Robert Milne joined the Ecology Party in 1979, graduated in soil science in 2006, and published a book on organic vegetable gardening in 2010. He campaigns for food gardening to be brought into the school curriculum, and as you’ll see, has strong views on Brexit. What do you think?
If you have a medical problem do you consult someone with no qualifications in medicine? If you want a house or factory designed do you ask someone with no training in architecture? If you have toothache do you go to a plumber? If you want central heating installed do you ask a dentist?
Who was qualified to vote?
There are tens of thousands of pieces of legislation that EU member states are subject to. Deciding whether to remain in or leave the EU is a very big and complex issue. Surely, one needs to be familiar with most of that legislation in order to be in a position to decide. Perhaps, to qualify for a vote on such a momentous issue one should have to attend a year’s evening classes on the subject. One of the points about having elected members of parliament is, I suggest, that it should be part of their job to be better informed than the average voter on matters about which they have to decide. One hopes, also, that they are above average in intelligence and wisdom.
I cannot see any logical reason why it should be assumed that a majority of those who vote in a referendum will make a decision that is in the best interest of the nation as a whole or even in their own best interests. For most of the First World War most of the population supported the continuation of that senseless carnage. Unless BBC Radio 4 was highly selective in whom it chose to interview in the weeks and months following the referendum, it was apparent from interviews with Leave voters that they voted Leave on the basis of a tiny amount of very one-sided information, a couple of laughably simplistic slogans, and much wishful thinking. On 5th December 2016 a man in the street was asked what he thought about Article 50. He said that he had never heard of it. He had voted Leave.
It is not known how well informed voters were about all the complexities of the EU, how much they understood, to what extent they were misinformed, or how altruistic and objective each voter was in coming to a decision. There was much anecdotal evidence to suggest that many who voted Leave didn’t really want Brexit and thought Remain would win, anyway, but they merely wished to thumb their noses at David Cameron. It was one thing to have a referendum but quite another to act on the result, especially as the majority was small.
Briefing paper 07212, published on 3 June 2015 and sent to MPs and members of the House of Lords, stated that the referendum would be “consultative only”, and not binding.
To say, ‘The people have spoken’ and ‘It is the will of the British People’ implies that everyone, adults and children, expressed a wish to leave the EU. That is not so. It was 17 million. The UK population in 2016 was 65 million. 37% of the electorate voted for Leave. Of the 12.9 million who did not vote, 2:1 would have voted Remain (Ipsos/Newsnight poll, 29.6.16).
Directly after the referendum there were two reports on Radio 4 News that there were higher than usual turn-outs in polling districts which, previously, always had low turn-outs for elections. Compared with the turnout in the 2015 general election the turnout for the referendum amongst those with a great deal of interest in politics increased by 1%, but amongst those with not much interest the increase was 11%, and amongst those with no interest in politics the increase was 13% (British Social Attitudes 34/The Vote to Leave the EU).
No politician dares to say anything that might be taken as criticism of voters. I am not a politician. Is it likely that voters who previously did not take part in the democratic process were, all along, experts on the EU and came to well- informed, deeply considered, altruistic and objective decisions? 22% of graduates voted Leave, whereas 72% of voters with no educational qualifications voted Leave. Wisdom does not necessarily correlate with educational attainment, but it just might be the case that graduates were better informed and made more objective decisions than those with no academic qualifications.
1) A majority decision is not necessarily the best decision.
2) The referendum result was not a majority decision – of the whole electorate.
3) If the whole electorate had voted, for what they really wanted, Remain would have won easily.
4) In many countries, for such an important decision, with such long-term consequences, a 60–40 vote or even two thirds majority would have been required.
5) As far as Parliament was concerned, the referendum was only advisory, not binding.
Conclusion: there is no mandate for Brexit.
Fear of riots
Since the referendum I have had the distinct impression that if the Government were to change its mind about Brexit there would be rioting in the streets, and that Government fears this would happen. Indeed, shortly after the referendum Nigel Farage hinted that this could happen. Later, a peer, perhaps with tongue in cheek, said that we would have to take to the streets and start breaking things. Fifteen Conservative MPs (the ‘Brexit mutineers’) were named and pictured in The Telegraph (15th November 2017) for threatening to vote with Labour to prevent the date of Brexit being enshrined in law. This resulted in their receiving threats of violence. Note: Remainers have not taken to the streets and broken things, and I have heard no reports of Brexiteers being threatened with violence.
One simple, basic reason for staying in the EU
Geographically, historically and culturally Britain is part of Europe. Europe has a club, therefore Britain should be a member. This alone is reason enough to remain in the EU. Yes, there is much that is wrong with the EU but the answer is not to walk away, like a petulant child saying, ‘I’m not playing any more!’ The grown-up thing to do is to stay in there and try to change things through reasoned, logical arguments.
Mutual benefit of membership
The EU was set up for the benefit of its members. Why would any nation want to be a member if that were not so? It should be obvious to anyone, therefore, that if one member decides to leave, at least with respect to the EU, that ex-member country will be worse off than when it was a member. A number of EU politicians have said as much. Britain is a major economy and a net contributor, but I believe those are not the only reasons other members want us to stay. The impression I have is that other EU members think we have made a foolish decision; they are dismayed and perhaps feel somewhat offended. Yes, of course, the prime minister will get the best possible deal, but the best possible deal can only be worse than the present one. The prime minister can still truthfully say that she got the best possible deal.
Can a worse deal, with respect to the EU, be compensated for by advantageous deals with non-EU countries? Oh dear, it seems to me that we will be in a weak position because all non-EU countries will know that we will be rather desperate. Of course plenty of countries will be keen to negotiate deals, but to their advantage. To hear some Brexiteers speak you would think we are still in the 18th century, when we swaggered around the world dictating trade terms, often to the ruin of traditional and well-established industries (steel in India, for example) and the social order in many countries. Trading arrangements that the UK currently has, as a member of the EU, with non-EU countries, will no longer apply. We will have to re-negotiate deals with each country separately. This will be time-consuming and costly.
As for the £350 million per week Brexit dividend – it would be laughable if it were not so serious. Such a simple calculation would only be relevant if nothing else changes, but everything else will change: trade with the EU and trade outside the EU. What is relevant, therefore, are the very complicated calculations of the over all benefit, or otherwise, taking into account all the changes in trading arrangements and the trade that actually results from them.
Moral compromises and lowering of standards
Does Brexit mean we will have to accept even more goods from the Far East, undermining still further, our manufacturing sector? In 2016 I searched for British-made light bulbs. I could not find any – it seems they are all made in China. Will Brexit lead to greater dependence on Chinese investment in the UK, resulting in the Government being even less likely to speak out against, for example, the 68-year-long brutal occupation of Tibet? I foresee increasing moral compromises as we become dependent on trade with countries with corrupt and unsavoury regimes. Our trade will, therefore, be helping to prop up those regimes.
It has been said that many people voted Leave out of disillusionment with politics, generally, and a feeling of being left behind in a globalised world. Were these the same people who, for the past 50 years, chose to buy cheap goods made in China rather than (I would argue, better quality and better value) British-made items, thus putting out of business a big proportion of our manufacturing sector?
Britain and Europe have high environmental and worker protection regulations compared with the rest of the world. Post-Brexit I foresee, as part of trade deals, our having to accept imports of goods manufactured to lower standards and also, having to lower our standards in order to compete. It will be the aforementioned disillusioned Leave voters who are likely to lose out most. The rich will always find ways to prosper whatever the political and trading situation.
The moral and environmental considerations are reasons enough for remaining in the EU.
Climate change implications
The EU, apart from the UK, is a ready-made bloc of 27 nations, of mostly similarly developed industrial economies. As a bloc they are nearer than Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia/New Zealand. In other words, the rest of the EU is nearer, much nearer, than the rest of the world. In my view, climate change is a bigger threat to humanity than anything else. If we must indulge in trade, it should be, mainly, with our nearest neighbours and minimised with everyone else. Leaving the EU and increasing trade with non EU countries means more carbon emissions.
This point, alone, is reason enough to stay in the EU.
Long-term connections with Europe
Over a couple of thousand years we have had more contact (often violent) with Europe than with any other part of the world. Although there are delightful differences between European nations, we do share a great deal in common, culturally. I do not believe we have a similar level of understanding with Asian countries, for example. It seems foolish to distance ourselves from familiar neighbours in the hope of better arrangements with less familiar and more distant countries. Yes, there is the Commonwealth, where there is much mutual understanding, but there is the distance/carbon emissions problem with these countries. Regarding the United States, as long as President Trump is in office, no one outside the US is going to get any free lunches from there. Perhaps the ‘America first’ policy will continue post-Trump. I would say we have more in common with Europe than with the US.
The EU is more than a trade organisation. It is the ‘more’ that many object to, of course. Again, we should stay in so that we can help determine what the ‘more’ should be. If we are out, not only will we have all the trade disadvantages of being out but the ‘more’ – closer co-operation politically, militarily and culturally – is likely to develop in ways that take little consideration of Britain’s interests.
The importance of the ‘more’ should not be underestimated. It includes the mediaeval monastic orders, the Renaissance, the Neoclassical and Romantic movements, shared appreciation of art, architecture, music and literature. Modern trade agreements could be seen as mere additions to the value of all this shared culture. While leaving the EU will not separate Britain from all that, it might erect a barrier in the mind, reminiscent of the old (apocryphal) headline “Fog in Channel; Continent cut off.”
For more than a thousand years European nations fought each other. At last, after two terrible wars in the 20th century, we seem to have achieved a lasting peace, not least as a result of the creation of the Common Market. In a dangerous world with rising, potentially threatening, powers, a closer (not necessarily ever closer) union is a good thing. We walk away from all that at our peril. Better the imperfect certainties of the EU than the unknowns of being outside. When I think of all the trouble we went through to get into the Common Market, it does seem foolish to be throwing it all away.
If we do leave the EU I believe that the other 27 states will feel snubbed by Britain. They might see us as behaving as though we see ourselves as fundamentally different, above being part of the club and, even, superior. However they see us I think it will be in a worse light than before. However much the prime minister expresses the desire for a close and good relationship, the relationship will have been soured. It cannot be the same. We will always be the outsider, the one who no longer wanted to be part of the team, playing by the rules that have been devised for mutual benefit. All this will not be good for all the many ways in which we will need to co-operate with EU nations in future. Also, I cannot see any of the 27 allowing the UK to be better off out than in, with respect to the EU.
I have always felt as much European as British. Now I feel embarrassed and ashamed to be British. In my view, Britain has made itself a laughing-stock by voting to leave the EU, and the Government is about to confirm that status by acting upon the result of the vote, especially as, according to its own ruling on the matter (Briefing Paper 07212) it is not obliged to act on the referendum result. We repeatedly hear Brexiteers and even Remainers saying ‘We must respect the referendum result. Why?
The Government should have the courage to say that, after much consideration, it has concluded that Brexit would not be in the interests of the United Kingdom. Of course, if they were to do that, we will never know what disasters will have been avoided. Leavers will complain they were denied the bright, prosperous future of being outside the EU, and denied ‘taking control’. Britain is no longer the dominant world power it once was. If the UK leaves the EU I can see us being increasingly alienated from our European neighbours, not just symbolically but in myriad practical and functional ways, as the other member states perhaps become more federal but certainly co- operate more in many ways concerning, for example, defence and security, climate change and environmental protection.
I do not think that being outside the EU will result in our being or allow us to be more powerful in the world, economically, militarily, diplomatically or culturally. On the contrary, I foresee future governments being preoccupied with (saving face and) saving the economy through a lowering of ethical and environmental standards in trading relationships, as already mentioned in the previous two sections.
I believe that immigration was a significant or the main reason that many people voted Leave. When the right of Free Movement of Workers was established in 1957 there were only six member states, six countries of comparable industrial development. I suspect it was not envisaged that workers would move from one state to another by the hundreds of thousands. It was only when eight former east European states joined in 2004 that people began moving in those larger numbers, from the east to the west.
There are three parties involved in migration: the migrants, the country they come from and the country they move to. What are the effects of migration on each? Presumably, migrants benefit materially. That is their motivation. The effect on their home country, though, must be negative, as the country loses mostly young, hard-working people in whom much has been invested through their education. How does that help the economic development of those countries? Does emigration, therefore, tend to perpetuate the pressure for emigration?
Opinions vary on the effects of immigration on the host country. There is competition for jobs and housing and pressures on education and healthcare. In some work sectors there is a depressive effect on wage levels. There is also much anecdotal evidence of positive discrimination in favour of immigrant workers: they are perceived to be good workers, less likely to complain and willing to work for lower wages. (They are a self-selected group that tends to have those characteristics). All these things cause resentment amongst the indigenous population.
We are often told that EU migrant workers benefit our economy because they pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits, but there are other things that should be considered. Some immigrants send money home to support family members; some save as much as they can for a few years then return to their home country to buy a house or start a business; perhaps most buy food imported from their country, in greater quantity than the rest of us do from the countries concerned; perhaps, also, most make annual or more frequent trips to visit their home country. All these represent a net loss to our economy and the last two necessitate fossil fuel-powered transport and, therefore, contribute to global warming.
When climate change really starts to affect us here in Britain, when food becomes scarcer, even with some rationing, when some items are no longer available, I fear it could be immigrants who will be seen as the extra mouths causing the shortages. In the long term, therefore, all three parties could lose out through migration. Or will we be happy to import food from our new trading partners in South America, Africa and India because we can afford to, while some people in those countries starve because they cannot afford to compete, and more natural habitat is destroyed to make available land to grow the food for us? Perhaps future food shortages will induce EU migrants to return to their country of origin where there is more land per head on which to grow food.
We often hear politicians say that Britain needs immigration, especially those with specific skills, in health care and IT, for example. This policy is simply unethical. What they are saying, in effect, is that they wish to steal, from mainly poorer countries, the cost of educating and training those workers. I suggest that it is the responsibility of each country to educate and train the workers it needs to run its industries and services.
It is also said that we need immigrants to harvest vegetables and fruit, and work in food processing, and in numerous other types of work. Shameful! What’s wrong with British young people that prevents them doing these jobs? From the age of 15 or 16 I, and a few friends, spent the school holidays working in an abattoir. It was hard work but we had plenty of laughs. More recently I have worked on farms in Norway and Iceland with people from various countries. I had even more laughs per minute than in the abattoir. Arduous and repetitive though farm work can be, when there is a group of, especially young, energetic and imaginative, people working together they will always find ways to have a lot of fun at the same time. Probably my experience on the farms would have been even more enjoyable if I had been paid and if I had been of a similar age to that of the other workers; I was a volunteer (through WWOOF) and was in my late fifties! Everyone enjoyed being outside, doing useful work, sorting out problems, the camaraderie, and the challenge of occasional ‘weather events’. I can recommend to school leavers to take a gap year, not spending money abroad but earning it on UK farms. I would even advocate the return of national service, with the choice of military or civilian work in agriculture or conservation.
If the EU would allow member states to cease all further immigration from other member states, that might just tip the balance against Brexit. It would be reasonable, I suggest, to offer relocation expenses. There would be no coercion. Only those who wanted to return would take up the grants. Therefore, they would be happy and their home country would benefit from the return of skilled workers with added experience. Pressure on housing, education and health care in the UK would be relieved, and support for hate-motivated right-wing movements would be reduced.
However, two things must accompany such a policy in the UK. Firstly, the Government has to get serious about ensuring that adequate numbers of young people are trained to do the jobs that, currently, they say we need immigrants to do. Secondly, the EU needs to do more to help the economies of member states so that young, hard-working and skilled people do not feel the need to emigrate. Neither of these policies can be implemented overnight, but the free movement has to stop first – its continuation would work against the two policies. It might mean that, in the short term, there is an increase in unemployment in the poorer states but perpetual emigration, with all the problems it can lead to, is not the answer. Of course, there need to be exceptions, for example scientists engaged in research.
From the perspective of the Welsh Marches it seems to me that a kind of collective madness has taken over in the Westminster bubble and the national media. I own up to deriving most of my knowledge about Brexit from BBC Radio 4. I believe they have been reasonably balanced in their coverage, although since the referendum there seems to have been a drift towards more air time being given to supporters of Brexit than to supporters of Remain. This might reflect changing general opinion, but I am not convinced about that and, anyway, on such an important issue it is vital to continue with a balance of voices. I could be mistaken but Remainers seem to have been cowed into silence by the aggressive rhetoric of Brexiteers.
In the campaign before the referendum, although I believe there was a balance on Radio 4, the issues covered were very limited and not pursued in sufficient detail and depth. Little was said about pan-European scientific research and EU environmental protection regulations, and not enough said about the many and complex consequences for manufacturing and financial industries. We have seen some negative effects but Brexiteers say it’s not that bad and, anyway, the negatives will be more than compensated for by the great opportunities post-Brexit. We haven’t actually left yet. No one knows what the consequences will be.
For months after the referendum I kept thinking, I’m going to wake up soon and find it was all a bad dream. Despite what we are repeatedly told, the whole process is reversible. As the Brexit chief negotiator David Davis said in 2012, ‘A democracy that has lost the right to change its mind has ceased to be a democracy.’ I am very wary about having another referendum, for the reasons outlined in the first section, Who was qualified to vote? I have no confidence that the popular media would provide comprehensive, unbiased information. However, to say that there should not be another referendum is like saying that there was a general election in 2017, we don’t need another one – there should be a Conservative government indefinitely! Lord Kerr, former UK ambassador to the EU, drafted Article 50. In July 2017 he stated that there is nothing in the text of Article 50 that precludes the UK from reversing the process of leaving the EU. This reversal can take place at any time up until the moment we are due to leave.
Now that we have a little more knowledge of the possible consequences of Brexit the Government should have the courage to allow a new debate on the whole issue, in much more detail than was the case before the referendum, and then to allow a free vote by MPs.
The EU: united where we need to be; delightfully different where we want to be!
Robert Milne, January 2018