Friday 21 October 2016

Calm down: the Brexit referendum result is not a 21st-century Sarajevo

Published 29/06/2016 | 02:30

Demonstrators take part in a protest aimed at showing London’s solidarity with the
European Union following the EU referendum, in Trafalgar Square, central London. REUTERS
Demonstrators take part in a protest aimed at showing London’s solidarity with the European Union following the EU referendum, in Trafalgar Square, central London. REUTERS

So now that the near-hysterical reaction to Brexit from most of "serious" Ireland is easing up, let us see what is likely to happen next. On one prominent weekend radio show, the mainstream view, fuelled by Friday's apocalyptic utterances from the deeply Remain side of the Irish media/political/business establishment, tottered from sneering at the electorate in Britain to predicting Armageddon.

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Most of us probably hoped for a Remain victory, but were sensible enough to entertain a Leave vote.

Those of us who have a responsibility to comment might have gone out to England to feel the pulse of our neighbour and - as a result of such fieldwork - might have predicted Brexit.

I've spent the past two days in England. I have had long meetings with some very cosmopolitan and deeply Remain British journalists and opinion-makers. I stayed in London with a friend, a Scottish businessman, who runs a large consultancy company, who voted Leave. His Irish wife voted Remain.

As we watched the implosion of the English football team, we also spoke to another Leaver - a committed west Londoner, a Labour Party member, a socialist and a dyed-in-the-wool, hyper-tolerant liberal who voted for Brexit.

Fifty-five miles away, in Oxford, which voted 70pc to remain - an outlier in middle England - I've just met with an academic friend who is traumatised. Meanwhile, an incredibly reasonable fund manager, whose livelihood will be dramatically affected if Brexit is as bad for business as some suggest, told me that he had voted Leave. When pressed - and this is a man with deep, almost Quaker convictions about society - he simply responded that democracy is important. In his view, the EU is deeply undemocratic.

These are all real British people.

The only possible media caricature was the cabbie who took me to Paddington this morning. But even she was measured. She voted to Leave because of immigration. But her arguments centered on resources, not race.

She maintained that immigrants are putting huge pressure on London's public hospitals, where her 80-year old mother goes, and the state schools that her kids attend.

Her view was that if you want more immigrants, you can't have austerity squeezing cash to these state institutions, which are under strain. This seemed like a reasonable argument to me.

Right now, I am writing in deepest, rural Oxfordshire at a gastro pub called The Mole Inn. The clientele are older, genteel and wealthy.

The car park is full of clean German cars and I'd suggest most, given the demographic, voted to Leave. The chat is about the capitulation of the football team, the implosion of the Labour frontbench and whether Boris will make it as PM.

This is England. This is a small snapshot of the electorate that shook the world and it doesn't appear rabid, racist or reactionary.

On the contrary, it appears to be an electorate that was asked a question and answered. We can argue about whether it should ever have been asked the question or whether one crowd lied and the other over-egged the dangers, but this is politics, real politics.

It is plebiscite politics.

With the exception of the journalists who have tended towards heightened emotion and despite the urgency of the topics, the prevailing attitude is that things will calm down and life will go on. Granted, there is some worry about what will happen to Scotland.

The selling of shares and sterling may have unnerved some, but most see the financial casino as remote and are used to trading-floor tantrums. Many also believe that British assets are now far too cheap and hope their pension funds have the cash to buy at these levels.

Politically, there is a certainty that there will be a general election and there is lots of talk, even on the Leave side, about some compromise, short of immediate withdrawal.

Is there an element of 'buyer's remorse' on the part of some Leavers? I'd say there is - but it's more amongst the middle ground - those who cast a protest vote and didn't expect Leave to win. But it is hard to see how this referendum can be undone.

Over the past 48 hours, there's a sense that after all the promises and claims from the Brexit side, the UK will probably get the same deal as Norway or Switzerland. This would be a free-trade deal with some local control over immigrant numbers. The UK would have to pay for access to the EU markets, yet would have no place at the top table to influence the EU.

Most commentators, establishment politicians and EU enthusiasts will jeer at this outcome, pointing out that the Norwegian option is financially a worse deal for Britain - and they are right.

But what these people fail to appreciate or even ask, is why Norway or Switzerland, two eminently sensible nations, do not just join the EU and get a better deal?

The reason is simple. Lots of people value sovereignty, nationalism and independence. Somewhere deep in the national psyche, the Norwegians and the Swiss (and the Icelanders, who rejected the EU last year) value their sovereignty, the right to make their own laws and run their own affairs. And they are prepared to pay for this luxury. They understand that globalisation is eroding the latitude that countries have to manoeuvre, but they prefer the feeling of independence.

I use the word "feeling" advisedly - because independence is a feeling. It is a feeling of community, shared experiences and values that bond a people together and it is a feeling of home, security and autonomy. These are powerful emotions, which are obviously more compelling for people than pounds, shillings and pence.

At the end of the day, things will calm down and Britain may only get Norwegian status, but it will be enough for most Leavers. Germany has no interest in blocking the UK from being a semi-detached, island society, trading with Germany. We now know Germany makes the rules and the big calls.

The more extreme people, the ideologues in the EU Commission/nomenklatura on the one hand and the little Englanders in Ukip on the other, won't want this - but this is what they will get.

So those extremists calling for accelerated moves to activate Article 50 - on both sides - will be drowned in the soothing balm of common sense. The markets will readjust to this reality and the Scots are likely to be bought off, again.

In short, Brexit is not a 21st-century version of Sarajevo 1914 or Poland 1939 or even Berlin 1989. It is a deeply British coup against the EU, which has served the purpose of scaring the bejaysus out of the entrenched establishment. It is the symptom, not the cause and is the consequence of fundamental problems like inequality, disenfranchisement and a seething popular resentment with the status quo. It's a yellow card, not a red.

It will only become a monumental historical event if, like the Bourbons, the EU - and by extension the Irish elite - choose to ignore this warning. They can't be that remote, can they?

Irish Independent

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