In his latest book Reboot Britain, Peter Cook reflects on how, on our journey to rejoin the EU, we may build healthier politics and political leadership in the UK. He argues that the political landscape of Brexit is very fluid, while the Government is moving fast to avoid being trapped. This means it is a mistake to back any single horse to achieve the reforms which be needed to put us in a position to join anew. Ergo, our campaigning and political leadership need to take a long-term approach and be agile and flexible to seize opportunities as they arise.
Some believe the only way we might consider joining the European Union (EU) anew can come from an election or some other democratic process based on ‘the will of the people’. Yet, we know the 2016 Brexit referendum was won with the approval of only 37% of the UK electorate. This came after considerable psychic distortion of the population’s collective consciousness through lies, social media interference and a call by Nigel Farage to vote with your heart and not your head - in other words, not think. However deplorable, this was an incredibly clever strategy.
There are of course several democratic routes to joining the EU anew, including:
- Via Parliament: once Brexit carnage becomes more widely and deeply felt, legislative initiatives to mitigate the effects of Brexit (for example a single market or customs union application) may grow. If supported with the combined weight of opposition parties, who currently give the Government a free ride on Brexit, an incremental route back into EU membership may evolve.
- General Election: the levels of Brexit carnage might become so great over time that joining becomes an election issue. Set against that possibility, people would have to conclude that Brexit was a cause or correlation with their lived experiences. This has been difficult so far, as CoVID, and now the Ukraine crisis, mask Brexit’s damage. However, that cloak is slowly being removed. For this reason, it matters that the word Brexit is not airbrushed out of the political lexicon. Labour’s collusion to date has thus far boxed it into a position that makes a U-turn difficult, but not impossible.
- Another Referendum: a new referendum could be offered, even though I don’t favour using one. However, a second referendum might be considered as a ‘christening service’ once the ‘will of the people’ changes sufficiently. Despite the first referendum having been conducted by simple majority, it is likely any successor would require a super majority of 66%. This presents a very high bar, so it would be fair to use the same ground rules as in the 2016 referendum.
- Government of National Unity: Things may become so bad that the idea of a Government of National Unity (GONU) becomes feasible once again. In August 2019, a GONU seemed a realistic possibility until the opposition parties responded to Boris Johnson’s temptation of a General Election. Considerable social, economic and political disruption would be needed for such a scenario to be possible, so the probability is arguably low. However, nothing can be ruled out in any disruptive political environment. Present scandals within the Tory party and Putin’s actions may reveal yet more problems.
All these routes are viable, even if they have different probabilities and desirability. They are living proof that democracy is not a project with a fixed end, but a continuing process; this is poorly understood by some Leave voters and European Research Group (ERG) extremists.
Then there is what could be politely called the non-constitutional route, namely mass rioting on the scale of the poll tax riots, or a meltdown of civil society followed by crisis measures. Of course, the English ‘do not do’ rioting, so this is an improbable development, even in Brexit Britain. In any case, Priti Patel has introduced legislation to curb peaceful protests, and Nadine Dorries has similarly sought to face down dissenting activists and journalists. That said, there is a build-up of unaddressed socio-economic problems exacerbated by Brexit populism.
Incrementalism versus all or nothing
There are almost as many views on the routes to join EU anew as there are protagonists: Get PR Done, Progressive Alliances, Get the Tories Out (GTTO), etc. This is a major weakness of the pro-European movement, though was not always thus. In August 2019, the Remain movement was relatively united; the lure of a General Election destroyed that unity. Pro-Europeanism once again fragmented into party political and other tribes.
After the 2019 debacle, incrementalism emerged as the leading way back to the status quo ante. The best way to eat an elephant is in bite size pieces (such as joining the Single Market).
However, there are also problems with logical incrementalism:
- Joining the Single Market may well be met with the same levels of resistance as joining anew.
- If we were to succeed solving the problems of a single sector e.g., farming, fishing, automotive etc., that community effectively has its needs settled and its desire to join anew dissipates. Divide and conquer is a well-known way to dissipate resistance.
- The longer we are outside, the more the UK diverges from EU standards. This simply makes any incremental adjustments we might wish to make more difficult as the incidence of divergence grows. In short, undoing the damage done may be more difficult than wielding the wrecking ball itself.
The EU is already enjoying its freedom from UK exceptionalism, and I doubt they will welcome our return any time soon. Many enjoy no longer having to deal with Nigel Farage. They can pursue European integration without the veto of a nation state of small islands on the periphery of Europe. Early signs of this new-found freedom include the EU’s rapid response to the Ukraine crisis and moves towards building a European army, something which would have been resisted by Britain. It is becoming increasingly evident the EU’s fabled entropy may well have been the product of having one member at the table which insisted having its own way.
The whole psychological contract between Britain and Europe will need to be reset before we can consider a serious approach to join anew. Although the ‘all or nothing’ approach is possibly five to ten years on the horizon, this may allow for the kinds of adjustments to our democracy and the shifts in power necessary for UK to be listened to and treated seriously by the EU.
An unusual blend of scientist, MBA academic and musician, Peter Cook seeks a better Britain in a better Europe.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.
Reboot Britain is available through Amazon and selected bookshops.