The EU referendum – a disfiguring event

Geraint Talfan Davies, who chaired the Wales Stronger In campaign, reflects on the result.

Last Friday, 1st July 2016, was, as we all know, the 100th anniversary of the start of the Somme offensive in which by its end more than a million men from the European nations and the British Commonwealth were killed or injured. That evening at the Royal Opera House Welsh National Opera performed its newly commissioned opera, In Parenthesis, based on the experiences of the poet David Jones at one of the Somme’s constituent battles, Mametz Wood.

For many of us the power and poignancy of the opera only intensified the unbearable irony of the juxtaposition of this anniversary with the result of the referendum on our membership of the European Union.

For almost half the nation it had already been a week of mourning. Those who had gone to bed at the end of voting day, reassured by Nigel Farage’s premature conceding of defeat, awoke to the knowledge that their world had changed.

Yes, it was like a sudden bereavement. That terrible empty feeling of incomprehension. An inability to focus on anything else. A pathetic wish to rerun time’s tape so that this time the crash would not happen. A questioning of things done and not done, a scramble to pinpoint anything that might have diverted us all from what actually did happen. Then as one grey mist cleared, a red mist descended – a growing anger at fate’s multi-headed conspiracy.

There are millions of people who will have shared that experience in the days since 23 June – people who have never believed that Europe starts at Calais, people for whom their citizenship of Europe – passport and all – was a source of pride or, alternatively, who may have taken it for granted, part of the natural order of things. They have all felt this harsh jolt.

Others will have felt an even more piercing hurt: citizens of other member states who have made their own lives – and marriages – here; men and women who are and have thought themselves deeply embedded in their adopted communities, sharing in their problems, making their own distinct contribution, so that any sense of difference had, until now, been rendered immaterial except in the sense of enriching our sensibilities with their own. Theirs is a different, sharper pain.

After such a disfiguring event for the country the natural response would be look to a healing process, except that the immediate logic of the result is to make the rupture permanent. To sever ourselves from this union of 43 years standing will, in a formal sense, lock in a reduced joint responsibility for each other across  this continent. It will not be reduced to zero – many will do what they can to maintain networks of interest – but that will not be the same as whole nations operating together, day after day, year after year, the standing mechanisms of collaboration. The means to reach out will be, at the very least, much diminished.

All this would be hard enough to bear had it resulted from some force majeure – a natural calamity or a physical sundering of the ground, an inundation such as that which created the English Channel aeons ago. What makes it unbearable is the knowledge that it has been the result of a few months of ugly campaigning in which the Remain side’s realism – although often too stridently expressed – was not tempered with enough hope or idealism, and in which the Leave side indulged in a stubborn and unbridled mendacity such as we have not seen in our lifetime – a procession of lies.

The latter were aided by UKIP’s strut in the deepest gutter of debate – a thinly disguised thuggery of the word that, no matter how indirectly, was echoed in the frenzied murder of a young idealistic woman, Jo Cox, who had dedicated her life to her neighbour and her neighbour’s neighbour wherever they might be found in the world. Her life was and is a standing reproof to UKIP’s ugliness and what it has unleashed in too many mouths.

It is not only with hindsight that one can see the obstacles to a Remain victory:

  • the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse;
  • the unremitting, decades-long denigration of European institutions by large sections of the press;
  • world-wide public alienation from political processes;
  • the knowledge that the Conservative party has long been riven on the issue;
  • the emergence of the first Labour leader in decades with no enthusiasm for the European project;
  • and the eclipse of the most pro-EU party, the Liberal Democrats, in the 2015 election.

Against those underlying conditions, the package that David Cameron brought back from his rather desperate negotiation never looked convincing whatever the value of each constituent part. That is why, whatever the shortcomings of the Remain campaign, one has to look beyond it for some explanation of the result.

If, as I believe, this was a cry of rage by the ‘left behind’, in Wales one can look back to the decimation of the Welsh economy during the Thatcher years, or the inevitable downside of single party rule at the local level for half a century and more. But for the moment let’s stick to the last decade.

For me, a singular feature of the debate was the almost total absence of references to the financial collapse of 2007-8. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the decade that followed has been the relative lack of overt public anger. I stress ‘overt’ because it beggars belief that the public at large have not resented the way in which they have had to sacrifice their incomes and their own and their children’s life chances in order to bailout a banking system that had become a casino, and which managed to escape the imposition of any penalties on its boards and managers or even radical reform. When and where would this resentment surface, as it surely had to?

It did not do so in the elections of 2010 or 2015, except in a perverse, masochistic submission to a tendentious narrative that pinned all the blame on Labour mismanagement, not once but twice. Since Labour colluded by offering no counter – captured in Ed Miliband’s ineffective response to a mauling by an election studio audience in 2015 – Labour proved an unsatisfactory whipping boy. The 2010 and 2015 results, far from being a catharsis, simply increased the pain via George Osborne’s austerity budgets, while the system, the source of all the pain, remained in place with all its inequities.

Arguably, the burgeoning UKIP vote in 2015 and the election of Jeremy Corbyn were two manifestations of post-2008 public frustration, but again both were unsatisfactory. The UKIP vote ended with the election of but one MP, while the vote for Corbyn, although a cry for a more radical response to 2008, was stymied by the fact that Corbyn himself was so obviously unsuited to government and, therefore, unelectable.

In this situation it is not surprising that when it came to the EU referendum slightly more than half the country saw its chance to vote for direct action, whatever the consequences. The EU had always been a cat available to be kicked, but now it was placed conveniently close to the public’s hobnail boot by David Cameron. The RSPCA should report him to the police.

Nevertheless, the closeness of the result must drive anyone to the conclusion that the referendum was winnable for the Remain side, and especially so here in Wales. After all, the Remain argument had the full and active support of the UK Government, while at times it seemed the whole world was publicly urging us not to jump. In the end it would have required only 41,113 Welsh voters (2.5%) to have changed sides. Across the UK as a whole it would have required only 1.9 per cent, or 634,751, to have done so.

We faced the added – and wholly avoidable – problem of the clash with elections to the National Assembly and Scottish Parliament – an example of Cameronian carelessness or evidence of a continued inability to see beyond Hadrian’s Wall or Offa’s Dyke. This certainly delayed and weakened the engagement of party activists in Wales after 5th May. We also faced the major complication of Tata’s threat to withdraw from the steel industry in the UK. The First Minster’s need to travel to India to meet with Tata scotched plans for an early cross-party launch in the weeks after the Assembly elections.

It says something for the unshakeable nature of current public disillusion that Neath Port Talbot voted Leave, despite the active involvement in the Tata issue of the Welsh Government and one of the area’s MPs, Stephen Kinnock, the support of all the steel unions for Remain, and targeted Save our Steel leafletting by Stronger In in the locality. It was a not dissimilar story in northeast Wales where Flintshire voted Leave despite Airbus being one of the most vocal supporters of Remain.  

Another setback was the emasculation of civil society by the UK Government’s illiberal anti-lobbying regulations and fierce Charity Commission guidelines. In the 2011 referendum in Wales, many civil society organisations became fully engaged in the debates on the proposed new powers for the National Assembly. Many had produced evidence for the All Wales Convention in 2007. By contrast, in this referendum civil society organisations were almost invisible, scared off by the Charity Commission and often by independent legal advice. There may have been ways around the guidelines, but a climate of nervous fear prevailed.

Some have taken the vote to indicate the end of any Welsh distinctiveness in politics. That would be a premature conclusion. If Welsh voters can distinguish between Assembly elections and General Elections, as they do, there is no reason why they should not be able to spot the difference in a referendum on Europe. When one looks at Wales in comparison with the regions of England that voted Leave, we registered the second lowest Leave vote (52.5%), just behind the south east of England (51.8%).

One might have expected Wales to register a similar vote to the North East of England, a region that has suffered much the same kind of economic pain – yet the Leave vote there was the third highest – 58% – just behind the West and East Midlands (59.2 and 58.8 respectively).  

The vote also created a pecking order of pro-Remain capitals including Edinburgh (74.4), Glasgow (66.6), Bristol (61.7), Manchester (60.4), Cardiff (60), London (59.9), Liverpool (58.2), Newcastle (50.7), and Leeds (50.3). Three cities in the core cities network voted Leave: with Remain scores of – Birmingham (49.6), Nottingham (49.2), and Sheffield (49). It is noteworthy that Cardiff voted marginally more heavily for Remain than London, and 10 per cent more than Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, and Newcastle. Arguably, political devolution makes a difference.

But such analysis in the context of a referendum may be beside the point. The UK as a whole has taken a decision. How should those who disagree react? The first thing to stress is that it is neither dishonourable nor undemocratic to seek to overturn this result. It is what all defeated parties do after each election.

The result was not overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. It was not a vote in favour of a coherent alternative, or any plan at all. It was achieved on the back of claims that, in another context, would not have got past the Advertising Standards Authority. The time needed to negotiate new arrangements is more than sufficient to allow for a change in public opinion. There is already evidence of buyer’s remorse, especially here in Wales. There may even be enough time to see a significant change in attitudes to institutional reform with the EU itself. That said, any reversal of the referendum decision has, in the end, to be by similar democratic means.

In this situation it is in the interests of the UK and of Wales that we do not rush our fences. At the UK level there is a new government to be established, an opposition to be re-shaped, a negotiating team to recruited, and a set of objectives to be formulated, jointly between the UK Government and the devolved administrations. But on the other side, if enough countries within the EU really want to see the United Kingdom remain inside the fold, they will have to work quickly not only to decide on their approach to the coming negotiation, but also to shape an agenda for the EU’s own internal reform.

In the meantime it is in both our short-term and long-term interests that we should do everything possible to maintain our European networks at every level, and here at home to ensure that, while still citizens of Europe, we continue to make Europe’s case.

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