The results are now in. Two nations within the UK voted to leave the EU while two voted to stay. Every region in England outside of London voted to leave the EU. My own area of Oldham voted over 60% in favour of withdrawal. The Prime Minister, who campaigned vigorously for us to remain, has tendered his resignation. We now enter a period of complete uncertainty.
The Conservative Party will shortly need a leadership contest. Some are also calling upon the leader of the opposition to resign (though brexit has merely provided the latest opportunity to make such a call, it is not new). Quite why nobody is calling upon the leader of the Liberal Democrats to resign as well, given he campaigned to remain, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it is a symptom of their general political significance these days. This uncertainty may well trigger a general election and it is highly likely that Scotland will also press for a second independence referendum, the result of the first they aver being predicated on continued EU membership. The markets have responded to the uncertainty in kind and the pound has taken a significant knock overnight.
Given all of this, how ought we to respond to the result? What conclusions can we draw even at this early stage? I want to suggest a few.
A vote to leave the EU is not a mandate for brexiteers to govern the UK
It was much trumpeted in the run up to the referendum that a vote to leave was a vote for Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Such a suggestion is clearly nonsense. A vote to leave the EU was a vote on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. No more, no less. Agreeing with Farage, Johnson and Gove on the very specific question of whether we should remain in the EU does not, therefore, mean each vote also counts as an endorsement of every other view they hold.
In fact, the suggestion is demonstrably false. My own area of Oldham had a by-election shortly before the EU referendum. In that by-election, UKIP held a very public and prominent campaign. In the end, they garnered only around 4000 votes. Compare that to the 60% of the area, with a higher turnout than at the by-election, who voted to leave the EU. The Conservative Party candidate came in with a woefully low number of votes, behind UKIP and the Lib Dems. Clearly the people of Oldham West & Royton, staunch Labour supporters, were in favour of leaving the EU without offering support to the Conservative Party or UKIP. The same can be shown quite clearly across the country. In fact, it was noted time and again throughout the election coverage that the Labour grassroots were strongly weighted towards leave despite the position of their party leadership.
The point here is that a vote to leave the EU has nothing to say to any mandate any individual has to govern the UK. There is a case to be made as to why David Cameron had to resign (a similar decision was taken by Alex Salmond after he lost the Scottish Independence referendum). However, it should be noted that even those advocating brexit within the Conservative Party’s own ranks called upon Cameron to remain in post regardless of the result. Nevertheless, resign he has. But his resignation, and the result of this referendum, does not automatically give a mandate to brexit advocates to govern the UK people. Only a general election can do that.
Given the many grassroots Labour supporters who wanted out, it seems unlikely this referendum will translate into substantial gains for UKIP whenever the next election is called. In fact, the result of this referendum may make UKIP obsolete. Their raison d’être will ultimately be no more. Let me say it again: this referendum is not a mandate to govern the UK.
The nature of the debate and the reaction to the result has been ugly
The great sadness of this whole referendum is that much of it descended into mudslinging, lies, half-truths and pejorative. In the wake of the murder of Jo Cox, Jeremy Corbyn (rightly) called for a gentler, kinder politics. People on all sides of the house united to condemn the bile and hatred that led to her death. Yet, for all the rhetoric, the nature of debate hardly changed and the reaction to the result remains deeply unpleasant.
I was very clear about my reasons for voting leave (which you can read here). I would like to think anybody that knows me would consider my logic fair-minded and borne out of genuine principle. I would also like to believe (but may be deluded) that those who know me can honestly attest to the fact that I am not a racist and such thoughts played no part in my decision. I may like to think these things but reading comments from many friends – though not directed at me personally – rather challenge this perception.
Even if you are the sort of person who believes everyone who has ever considered voting UKIP must of necessity be a bigot, it is surely not tenable to consider over half the country all racist bigots in equal measure. Nor, as we have already said, can over half the country be considered in any way supportive of UKIP (4m votes will not get you into government, even on a more proportional system). Is it really inconceivable that most people might have voted leave for reasons totally apart from nationalism? Is it not at least possible that people may have voted leave for reasons that were not racist and xenophobic? Even the most basic understanding of charity and human decency insist we must at least concede the possibility.
A good friend of mine quoted me in the run-up to the vote. He has today given an excellent summary of the nature of this debate. So, I quote Joe Byrne below:
In what probably represents some kind of poetic justice after my own reaction to the last General Election, I find myself understanding a lot more why so many Conservative supporters were hurt by unsavoury comments made about their motivations/reasons for voting the way they did.
As someone who was genuinely wavering between Leave and Remain right up to the point I voted, I could easily have gone either way. So it is disheartening this morning to read so many comments from friends assuming that those who did vote to Leave the EU did so for racist, bigoted, isolationist, small-minded, idiotic or ill-informed reasons.
Sadly, this was characteristic of a debate where it felt that neither side was really listening or interested in engaging or respecting the other perspective. I fear we are heading down the route of becoming as sharply divided politically and completely entrenched as the USA seems to be.
We need understanding and dialogue, not accusation and labelling. As someone who has been guilty of the latter, I find this morning a stinging rebuke to my own arrogance and presumption.
Politics is still London-centric
While every region within England voted to leave the EU, Londoners were keen to remain. We could analyse and assess all the whys and wherefores of that particular anomaly but others will do that elsewhere. What is worthy of comment is that it further shows how London-centric our politics remains. Our Westminster-focused politicians were, by and large, in favour of remain. This manifestly reflected the views of metropolitan Londoners but was clearly out of step with the rest of the country.
The only part of the UK where the politicians and people seemed in line with one another was Scotland. There, every party leader favoured remain and so the people voted. Now, one could argue that it was the unity of the political leaders what won it. But, with the exception of UKIP, evidently that same unity within the English parties did not translate into a remain vote. It further underlines the distance between our elected representatives and the people they represent. Politics so easily gets dominated by London and what Londoners think so often gets mistaken for what everyone else must think too.
With Scotland likely to want another referendum, our exit from the EU making a decision to cede from the UK more probable, the issue of regional parliaments must surely be considered. We have already seen a seismic shift in the popular vote for any government, the rise of SNP has further clouded election results and this referendum cements the view that Britain is not a monolithic cultural bloc. Scotland does not think as Wales, the North does not think like the South, most of the UK does not think like London. Devolved regional parliaments are surely the next major constitutional question.
The markets will recover
One of the issues when people speak of ‘the markets’ is that they are not tangible. People presume it is some abstract entity utterly beyond our control that fluctuates at will. But the pound going up and down, the strength of markets, revolves around the confidence of certain people trading. Naturally, when there is uncertainty, they are not inclined to plough their money into things. When the future is more certain, and profits more readily perceived, then things settle down.
So it should come as no surprise that the pound has taken a battering overnight. Interestingly, just before the result when everyone was convinced we would remain, the pound shot up to its strongest position in months. The brexit result quickly saw it fall again. The reality is not that brexit will topple the markets. The issue is that the market, for the meantime, is uncertain. What will future trade look like? How will sales be affected in Europe? Will trade from outside outweigh the any loss from inside the EU (if, indeed, such a loss come to pass)? These are all unknowns at the moment. Economists have offered their best guess but, in truth, their economic models are not much more than this. All of them have to make certain presumptions that are anything but sure.
Nonetheless, the markets will likely recover. What needs to be regained is certainty. Eventually, somehow, certainty will be regained. We will not be in flux forever. The UK was the worlds 4th biggest economy before joining the EU. We are now the world 5th biggest economy. Now, I don’t say that to lay the drop of one place at the door of the EU (none of us know where we would be had we not joined), it is to say that we had a big and strong economy before EU membership and there is no reason to believe our economy will not remain strong outside. In their more honest moments, even the remain side said during the campaign that Britain would be economically fine. The markets will ultimately recover. An overnight drop in the pound does not mean we are staring another Great Depression in the face.
God remains sovereign
In the run up to the vote, I spoke a lot about the importance of sovereignty. More important than democratic sovereignty is that held by God himself. He still remains in sovereign control. Whether you voted to leave or remain, God’s sovereignty has not diminished. We can still entrust ourselves to him and his good care.
As a total and complete eschatalogical aside (such as you, dear reader, are interested in such things), I wonder what brexit does for the (typically) premillenial view that the EU represented the beast of Revelation? If our leaving does not lead to the breakup of the EU, I suppose one may still hold the position though we would stand outside of it. But if our leaving the EU does lead to its ultimate demise, as some predict, the premillenial view famously advanced by Ian Paisley (amongst others) will surely have to be reassessed. Not being premillienial myself, our leaving the EU (nor its potential future breakup) does very little to affect my eschatology but the question does strike me as interesting nonetheless.