I agree with much of what Frank says, not least because he focuses on Ireland and its transformative experience of EU membership. There’s an awful lot in what he says about referendums, though I still think they do far too many of them.
He’s right to say that Brexit has been bad for the Republic, but probably not quite as bad as I (personally) feared. That’s largely to do with the fact that in spite of Boris Johnson’s promises to get Brexit done, the UK side of it really hasn’t been completed.
Now, according to The Observer, there’s been an interesting development in England…
Documents from the meeting, obtained by the Observer, describe it as a “private discussion” under the title: “How can we make Brexit work better with our neighbours in Europe?”
Those in attendance from the pro-Brexit side included the former Tory party leader Michael Howard, former Tory chancellor Norman Lamont and former Labour Europe minister Gisela Stuart, one of the leading figures of the leave campaign.
Among the prominent remainer politicians present were shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, shadow defence secretary John Healey and the former European commissioner and Labour cabinet minister Peter Mandelson, who acted as chairman. From the Tory remainer camp, the ex-cabinet minister and long-serving minister for Europe, David Lidington, attended.
One of the problems with Referendums is not just the polarisation it produces in the population but, as Paul Evans once argued powerfully here on Slugger:
- Referendums are often a framing exercise. We often don’t want either of the options we’re being asked to adopt, preferring one that isn’t on the ballot. Governments decide what the question is going to be anyway, and if they don’t like the answer that they get back, it can always become a never-end-um (see Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty)
- Referendums are often used to deal with the difficult questions that political parties dare not address during elections. They allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questions when they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook.
- They drive out the deliberative element in policymaking. The referendum question is an appeal to reflexes rather than an attempt to get a thoughtful response from the public.
This conference seems to me to be an attempt to clear the decks (without speculating too far into the future about issues like re-entry) in order to be begin addressing honestly the economic distress caused by the UK’s chaotic exit from the EU, bipartisanly.
It won’t have to result in agreed actions to benefit the UK. The focus on developing an internal consensus on what’s best for the country (re-establishing relations with mainland Europe) might bring relief from what Ed Straw calls dizzying zig zag politics.
The top priority for the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be to bring some sense that the UK economy is not only no longer in Free Fall, and is starting to turn a corner. Just missing out on recession is no excuse when trade elsewhere is motoring on.
Any prospective Labour government needs a recovery to kick in soonest if the huge spending needed to save an impoverished public service from collapse is to be found. Even if inflation abates, the resulting shrunken wage levels must be addressed.
From an Northern Irish (unionist and nationalist) point of view moving away from the high (but profoundly unanchored) rhetoric of the referendum era towards better relations with the EU can only benefit us, by rendering the protocol a formality.
What unionists are materially objecting to in the UK government’s negotiation of the current deal is that it effectively finds itself in a situation analogous to where mainland UK finds itself in relation to restricted imports from the EU.
Moving the UK closer to Europe may stem the material issue and (partially) address Unionism’s legitimate concerns on “imports” from Britain. And, possibly, make space for an accommodation over fears around the salami slicing of UK sovereignty.
“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty