the campaign was at best lacklustre. The party needs a new, younger and more charismatic leader to re-establish the party’s support among their grassroots in industrial areas. The most important issues include decisions on viable policies in foreign affairs and trade as well as on how to bolster an economy in deep shock. The British civil service lacks trade negotiators and will need to be strengthened. The Brexiters have not thought through any of the issues facing the country. Those who voted for leave will learn in the hard way that they cannot have their cake and at the same time eat it, i.e., freedom of movement and free trade go together. The writer served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.
— Courtesy: The Japan Times