Missing the point on Brexit

I saw an astonishing tweet yesterday about the topic of Brexit and Scottish independence from Wes Streeting, the Remain-supporting Labour MP for Brexit-voting Ilford North, in Greater London.

I want to take forward two strands of thought from this original tweet. In the first, I really ought to thank Mr Streeting for the motivation to put finger to keyboard on a topic I’ve been mulling over for a long time – the stark and deep differences between the process of withdrawing from the EU and the process of Scotland becoming independent. The two are – despite what many opponents of independence say – entirely incomparable.

So in a later post I will explain why I think the two are diametrically opposed both ideologically and practically.

But secondly, in this post, I wand to briefly dwell, uncomfortable though it may be, on the fact that a Labour MP – Labour! The party of internationalism, socialism and equality! – should be so dismissive and disregarding of the racism and illegality at the heart of Brexit.

As he argues, Brexit is complex and painful. Agreed. But that complexity and pain does not come from the mere process of withdrawal. Brexit could have been, in a different world, orderly and mutually respectful. I’d still have disagreed with it, but can imagine that the process could have been so much better.

For a start, the complexity and pain could have been avoided with a much more informed and carefully planned campaign. With information only dripping out now about how the government might propose dealing with tricky issues such as trade, immigration or the Irish border, it’s manifestly obvious that those voting in the referendum were doing so without the fullest information. I certainly didn’t have all the facts when I voted, but specifically those campaigning to leave were doing so without a clear view of what leave would mean.

Blame for this, of course, lies squarely with David Cameron, the former Prime Minister who decided the vote should happen.

Rather than calling a snap referendum and hoping everything would be alright, he should have commissioned work outlining what a post-Brexit relationship would and should look like, drawing on expertise from across business, the civil service, academia and, yes, politicians of various Leave-inclined shades. The EU could even have been consulted, to talk through theoretically what direction a negotiation might take and what outcomes might be mutually acceptable and therefore most realistic.

This would then – however disagreeable the picture might have been to opponents – have presented a clear and informed choice to people as to what a likely Brexit would look like, with the risks and benefits set out in detail. The referendum could then have been called with the two options set out by two competing campaigns.

As such, we voted on an unclear proposition that has had the government tied in knots ever since the result. The complexity and pain can be traced directly back to this bungled approach by Cameron.

Indeed, as many other examples have shown, withdrawals and secessions can be smooth and orderly rather than complex and painful. Look at Norway’s independence, or indeed Iceland’s, or the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

And, as I have argued before, to simply write off all withdrawals and secessions as complex and painful, wherever and however they occur, is historically ignorant and a considerable diplomatic insult to those new countries. Does Wes Streeting want tell our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland that their independence was complex and painful and thus should be revoked? Or our allies in Lithuania or Slovenia? Or our former colonies?

Of course he doesn’t. Because it is not the theoretical idea of withdrawal that is complex and painful, but the specific way that the UK has gone about Brexit.

As I argued in a short thread of tweets in reaction to Wes Streeting’s comments, the problem with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was not the general principle of withdrawal but the racism and illegality that characterised (and still characterises) Brexit.

Let’s look at the racism first, where Mr Streeting is being either deeply ignorant, or – worse – jawdroppingly callous. We cannot forget that his parliamentary colleague Jo Cox was murdered during the referendum campaign – not due to Brexit’s complexity and pain but due to the racist atmosphere its advocates created.

There have been a terrifying array of reports of racist crime increasing as a result of Brexit, of people leaving the country, and of course of the fear and uncertainty that has been created by the UK Government’s use of EU nationals as bargaining chips who have to now apply (with no guarantee of success) to stay in this country – their home.

This is not something to be proud of, nor a feature of a country I want to live in.

And secondly, regarding the illegal activity, there are now a number of ways in which the referendum result must be acknowledged as invalid, from unpermitted cooperation between Leave groups, to undeclared overspending, and possible Russian interference. Not to mention the scandal over the misuse of people’s data.

As the brilliant investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr writes in this article:

“All told there are currently nine criminal or serious investigations into possible misconduct during the referendum (at least four of which involve [UKIP donor and Leave.EU funder, Arron] Banks).”

How on earth can a result be respected when the debate was too short, the electorate ill-informed, and the referendum dogged by at least nine potential areas of illegal activity on just one side of the campaign?

And how can MPs like Wes Streeting not know or care that this defining feature of Brexit was not in any way inherent in the general idea of leaving the EU, but one that our political system permitted to happen?

Secessions and withdrawals don’t need to be like this. Brexit didn’t need to be like this. And, as I hope to argue in my next post, the moves (past and current) for Scottish independence are a world away from this horror show.

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