Brexit: From Dear God What Happened, to Dear God What Next

So. The unthinkable has happened. As we glumly watch the markets plummet, the hate speech blossom and the political leaders trip over themselves trying to flee the havoc, it’s difficult to resist the urge to collectively grab half of the British population and shake them while screaming that one line from Planet of the Apes:

Honestly, I’ve been trying to write this article for some time now, but every day there is some new dramatic revelation to deal with.

Shall we start from the beginning? Actually I ought to start this piece with a disclaimer – I’m not British, nor am I living in the UK. In fact I’m the only writer on this blog who isn’t, at the moment, but I believe my fellow authors are still attempting to rebuild their lives in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of #Brexit.

It’s been a week since the Brits took to the polls to vote on a question that has been contentious and divisive from pretty much the birth of the European Union: should the UK be part of the EU, or not? Back in February The Economist gave a pretty good overview of the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU, but in essence it boils down to a few major points.

The first is that the UK, although not a founding member of the EU, has played a crucial role in its development since even before it joined in 1973, with Winston Churchill named as one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the EU. Perhaps the most quintessential example of Britain’s early relations with the Union is Margaret Thatcher, who spent the mid to late 1970s campaigning vigorously for the UK to be part of a closer European Union, only to turn around once in office as Prime Minister in the 1980s and decry the political and economic disadvantages the UK was suffering as a result of the EU. Her resistance to EU governance precipitated the end of her leadership, and her views on Europe became progressively more critical as the decades passed. Thatcher’s legacy in Britain, while hugely divisive, is undeniable – and many are citing it as a direct influence on the outcome of this referendum. The irony, of course, is that the working class – the demographic that hated Thatcher most passionately – has ended up championing the same side of the debate.

There’s rather a lot of irony in this whole situation, to be honest.

The second major point is that the UK has been perhaps the most reluctant major player in the EU for some time. Thatcher played a huge role in the development of the single market (primarily in securing Britain rebates in said market), but the UK opted out of two of the most crucial tenets of the Union: the Schengen Agreement, which we’ve discussed before, and the common currency or ‘Eurozone’. All Member States of the EU are obliged to be part of the common currency (eventually) and the free movement agreement, although Denmark also opted out of the currency and Ireland joined the UK in rejecting Schengen in the interests of maintaining their pre-existing free movement agreements. Basically the UK is the kid who’ll come to your birthday party, but he’ll sit in the corner and refuse to play musical chairs or wear a party hat, and then will insist on deciding how the cake should be cut.


“You better not be giving my piece to those immigrants!” [x]

In the wake of the financial crisis that shook the Eurozone and sent corresponding waves through the UK (who helped bail out Portugal and Ireland, but not – contrary to popular belief – Greece), an already shaky faith in the EU was further damaged by the ascension of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, who are part of a larger pantheon of exceptionally awful hard-right political parties on the rise across Europe.

It was in this political climate that British Prime Minister David Cameron pressed the big red button that will end the world. Struggling with divisions within his own Conservative party, Cameron took a gamble that won him the election last year: he promised the Eurosceptics of the UK that there would be a referendum on British membership of the EU if he was re-elected Prime Minister.

He was giving a decision that would normally be left to Parliament, advised by experts and lobby groups and whoever else, to the population itself. The problem, of course, is that the European Union and particularly the UK’s membership of it are extremely complex topics that a large percentage of the population don’t understand. It’s the problem that has led to so much frustration and anger about the EU in the first place, and it’s also the problem that led to so many people voting Leave without understanding what they were voting for or what the consequences would be.

To be fair, anyone who tells you they know for sure what the consequences of the referendum will be at this stage is straight up lying. There are no certainties. This is uncharted land, and we of Europe are stumbling through it with a compass made of twigs, leaves and a depressing combination of cynicism and naivety.

Here’s what did happen, though, in the immediate aftermath. Cameron jumped ship faster than a rat leaving the Titanic, if that rat had somehow also steered the ship directly into the iceberg. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP and key campaigner for the pro-Brexit camp, backpedalled just as hard as he could on some of the key pledges that were made to the British people during the campaign, along with a number of Tory MPs. The British pound plummeted, dragging several European markets with it, and international financial markets freaked all the freaking way out, shedding 2 trillion USD worldwide. Scotland, which had based its decision NOT to leave the UK two years ago in no small part on its desire to stay part of the EU, and voted strongly for Remain, deployed Nicola Sturgeon to start kicking ass and taking names. And Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, delivered ice-cold shade directly to Nigel Farage’s face:

So for the moment, chaos reigns. It is perhaps the biggest crisis the UK has faced for many decades, and nobody wants to take responsibility for it. Will Boris Johnson be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Will England be left alone as Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales decide they’d rather be part of the other Union, actually? Can the UK ever be friends with Europe again?

EU Summit in Brussels


European policymakers are now left with an unenviable choice. Britain’s exit from the EU comes only one short year after the same debate in Greece threatened to destabilise the entire bloc. They will have to act decisively in order to prevent the fallout from ripping the European Union into very small angry pieces in the coming months and years. Do they extend a hand to help mitigate the damage the referendum result is likely to do to the British economy and society, and particularly to the most vulnerable people in the country? Or do they demonstrate exactly why leaving the EU is a very bad idea, and make an example of Britain’s impending misery?

It’s an extremely dangerous situation. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France are already taking as much advantage of the situation as possible in order to further the far-right Eurosceptic movement in their own countries. These movements are vehemently xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic, and they expose Europe to the dangers of division and isolationism that lead to conflict.

Meanwhile, racist and xenophobic outbursts have been reported all over the UK in the wake of the referendum as the dregs of society are emboldened by what they see as a validation of their hatred. Economic recession will hit the poorest in society hardest, and it’s a very real possibility at this stage. What’s more, the burden of repairing the longer-lasting consequences will fall to the youth, who above all other demographics overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.

It’s also not clear what the UK’s role on the world stage will be in the future. When the UK joined the European Union, the British Empire was still a thing. Thanks to its colonial past, England has been a hub for international exchange of goods, finance, business and culture for centuries.

Uh, thanks, colonialism?

But now it’s facing the possibility of being entirely alone, without advantage or unity. What does the future hold for an isolated UK? For an isolated England?

The future probably doesn’t hold a second referendum, despite that petition going around (which, hilariously, was actually set up by a pessimistic Leave voter before the results were announced). Perhaps Scotland will try and block the UK’s exit, but to be frank, the dangers of going against the outcome of the referendum at this stage really need to be considered. Commitments were made, and the democratic process yielded this result, even if it is an extremely terrible decision made by an under-informed public and influenced by a line-up of people who will not be treated well by the history books. If the UK government decides to renege on its commitment, there will be a lot of extremely angry extremely hard-right people across the country, fuelled by self-righteous fury. We are only five years distant from the riots in 2011 that swept through the country like a rabid feral cat – they were driven by rage against inequality, and in the end a lot of the rage behind the Leave campaign stems from a similar, though disastrously misdirected, place.

It’s also not clear how the rest of the world is going to be affected, once the rush of tweets and think-pieces (including mine) dies down. Many are looking westward in abject fear of the US election in November and the prospect of Trump riding the rising wave of right-wing populist into the White House. But I’m done prophesying doom for today, so I’ll let Samantha Bee explore that one:



[Header image source:]

The 2015 Also-Ran Award

In any competition there are winners, there are losers and then there are those who might have been better off not even taking part. This year’s Also-Ran Award goes to Nigel Farage, who in 2015 failed to become an MP at the seventh time of trying, despite a painstaking search for a safe seat. Farage made good on his promise to resign as UKIP leader and then in scenes which were in no way farcical or an indication of the personality cult he runs, his resignation was rejected by the UKIP executive committee. Renewed calls for him to resign earlier this month by sole remaining MP Douglas Carswell were rebuffed with statements about the majority of UKIP members being happy with his leadership. Which when you think about it is probably the main problem.

Honourable Mentions:

  • aldo-mcgregor-ufc-fightJosé Aldo: Aldo had been the UFC featherweight champion since 2010 but the manner in which he lost the title this year may stick in people’s minds much longer. After pulling out of a title fight with challenger Conor McGregor earlier in the year due to a rib injury, the fight was rescheduled for December. Any UFC fans who went to grab a last minute beer probably wished they hadn’t when McGregor took just 13 seconds to win by a knockout, the fastest in UFC history.

Electoral Reform

Prior to the general election in May a poll indicated that 61% of people favoured electoral reform to allow smaller parties fairer representation in Parliament, but unlike most other polls prior to the election it was based in reality.

Following the election, which was slammed as “the most disproportionate in British electoral history”, there was renewed support for the electoral reformation. Five smaller parties (who received 29.6% of the vote between them) handed in a petition signed by nearly half a million people asking the government to reform the electoral system by 2020.

Despite the public support, the bid ran out of steam (read: was ignored) and has received very little media coverage in the past few months amid a tense Labour leadership election, a refugee crisis and Rolf Harris overdosing on chocolate.

jonathan reynolds mp

Raging against the system, Jonathan Reynolds MP.

Today, however, the issue has reared its head again thanks to Jonathan Reynolds MP. The ‘Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) Bill’, which that seeks to reform elections by getting rid of the first past the post (FPTP) system, was placed before Parliament. So should we change the system?

Let’s be clear, no electoral system is perfect, but what needs to be established is whether the first past the post (FPTP) system currently employed in the UK general elections will be fit for purpose in 2020 and beyond.

One defence of FPTP used by David Cameron in 2011 is that “the candidate who gets the most votes wins”. This is true, but that does not mean that that candidate is popular, this year in South Belfast the winner only received 24.5% of the vote and more than half of MPs were elected received a minority in their constituency.

south belfast

The argument made by the prime minister is also disingenuous, suggesting that the general election is all about individual MPs, but the fact that in 2013 only 22% of people could name their MP reveals the obvious truth. The general election is about which parties people want to run the country. On a national level FPTP produces major discrepancies between votes cast and seats won (see table), this time the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens got robbed. Moreover, the Conservative victory is a false mandate, from 36.8% of the vote, they got 50.9% of the seats and 100% of the power. In fact this is so common that the last time a party gained a majority of the popular vote was 1931, a result brought about by the desperation of the Great Depression and the massive enfranchisements in 1918 and 1928 of working class men and all women over 21.

Party  Percentage of Vote Seats Percentage of Seats Votes per Seat 
Conservatives 36.8 331 50.9 34,138
Labour 30.4 232 35.7 40,290
SNP 4.7 56 8.6 25,972
Lib Dems 7.9 8 1.2 301,990
UKIP 12.6 1 0.2 3,881,099
Greens 3.8 1 0.2 1,157,630

Data from the Electoral Commission. Green represents disproportionate gains and red represents disproportionate losses.

Another argument used to defend FPTP is that it produces strong governments with representatives are accountable to their constituents.

The first part of this argument is no longer true in the UK, 2010 produced a hung Parliament and 2015 was very close to doing the same. People’s desire to vote for smaller parties has not waned and FPTP essentially offers voters a dichotomy of large parties rather than a broad political spectrum that reflects their views. This means that the more people vote for what they want, the less likely their vote is to count. Political apathy soon follows. Conversely, the Scottish Parliament has used AMS since it reconvened in 1999, largely as a stitch-up to prevent the SNP ever gaining a stable majority government and we all know how well that plan worked out.

Secondly, the government is only really accountable to people in the seats it holds and marginal seats, which are where elections are really decided. Opposition safe seats are often ignored when it comes to policy decisions (e.g. working class areas of the north under Conservative governments) and safe seats in general have been described as “electoral deserts” where voters are “either irrevocably damned or sufficiently saved as to qualify for being taken for granted.” (The  Jenkins Report 1998).


“We should not base our democracy on horse races” – Some Guy, probably.

FPTP has been declared unfit for purpose on various occasions (here and here and in a video with animals here), but if we decide to get rid of FPTP we have to replace it and for the sake of brevity we’ll assume that we’re going to stick with democracy (for now) and have a more representative system.

We’ve been here before though remember? It was 2010 and people still liked the Lib Dems (as much as people can like a political party without actually electing them), they had promised us proportional representation but “a miserable little compromise” occurred and a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was agreed. There are sufficient flaws in the AV system that combined with a well organised, yet negative, campaign for the status quo, the “No” vote crushed the “Yes” vote.

Fortunately, the bill proposed the additional member system (AMS) rather than the unloved AV. In the AMS system voters are given two votes, the first is for a constituency representative (e.g. an MP), just like in FPTP, and the second is for a party in a larger group of constituencies (regional party list). Once the constituency representatives are elected, the second vote is used to elect additional members (hence the name) via proportional representation, essentially smoothing out the discrepancies caused by FPTP.

The advantage of this system is that it maintains constituency representation, but gives everyone an effective vote. This leads to less tactical voting and produces far more representative results than FPTP. However, some discrepancies may be too large for it to smooth out, giving the impression that AMS simply papers over the cracks in FPTP. Moreover, it is worth remembering that AMS produces members who are not accountable to any constituency, only to their party leadership.

These flaws make the AMS system far from perfect, but its ability to reflect a broader spectrum of views makes it far more relevant to contemporary UK politics than FPTP. Unfortunately, as a Private Members’ Bill, the method by which backbench MPs propose bills, today’s bid for AMS was always destined to fail and that’s just what it did. Gone are the days when this type of bill used to get through reforms considered too sensitive for the Government to touch, like the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion and the end of the death penalty.

For now, we find ourselves stuck in a catch-22 situation. Under FPTP governments are normally Labour or Conservative majorities with an artificial mandate, these parties consciously deny voting reform in order to protect their electoral prospects and voters cannot get rid of the system unless the government they elect via FPTP approves it. Persuading the leaders of these parties to take up the cause for electoral reform is like getting turkeys to vote for Christmas and it is the hopelessness of this task that stifles what should be a lively national debate.

Interestingly though, today’s bill was presented by a Labour MP and the issue of electoral reform will be a good test of just how far Jeremy Corbyn’s “new politics” will extend. The public pressure and the electoral evidence is mounting against FPTP and strong cases are being made for AMS or the single transferable vote (STV) (here and another animal video here). The pressure can only go so far though, for a genuine change to be implemented a leader of a large party needs to stand up and be counted and that’s exactly the point:

“It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.”