On Thursday, an event will take place in the UK which many had thought would not come about: the UK will be going to the polls for the European Parliament elections. Why? Because, despite being almost three years since voting to leave the European Union, the UK is still a member. I’ve written some of my thoughts here on the Brexit process, and also how I will be using my vote on Thursday (provided the title hasn’t been too much of a giveaway).
I will begin by saying that I am not a fan of the European Union; I am not going to pretend that this has ever not been the case. This is partly because I am not enthusiastic about the project it has been trying to be, partly because of some of the legislation it has passed, partly because of its best-thing-since-sliced-bread view it holds of itself, partly because I simply do not share some of the views on which it has founded and expanded. Also, I have never particularly considered myself “European”, at least not in the contemporary sense; while the DNA of virtually all British people from the South of England is very similar to those in northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Germany (I am happy to embrace that sense of Europeanism), the modern notion of being “European” seems increasingly tied to affinity for the European Union as a political body. These feelings were much the same three years ago when I voted to remain in the EU as they are today.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the EU, I voted Remain back in 2016 as I simply did not see that the Vote Leave campaign had a viable plan or a clear vision for the UK outside the EU. Nobody seemed to be able to tell us what would happen after Brexit, rather, we were painted a vision of a wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if future: one where we could spend £350m a week on the NHS, one where we could introduce our own points-based immigration system, one where we could strike up new and better trade deals with the Commonwealth, one where EU member states could come crawling to us begging for trade deals (“they need us more than we need them” is a line I often heard). I could go on. Yet there was nothing to indicate whether any of this would happen, and if it did, how. On the other hand, there were grim economic and interest rate forecasts being produced in the event of a vote to leave, and multinational companies based in the UK were game planning their exodus from the UK in the event of a vote to leave. I could not in good conscience vote for something, firstly, which had no clear plan for how it was going to work, and secondly, which flew in the face of the expert opinion at the time. I stand by the decision I made about how to vote in 2016. And yet, as it turns out, I was on the losing side.
The 17,410,742 people voted for Brexit did so for a whole host of reasons: some felt that the vision set out by the Vote Leave campaign could work; some didn’t care whether or not it could work, and that it was worth the gamble going badly to get the UK out of the EU; some didn’t have much of a view on the matter, but felt a change was as good as a rest; some people were so disaffected by politics and felt that the EU was the club held dear by all the political leaders who had failed them before, and one that you never questioned for fear of being called a racist. Many voters did not want to join (or stay in) the Common Market in the first place, while many simply felt that they had been let down too many times by leaders in both Westminster and Brussels. Everyone who voted leave had their own reasons for doing so, but the undeniable fact is that, together, they outnumbered the Remain voters, including me.
But yet, here we are, almost three years on from the referendum, and virtually no progress has been made. The UK is still a member of the EU, there is currently no plan for Brexit which is likely to receive enough support to win the approval of Parliament, and the deadline by which the UK was set to leave the EU has been pushed back multiple times. Brexit voters are getting increasingly frustrated, and with good reason: after all, if you vote for something and are told that the government will implement your decision, you can probably reasonably expect the decision to be implemented within a three-year window, without the deadline for doing so needing to be pushed back repeatedly. On the other hand, I can appreciate the argument that, seeing as we are seemingly no closer to finding a conclusion to the Brexit problem, holding fire on the proceedings might be sensible. As such, I often feel as if I occupy a very unhappy medium between two increasingly loud and equally stubborn Brexit camps. The debate has become so polarised, and it seems that there is no place for those such as myself who may have misgivings about Brexit, but do not consider themselves necessarily as
As you can tell from the title of this post, I will be voting Conservative in Thursday’s European Parliament elections. As a lifelong (at least, for the 11 years I have been eligible to vote for) Conservative voter, some of you who know me may be surprised to hear that I actually had to think hard about it this time. I shall go into some of my reasons for giving it some serious thought below.
One thing that the Conservative Party did under David Cameron which I did not agree with was to change the European Parliament group that the party was aligned with, from the moderate, centre-right European People’s Party to the more right-wing, eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists. One of my MEPs, Richard Ashworth, left the Conservatives in 2017 to return to the European People’s Party as an independent. I was wondering if Richard would stand again, and I had been thinking of casting my vote for him; after all, it would be great to have an MEP in my preferred European Parliament group. However, Richard since joined Change UK; a party which seemed in the first instance as if it could be a viable centrist alternative for disaffected Conservative and Labour voters, but – rather disappointingly – seems to have branded itself as a single-issue second referendum party.
I do not support a second referendum for a few reasons: firstly, unlike what seems like a sizeable number of Remain voters, I can accept the fact that I was on the losing side of the argument. I ultimately feel that democracy should be given a higher value than membership of a 26-year-old political union. Secondly, holding a second referendum sets a dangerous precedent: it will make it much easier for enough loud voices to call a halt to any vote, election or change simply because they personally did not want it. I feel it would be the start of a slippery slope towards a chaotic quasi-democracy of endless voting and re-voting. Thirdly, I feel that the campaign for a people’s vote is driven primarily by a desire to overturn the result of the referendum, rather than a wish to promote democracy by letting people have the final say. The Liberal Democrats, for example, are openly campaigning on a platform of stopping Brexit; one could feasibly conclude from their position that they merely see a people’s vote as being the easiest way to achieve that.
To add to that, it is not clear what supporters of a second referendum actually hope to achieve from it, beyond stopping Brexit. In the event that the UK were to hold a second referendum, I am yet to hear a people’s vote supporter explain to me what would happen, or what they expect would happen, should the UK vote to either continue to leave or remain in the EU. If the result was to continue to leave, would the People’s Vote supporters finally accept it, as the people had had the final say, as it were? And if the result was to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, would that be the end of the matter? Would the people have had their say at that point? And how would they expect the Leave-voting majority to feel about this? (Feel free to get in touch if you have any responses of your own to these questions).
So having given it some thought, and much as I would like to vote for Richard, I do not wish for my vote to be used to give any weight to the argument that the UK should hold a second referendum. So Change UK, the Lib Dems and the Greens are out. On the other hand, much as I respect the referendum result, neither do I wish to give my vote to a party which solely exists to promote Brexit – and most likely a No Deal or WTO Brexit at that. We can take UKIP and The Brexit Party off the table in that case.
Having effectively ruled out any overly pro- or anti-Brexit parties, viable options for people who do not feel comfortable in either camp remain slim. However, I still feel that there remain some factions within the Conservatives who represent – or at least try to represent – what little remains of a tenable middle ground between No Deal and No Brexit: for all the flak she is getting as Prime Minister, Theresa May has at least been trying to find a solution that delivers the referendum result. She tried to find a compromise with the Labour Party – much to the anger of some wings of the party – and also I didn’t feel as if her Brexit deal – known as the Chequers Agreement – was actually that bad.
After all, it is not as if a hard Brexit or No Deal Brexit is the only option available to us. Let’s revisit the referendum question from June 23rd, 2016: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”. As we know, the result was to leave the European Union. And that was it. The referendum was not about what sort of relationship or deal the UK would or should have with the EU. Therefore, any outcome under which the UK is no longer a member of the EU – be it a No Deal, a hard Brexit, Theresa May’s deal, a customs union, a Norway or Canada-style agreement, resuming membership of EFTA or any other countless number of scenarios existing or yet to exist – fulfils the result of the referendum, and none of them constitutes a betrayal of democracy or Brexit, no matter what Leave Means Leave might say.
So as someone who isn’t really enthusiastic about the EU and isn’t really enthusiastic about Brexit, but just wants to try and find a way to make it work, my vote in the European Parliament elections will be staying with the Conservatives on Thursday. I am still expecting that the party will take a serious routing in all corners of the UK when the results are announced on Sunday, but I suppose I shall have to be on the losing side again.
So I hope that has provided many of you with the explanation into my feelings that you never asked for. However, my biggest misgivings – indeed, concerns and fears – regarding Brexit is not how to vote on Thursday or what kind of deal, if any, the UK should seek to make; it will be how to repair a country and re-unite a people who have become so deeply fractured. As an engaged, observing, voting British individual, I have never seen such deep divisions before in my country. And it is thoroughly, thoroughly sad.
From a policy debate standpoint, it seems that Brexit may as well be the only thing happening right now in the UK: it is almost as if there are no schools or hospitals to run, no ageing and growing population in dire need of increasing levels of care, no foreign affairs that need attending to, no role to play in international development, no ambitious and exciting infrastructure projects to attend to, no work to be done on developing a solid energy base for the UK, both renewable and nuclear. Brexit feels like life itself; we live and breathe it every day. It has consumed us. That’s not to mention the damage it has done to our regular political discourse: how it has ripped families and friends apart, or how people will all-too-happily judge or exclude you based on whether you voted Leave or Remain, whether you support a People’s Vote or No Deal. As someone who has been very active politically in the past, it also seems like it is impossible for young people to become active in politics for whichever party, unless they are passionate one way or another on Brexit.
Despite the best efforts of anyone involved in trying to find a solution to or obstruct Brexit, I unfortunately do not believe there is a solution to Brexit. Rule number one of politics is that you can’t please everyone, and whatever the Brexit deal ends up being, I don’t believe there is a solution which will provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Even if Brexit were resolved instantaneously overnight, the wounds of anger and division which we – all of us – have allowed to be sewn into our everyday dialogue will not heal so quickly. This is something which we should all regret.
That said, I imagine that this post has likely invoked some ire from both sides of the Brexit divide by this point, either for pointing out why I don’t support a People’s Vote or for saying that a Customs Union 2.0 would be a satisfactory Brexit deal. I don’t expect much will change as a result of Thursday’s elections, whatever that may be: the most ardent Brexiteers will renew their call for their perfect vision of a flawless Brexit, while the most idealistic Europhiles will continue to settle for nothing short of a second referendum which results in a Remain vote both sides will no doubt use the result to reinforce the calls for their preferred aim. All I am left to do at this point is wonder how much longer it will go on for.