Electron Dance

The Farfield: What You Voted For

The Farfield is an occasional series where I write about something other than gaming.

“I think when people voted to leave the EU they wanted an end to free movement, free movement will end. They wanted us to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK, that will end. They wanted us to stop sending the vast sums of money to the EU that we do today – so take control of our money, our laws and our borders – and that’s exactly what we will do.” - Prime Minister Theresa May

* * *

In 2004, I was excited to return to the UK because Britain felt like a foreign land. I had lived in Japan for nearly five years and mourned the loss of my identity of “a foreigner in Japan”. I kept a lid on that emotion, but it festered and eventually blew up after the first year back turned out to be anything other than honey and roses. A protracted period of soul-gutting unemployment. An eviction. But I did not plan to stay forever. I wanted to get back to being foreign.

But once our son arrived, I abandoned my plans to move elsewhere. I don’t want to say I was stuck in Britain, but I was stuck in Britain. The only thing that would get me out of the country now would be some sort of golden opportunity we couldn’t possibly pass up or, I don’t know, a major catastrophe.

A few months ago, at dinner, I suggested we might have to consider leaving the UK.

* * *

I had dallied with the idea of voting for Leave. I was hand-on-heart convinced that leaving the EU would be a downgrade but I thought it might be just desserts for those people who had craved to leave the EU for decades.

Then I watched a video by Professor Michael Dougan where he went through the serious problems that must be faced if the UK decided to leave the EU. We’ll have to reproduce all those free trade agreements we currently have under the umbrella of the EU and FTAs take years to negotiate. The gravity theory of trade, which has strong empirical support, declares that countries trade most with their nearest neighbours - cool trade agreements and the internet make no difference - and Brexit resets and potentially poisons relations with our nearest trading partner. And then there was the threat to the delicate Good Friday Agreement, which relied on Northern Ireland and Ireland both being inside the EU.

And that was that. I took warnings about what might happen to the UK post-Brexit more seriously. Then MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right thug and I began to sense the referendum was pulling hard at the seams of British society. Hopefully, after the referendum, it would all be over. We would stay in the EU and that would be the end of that. We wouldn’t have to talk about Brexit again.

On the morning of June 24, 2016, I opened my phone to check the result of the referendum.

I felt sick.

* * *

A majority of voters in the referendum voted to leave and did not vote to sign a new comprehensive treaty binding us back into features of the EU.” - John Redwood MP

* * *

Although I never quite got over the idea of leaving the EU, I accepted that Brexit was going to happen.

But there were early red flags that Brexit was going to be an unmitigated disaster, a project carried out through intuition and instinct rather than smarts and strategy. So out the door goes Sir Ivan Rogers, UK’s Ambassador to the EU, with the kind of expertise you would expect to provide useful perspective in Brexit negotiations. Theresa May invoked Article 50 in March 2017 even though it seemed no serious thought had been afforded UK’s negotiation strategy. Then she called a snap general election, burning valuable time, after insisting repeatedly that she would do no such thing. Boy, we were so innocent back then: we had no idea how untrustworthy May would turn out to be.

The civil service is the engine of government, ensuring stability and continuity in the face of Cabinet reshuffles and elections, yet as Brexit progressed it was losing people hand over fist - particularly the Department for Exiting the EU. A strong civil service would be vital to see us through the most complex transformation the UK would ever undergo.

As the Brexit negotiations rumbled on, it seemed they were going absolutely nowhere. Remember the good times when David Davis decided to reframe an agreement with the EU negotiators as merely a “statement of intent”? If you look like an unreliable negotiating partner, how well do you think that will go down in future trade negotiations? This, again and again and again.

And if your favourite thing is listening to blowhards who pretend to know they are talking about, boy it was Christmas every day. We can get a transition agreement in a no-deal situation. We can renege on payments we already committed to. We can add an end date to the Irish backstop. Look at me driving from France into Switzerland, why on earth would there be any customs problems?

It was amateur hour on Planet Bioshock.

* * *

Changing your mind about anything significant is a hard thing. It might feel like a switch has been flicked, a sudden moment of clarity, but that’s just the point it comes together. A change of mind is the end of a journey, one you might not have even realised you were on.

It’s often not a journey you embark on willingly or personally shape. Your change of mind is as much the work of others, providing you with counterpoints and oppositional perspectives, as your own. The road turns. You realise you’ve ended up somewhere unexpected.

You cannot overturn an existing understanding of reality through the power of raw logic. You cannot shout ideas out of someone’s head. You cannot expect statistics to be convincing in a world which can make epic scientific mistakes and regularly talks fanciful theories into grim reality. You cannot click your fingers to replace one belief with another. There are no magic words to make them fall in love with your ideas.

And I’m not sure how many Remainers get this.

* * *

People did not vote for a deal. They voted to Leave.” - Jacob Rees-Mogg MP

* * *

Remainers felt the country had turned against them. They needed to find somewhere safe to hole up as the storm raged outside and sought out other Remainer tribes to feel like the world still made sense. They were not alone. They gravitated towards anyone putting out positive messaging about the EU and shooting down the lies of Brexitannia. Maybe they liked to listen to Cakewatch or Remainiacs. Maybe they loved the cheeky chats of the #3Blokes In A Pub. Perhaps they liked Femi Oluwole of Our Future, Our Choice just telling it like it is. And how could anyone find fault with the muted anger of James O’Brien?

Remainer projects are launched with the best of intentions but inevitably their ambitions fail. They offer chapels for the converted without significant outreach. They inadvertently amplify the hostility, the tribalism. I liked #3Blokes In A Pub when they started out but their contempt for Leave was so strong that the Google Translate for each episode was “only an idiot would sign up for this”; it also didn’t help that Jason Hunter sometimes put out information that was wrong and did not own up to it.

I like James O’Brien but he has a habit of tripping up his Leaver phone-ins not only with facts but also interruptions that keep the inexperienced caller off-balance; they do not make for convincing listening if you wear the colours of Team Leave. O’Brien recently coined “contempt for the conmen, compassion for the conned” which hits the spot on face value but insinuates Leavers are the weak ones who fell for cheap lies.

Even Caroline Lucas’ well-intentioned Dear Leavers project emanates a schoolteacher vibe: we all know you did wrong, but how about we listen to you and forget about the whole thing? I suspect, though, that Dear Leavers is more about adjusting the attitudes of Remainers than Leavers.

And let’s not forget the narrative of the Leave campaign illegally over-spending and possible Russian interference. This is the same old story. You were manipulated. You were lied to. You fell for it, idiots.

The Remain/Leave needle has barely moved since the referendum.

Remain evangelism has been a failure.

* * *

Leavers are people left behind by contemporary politics and globalisation. An underclass crushed under the heels of austerity, desperate for change. If London doesn’t like it, then it’s sure to be good news for the rest of the country.

Leavers are anti-immigration racists. Foreigners are parasites. They steal from our NHS. They steal from our welfare state. They’re changing what it means to be British.

Leavers are people who fear an incessant march towards a United States of Europe and UK self-determination will be lost. Take back control.

Leavers are people who wish to usher in a golden age of socialism, rejecting the neoliberal forces that bind the EU.

Leavers are people who embrace the Shock Doctrine, using the neoliberal project of Leave to burn regulations, crush tax rates, starve the State and usher in a golden era of a truly free market. Put the NHS out for tender.

Leavers are the English who are prepared to let Northern Ireland go to hell and for Scotland to depart the UK just to escape the clutches of the EU. It is a Brexit for England.

There is no Leaver archetype. There are only people.

* * *

“The Government's deal is not Brexit. Whilst no-deal should not be feared, we have within our grasp a Canada-style deal which delivers a true Brexit. This is what 17.4 million people voted for in June 2016.” - David Davis MP

* * *

While it might have felt that Euroscepticism never had the ear of government, we have seen decades of newspapers demonizing the EU.

Now, we need critical stories about the EU. Back in 2015, I wrote about the European response to the Greek crisis. I warned that subjecting Greece to crippling austerity would drive anti-EU sentiment and added: “Consider this is happening at a time when the UK is going to hold an in-or-out referendum on EU membership in the next couple of years.” And the new European Copyright Directive looks like a complete shitshow, but note that this was supported by both the Conservatives and Labour in the UK.

The news media in the UK simply do not talk very much about the EU and, when they do, it’s usually over whether British chocolate might be called ‘vegelate’ (although there was a real chocolate war), bendy bananas and a general over-enthusiasm when it comes to regulations. Check out the rather long Euro-myths page which has rebuttals to stories such as like “EU to rename mince pies”, “EC to ban noisy toys”, “Euro-loo to replace British toilets” and “Cod no longer to be called cod thanks to EU”.

Front pages following Put It To The People March (L) and the Leave Means Leave March (R)

You’ll find some positive stories - the EU implemented legislation to all-but-eliminate mobile roaming charges and they banned credit card surcharges which the UK government talked about as if it was all their own doing. But as far back as the early 90s I’ve longed for the workings of the European Parliament to feature in our news more, so EU decisions don’t seem to coalesce out of some foreign nether.

But a particular kind of Euroscepticism was constantly fuelled by the British tabloids. We would come to know this as Leave.

* * *

Take back control. Sovereignty and self-determination. Democracy and the will of the people. This is what Leave is all about, that’s what I keep hearing from politicians. Yet some of those arguing for sovereignty and democracy are working the hardest to subvert it.

Want a second referendum to ask the people if this is the Brexit they want? No dice, because another exercise in democracy would be anti-democratic. There are definitely thorny issues around a second referendum, but not because it’s anti-democratic. And while Theresa May asks Parliament again and again whether they’ve changed their mind after a few weeks, whatever you do, don’t ask the people. It’s only been three years, I’m sure nothing's changed.

It gets better. We must suppress Parliamentary sovereignty to win our sovereignty back. To make sure foreign powers cannot intervene in our affairs, let’s ask foreign powers to intervene in our affairs and force a crashout Brexit. Better still, let’s just close Parliament to stop democratically elected MPs interfering with democracy. And nothing could be more supremely democratic than getting the Queen to overrule Parliament.

This all ignores that the EU will continue to have influence on the UK. If you want to trade with the EU, you’re still going to have to meet EU regulations for anything you sell there. The big change after Brexit is that your own government will no longer have any input into shaping those regulations.

All I’m saying is good luck with the next chocolate war.

* * *

“But it is equally clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23rd to become poorer, or less secure.” - Philip Hammond MP

* * *

“After all the division and discord, the country is coming together,” said Theresa May in January 2017.

Before Leave there was Euroscepticism. While the UK Independence Party channelled some of that discord, Euroscepticism did not dominate UK politics. I do not wonder how it felt to be a Eurosceptic all those years, to be considered fringe, to have no voice. Because I know.

48% had voted Remain. That’s half of the vote; let’s call it half of the country.

In this context, triumphalism would be a dangerous game. But they played that card anyway. Under Theresa May, the “will of the people” became the name of the game. Don’t you mean the will of half the people? And thus began the Brexit project to delete not just all those Europeans who live here, but the offensive 48% from the equation. You lost the vote. Don’t remoan. Don’t fight. Don’t sabotage. Don’t betray. Don’t be a traitor.

That jingoistic atmosphere did not augur well.

* * *

Jingoism is super good for war. But is it any good for a complex political and economic project like Brexit?

As a referendum option, Remain was concrete and solid: it was a plan to do nothing. Leave was not a plan - it was an idea. It has been argued that Remain was just as unknowable as Leave because no one really knows what the consequences of staying inside the EU will mean - the Euro in Britain? A European Federation? I’ve always felt that’s a pretty weak argument, to identify the existence of time as your flaw.

The Leave campaign made a point of having no Leave plan because Eurosceptics could never agree on what form leaving the EU could take. Instead, Leave became about the idea of leaving, of getting out of the EU which was hobbling British sovereignty, selling our strength while confessing fragility in the face of immigration.

Do not think of how it is to be done. Think only that it must be done.

All of this energy was useless in the face of actual negotiations. You couldn’t propagandize yourself out of the EU.

* * *

“As No Deal approaches (what 17.4m people voted for) the project fear mongers become aware that they had better start trying to save face and personal credibility, fast” - Nadine Dorries MP

* * *

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn. He really shook things up. He vowed Labour Party members would decide party policy. His new party leadership would respect their decisions. And then the party decided it was in favour of a second referendum and Corbyn, a closet Brexiter, decided to ignore it.

Corbyn has been dancing on the head of a pin for some time. It’s known as a triangulation strategy and, on Brexit, the Labour party have presented ambiguity about their position. Keep everybody happy. But what started out with pithy phrases like a “jobs first” Brexit has degraded into a dog’s breakfast.

As the ERG cabal in the Conservative party pushed increasingly for a hard Brexit, the official opposition provided no real opposition. Corbyn wanted rid of the EU for many reasons, one of which was renationalising the trains. Good for him. I imagine he also plans to fiddle on his nationalised choo-choo while Britain burns.

Those of us looking for a ray of hope found none. The Labour Party was concentrating on the prize of a general election. Would no one save the country from a gang of ERG madmen with delusions of intelligence?

* * *

I started to feel anxiety as the Brexit negotiations dragged on through what appeared to be a thoroughly astonishing lack of smarts on the UK side. When were they going to hit the moment of “we’ve got to sort this out”? Apparently, never. Theresa May brought things to a head last November, reaching an agreement with the EU that she told her negotiating counterparts she could get signed off in Parliament. Except that turned out to be false.

The agreement itself was horrible. Most of the coverage has focused on the dreaded backstop which guarantees the UK is stuck in a “single customs territory” and will continue to support many EU rules and regulations to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and thus protect the Good Friday Agreement. But there are many other questionable aspects of the withdrawal agreement such as why the transitional period cuts us out of all EU decisions while subject to all of EU law.

No one liked the “deal”. But then something which seemed lost on most was that it was not really a deal but a prelude to a deal. I mean, it’s actually called the Withdrawal Agreement. And as no one could agree on what the phrase “leaving the European Union” meant - a semantic catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions - some people who asserted they were smart concluded there was only one Brexit that really worked. A Brexit without a deal.

These advanced thinkers had cut the Gordian knot! Amazing! Why didn’t anyone think of this before? Was it because it was economic insanity? And proponents for this “no-deal” Brexit or “WTO Brexit” offered a very convincing case against the Remoaners of Project Fear:


And that GATT Article XXIV thing was total brainwank because it’s really about two parties agreeing to a deal. If the EU and UK are not agreeing on anything then it is meaningless.

But a cabal of MPs continued to push the no-deal Brexit and some of the population found the idea attractive. After all, we’ve had enough of rules. Why not just tear up the rulebook and be done with it?

And the crashout plan began to acquire a disturbing momentum.

A momentum which made me gravely anxious.

* * *

People trade on WTO terms all the time. But no one goes from smooth trade agreements with all their major trading partners to… absolutely nothing overnight. People have trade agreements because they are so much better than the baseline WTO terms. And proper trade deals take years to mature. The UK has not had to negotiate one for decades because it has been part of the EU - and the EU has been responsible for them.

Crashout Brexit would mean all exports to the EU become painful. Currently, for example, our food is good for export to the rest of the EU, but Crashout Brexit means all meat exports destined for the EU27 will need to go through stringent EU certification requirements - and Britain literally does not have the veterinary resources to do this.

Crashout Brexit means the UK would struggle to feed itself as it is only self-sufficient for 60% of its needs. Farming in the UK is not ready to fill this void so it has been recommended we drop tariffs and regulations on food imports… but as British farmers are particularly vulnerable to Brexit challenges it would pretty much destroy them.

Crashout Brexit means problems for pharmaceuticals, airlines, hauliers and, let us not forget, ordinary people. This is by no means a complete list.

Crashout Brexit would also mean a border in Ireland: not a backstop, but a full stop.

The EU has already done its preparations for no-deal. It has implemented temporary legal solutions to cover the early months. For example, it will allow limited air traffic to fly between the UK and the other EU nations for around nine months. But naturally this was proposed to serve EU interests and not that of the UK. It will not resolve issues around customs, “rules of origin” problems for manufacturing nor the Irish border.

Crashout Brexit is not a solution to the Brexit problem. It replaces it with a myriad of different, more serious problems, some of which are unforeseen, yet all of which would need to be addressed simultaneously.

* * *

People voted to leave the Single Market and Customs Union.” - Question Time audience member

* * *

The EU referendum was not binding.

This meant the UK government was entirely free to ignore the result.

But it acted as if it was binding. Serving the will of the 52%.

It has since been shown that the Vote Leave campaign broke the law during the referendum.

If the referendum were binding, this revelation of corruption could possibly have invalidated the referendum result. I mean, imagine if this was a general election.

However, the referendum was not binding and thus there is nothing to overturn.

But the government acts as if it was binding.

* * *

Nobody voted to leave the single market and customs union.” - Ian Murray MP

* * *

As time marched relentlessly towards March 29 without resolution and the danger of accidental crashout Brexit rose, I found the whole thing pretty stressful. I would say my obsession with Brexit politics is unhealthy.

I had been struggling to figure out what endpoint I wanted. I mean, obviously, I would have liked the UK to Remain in the EU but with half of the country still supporting Leave, that sounded like a recipe for disaster. Yet May’s deal sounded absolutely awful and as she had spent months of valuable time attempting to blackmail Parliament into supporting it, I couldn’t condone giving in to such bullying. I was more open to a second referendum between May’s deal and Remain - I could live with the country deciding to opt for the deal even though it was horrible. But another divisive referendum? All I knew is that I didn’t want no deal.

So the petition to Revoke Article 50 was like this wonderful salve. I knew - we all bloody knew - the petition would not push Theresa May to announce, “You know what? That sounds like a champion idea. I’m off to run through a field of wheat!” But it was helpful on the back of this incessant crashout Brexit anxiety and a feeling like we had been deleted from the “will of the people”. And then the march, which I was unable to attend, was pretty wonderful stuff. We’re still here, you fuckers.

But it brought me to a decision. I was backing Revoke.

Here’s the thing. A lot of Leavers think, after Brexit, it will all be over. We would leave the EU and that would be the end of that. We wouldn’t have to talk about Brexit again.

Because of the jingoistic narrative that May encouraged and lost control of, a Brexit with any deal will be selling out to the EU, a vassal state. Cries of betrayal. In fact, signing up to the withdrawal agreement is just the beginning: the next phase of negotiations are going to be much harder. And if you thought the current team did a pretty shit job thus far, imagine the political delights awaiting you over the next few years. It will not be the end of Brexit.

A crashout Brexit will be economic ruin and committed Leavers will attempt to pin that on everyone else just like Lord Digby-Jones recently claimed damaging Brexit economic uncertainty is down to Remainers. And the Brexit news will continue for years as the UK negotiates with the rest of the world from the ground floor. This is the endless night of Brexit.

No one voted to be permanently dissatisfied. No one voted to be told what they voted for.

Look, if anyone can make up what voters voted for well, screw it, I tell you the people voted for revoking Article 50. A vote for Leave was a vote for Remain.

The people want Brexit to come to an end quickly. Revoke is the only option that delivers this. Remain avoids further economic self-harm and satisfies at least 48% of the population. Brexit does neither.

But whatever happens, Jo Cox is still dead.

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  1. As this post was taking so long to write – originally planned last year, but I’ve spent the last few weeks on this – a lot of topics I hoped to cover were dropped. The essay was long enough anyway.

    * I wrote to my MP to explain why I put my name to the petition. I later found out he was one if the crashout clan.
    * the Liberal Leave crowd have turned away from the Brexit process and are calling for Revoke
    * I find the commentary I get from Liberal Leavers like Roland Smith and Oliver Norgrove really useful
    * Remainiacs is the only pro-Remain project I follow consistently. Their podcast with David Allen Green and Roland Smith is the best podcast I listened to all year.
    * I am concerned about how the far-right are being revitalised by Brexit. Attempts to disrupt public transport may only be the beginning, depending on where we end up in the process.
    * I used to listen to Novara but they’ve been putting out Lexit nonsense and I couldn’t bear hearing Aaron Bastani say ‘I think it will be fine’. This is Left’s version of the Shock Doctrine. Plus, if you ride the coat tails of rightist project (Brexit) there’s no guarantee you will be in charge once all the restraints have been removed. That socialist paradise could easily become neoliberal++
    * Major danger of Brexit is becoming vulnerable to bullying by larger powers. That doesn’t just mean the EU but more importantly the US. The NHS is the prize, here.
    * Roland Smith has just discussed on Twitter how Leave is about “simplism” – reducing intractable complexity to ludicrous simplicity which is why mainstream Leave thinking is so useless for getting anything done – unfortunately it’s also appealing

    And loads more. You can why I stopped. I’d never finish.

  2. A very comprehensive overview of the whole mess. My MP too, Dennis Skinner, was part of the crashout clan! Thanks for taking the time to put all this together and link all those articles.

    The march was wonderful to behold (as was that petition), and I contemplated going myself. If I’d gone my placard would have said ‘All this for 2%’. Even being charitable and disregarding potential Russian interference and Leave’s illegal overspending, as well as the referendum being advisory, that’s the most pathetic margin upon which to action such unprecedented, sweeping and damaging changes. It just seems so silly.

  3. Thanks, Gregg. As I said, I wanted to list a lot more – how Leave is a break from classic Euroscepticism and Leave is about using abstractions as policy. But God did it take time to compile links that seemed appropriate and it felt like the kind of article that needed links – not just me sounding off.

    I was actually in London on the day of the march, but we were there to see a show that had been booked last year. If I had been available, I would have attended, for sure.

    The trouble with that “2%” is that it meant half the country was against Drastic Change; it is very difficult to see how the change could be justified with that slim margin. But we were just derided as traitors and God damn the lot of them. They turned me into a “radicalised” Remainer after initially being pragmatic. They had their chance.

    You don’t get to unleash no deal. You forfeit your right to Brexit by even contemplating that button.

  4. It’s quite easy, from the other side of the world, to follow David Allen Green and that Dunt fellow on twitter and laugh at their witty and erudite reaction to the nonsense and thoughtless jabber that passes for a political conversation in your country right now. Thank you so much for this wonderful essay that reminds me what the stakes are. I’ve nothing useful to offer but best wishes for your physical and mental wellbeing through whatever happens. Take care.

  5. Well.

    Thanks, kfix. Even though we’re four minutes to midnight again, the last few days in Rezzed means I’ve hardly paid attention to Brexit news. Usually, a lot of things seem to happen but when you review, actually nothing has happened.

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