In just under twenty-four hours, the United Kingdom will have decided. Not long after the polls close, we will then learn what we have decided. In one sense it will mark the end – the end of campaigning, persuading, and the agony of indecision faced by many voters. In a very practical sense however, tomorrow is not the end, but the beginning.
Part of the reason I posed two questions to determine how to vote in the referendum, was to highlight that we are voting for a future, not for the present. Whether we decide to Remain or to Leave, on Friday 24th June 2016 we wake up as a nation to a new series of challenges. Our choice is therefore not whether to stay the course for the status quo, but rather to decide which challenges we believe are most likely to bring out the best in us.
In the middle of what has been a bitterly divisive campaign it is important to remember what unites us – the hope and aspiration for Britain to play an outstanding role in helping all of the peoples of the world to flourish – not because we are better, but because it is worth aspiring for us to be doing the best we can for all human flourishing, not just the flourishing of our own nation. Whether we do this as part of the European Union, or outside of it, that goal does not change.
Given that the goal will not change, it seems prudent to ask what challenges lie ahead depending upon how we vote. I am fully prepared to face whatever outcome we wake up to on Friday: while I believe that it is better to leave the EU and hope that is what we decide, should we vote to remain it is important to set that to one side and endeavour to make Britain the best player in Europe. Below I venture a few thoughts on what challenges may lie ahead for either outcome:
Should we vote to leave …
There is no fairytale if we vote to Leave. I do not accept that the Chancellor will introduce anywhere near the catastrophe budget he projected previously, because in adversity you react strongly and positively to challenge. Nevertheless, the priority will be to set out quickly what the next steps will be. If there is a very narrow vote for Leave (by which I mean anything less than 51%) it could well be that the ramifications go beyond our shores. Other European nations are not entirely content with the EU and may decide to follow our lead. If the EU is pressured into wholesale reform by a Brexit vote, the government may well have grounds to offer a second referendum based upon the reformed EU.
There is no guarantee of that however, so we have to assume that the government would need to set out a timetable for separation from the EU. The government will be busy negotiating new deals, both with the EU and (more positively) with other nations spotting the opportunity to get a favourable deal with the UK. While this goes on, we must be ensuring that the government does not withdraw, but uses its freedom from Europe to become a positive force in international relations. We also need to positively step up to whatever the short term economic challenges would be that result from the vote.
Most crucially, we must all stick a proverbial two fingers up at Nigel Farage and love our neighbour. In speaking with friends, I cannot agree more that the biggest difficulty with the Leave vote is how it will make those who have immigrated to Britain feel. The only way we can overcome that if we vote to Leave is by committing to demonstrate as overtly as possible that we want migrants to continue to play a flourishing role in our nation. It means getting over our natural British reserve (or in my case, my crippling introversion and shyness!) and saying that leaving the EU is not about closing the door to the nations. Both at the level of our own streets and communities, but also as the government begins to pull together a post EU migration policy, we must actively share that culture so that it is warm, generous, and truly loving of our neighbour.
Should we vote to remain …
If we vote to remain, our attitude to Europe needs to change. We can no longer be disinterested in how the EU operates, or sneer that we are ‘in Europe but not of it.’ Having wedded ourselves to the project, if we remain we need to make it work well. That means that where a Leave vote means setting out a timetable for departure, a remain vote means setting out an agenda for reform.
Top of the list is an easy reform for home – changing the electoral system for European Parliament elections from the frankly awful Party List system to either Single-Transferable-Vote (as used in Scottish local elections and most Northern Irish elections) or the Additional Member System (as used in Scottish and Welsh devolved elections and the London Assembly elections). Our attitude to these elections needs to change from treating it as a glorified opinion poll on the national parties, to instead judging how our elected representatives are doing in Europe. I’d of course prefer First-Past-The-Post … but as the EU mandates we must use a proportional system, either STV or AMS are preferable for establishing a clear constituency link.
That reform would be easy – the rest sadly not so. An EU reform agenda would need like-minded statesmen from across Europe to have vision and political courage on a par with the framers of the United States Constitution. It would mean producing a roadmap to provide for the appropriate division of powers and responsibilities between the national and the supranational level, and providing for a genuinely federal, genuinely democratic Europe. The distinctly British contribution to this would also be a general commitment to liberty – the European tradition has been much more grounded in technocracy, and trust in the wisdom of a governing elite. In his book How We Invented Freedom, Conservative MEP Dan Hannan spells out the key difference of the Anglosphere – a commitment to individual liberty; a conviction that it is preferable that everything should be permitted unless it is prohibited (rather than the reverse in Europe); a persuasion that humans flourish more when they are freed from excessive restriction and regulation.
Of course – the reason I am voting Leave is that I don’t think the above is possible – I think the EU is culturally opposed to such a mindset. The ever-closer-union of the EU does not envisage individual freedoms and the principle of subsidiarity as set out in the US constitution, which makes me fundamentally nervous of being tied to it in the longer run. That said – if we vote to remain, then we must not shirk the challenge merely because it is difficult!
Regardless of how we vote …
There is a challenge for all of us that does not depend on the final outcome, and that concerns the health and vitality of the way we do politics. Just before the last General Election I made a plea which is echoed today in this post. Where the election was fraught for parties not reaching beyond their natural base, the referendum has been fraught for each side trying to win over the undecideds by demonising their opponents. One of my very first blogs on this site was simply entitled: Politics is missing basic courtesy. A recent article on Conservative Home put it differently but makes rather the same point: Our politics is unlikely to change unless we all do. As the author so eloquently puts it, it is much easier to carry the day when you adopt the moral high ground and paint your opponent as unethical – even evil. Sadly, democracy and governance is what ultimately suffers. Debate is stifled, thoughtful persons are reluctant to articulate their view lest they be attacked for it, and we make democratic debate a matter of how loud your point is, rather than how deep. There isn’t an easy or short way to fix this – and ultimately it is for all of us to ask what part we will play in encouraging our politicians to do politics better.
There is also an issue that I will revisit in future which relates to migration. While it will perhaps be more pressing if we vote to remain (as EU freedom of movement will remain uncapped) I think it still applies if we leave. Successive governments have enjoyed the benefit of inward migration in terms of reducing the price of goods, but ignored the costs to ordinary people in terms of the ever decreasing stock of housing and the ever increasing pressure on already over-subscribed services. Regardless of how we vote, the government must find the courage to face these challenges, and provide the infrastructure to match the needs of our society. Obviously this the issue is even greater and more nuanced than this, but it must wait for another day!
And finally – regardless of the outcome, we must all find a way to come together again. When I commented on The Christian Heritage of Voting, I observed that elections were not primarily divisive in function, but unifying. They were supposed to bring those who cannot agree together to one outcome. That is why I have maintained in all of my referendum posts that the important thing is not what we decide, but that we come together having decided. So one thing that all of us can do, regardless of how we vote, is to help move the conversation on post referendum – and face the new challenges together!