Brexit and how ignorance has become a ‘virtue’

Over the weekend, we were reminded of how far Tory Brexiteers were willing to go to make sure we leave the EU, come what may: an article from the London Evening Standard from last November (shared by people, including me, without noticing the date) in which Matt Hancock, then health secretary, refused to guarantee that nobody would die as a result of medicine shortages stemming from a no-deal Brexit, merely that “we need to make sure that everybody does what’s necessary if there is no deal to have the unhindered flow of medicines that people need”. There is already evidence that medicine supplies are drying up and that people are suffering, even if not (yet) dying: Dan White, whose daughter Emily has muscular dystrophy and is a wheelchair user, has reported on Twitter that he has been unable to get hold of her medication this past week because of supply problems caused by panic buying. His first tweet attracted hostile responses from Brexit supporters accusing him of trying to scare the public, as if the collapsing value of the pound would not do that anyway. (Dan White has a website and there is an article there on what the EU has done for disabled people.)

Picture of Femi Olowale, a young Black man wearing a white T-shirt with the writing "Our Future, Our Choice: Those who have to live with Brexit don't want to!". He is holding a microphone and standing against a red background with white writing (too little of which can be seen to know what it says) on it.
Femi Olowale

This morning, on the ITV morning talk show Good Morning Britain, the occasional journalist and talk show host Richard Madeley interviewed Femi Olowole who suggested that it would not be ‘moral’ to include leaving with no deal on any future referendum ballot “given what it would do to Northern Ireland” as the chief of police there had said it would be a definite security risk. Madeley said “he’s not a voter” and insisted it would be a “one-sided referendum” to ask people to choose between a deal which many people believe does not really take us out of the EU, because we would still be in the Customs Union, and remaining in. Olowole kept telling him that the Customs Union was not the EU, which it is not, and Madeley kept demanding “why do you think that so many people who wanted to leave are against the deal?”, which is a dubious question as many of the people who were always against Brexit, especially those outside the Tory parliamentary party, also opposed the deal, and then insisted that the majority of people who wanted to leave were against the deal for that reason and told him, “sorry, there’s the maths”.

Madeley was wrong on all counts: the chief of police in Northern Ireland is, of course, a voter; we can indeed remain in the Customs Union and leave the EU, as there are countries already in it but outside the EU, and a mere majority of people who voted to leave, even if his claim is accurate, almost certainly means a minority of the electorate as leave voters accounted for just under 52%. The idea that the proportion of the electorate which would support leaving without a deal with all that would mean for the economy, our way of life, the health service, the social care sector, the situation in Northern Ireland or even the status of Scotland, comes to anything like 50% is preposterous and it is seriously being considered only because the Tories have failed to come up with anything better or to agree on what their own team managed to negotiate. Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP who supported the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, tells us in today’s Guardian that countenancing a no-deal exit on 31st October is not “extremist”, but it is. It would be a stupid, hugely destructive decision, and not one that was on the table when we were voting in 2016 when a number of senior Vote Leave figures, such as Daniel Hannan, claimed that we would retain our membership of the Single Market and Norway was repeatedly mentioned as a model.

Brexiteers keep waving the referendum result in our faces every time we question the wisdom of leaving the EU, dismissing ‘experts’ as if ignorance was a virtue. We see the same from Gisela Stuart, a politician of German origin who has lived in the UK since the 1970s, having taken advantage of rules that allowed EEC and then EU nationals to live, study and work in each others’ countries, an advantage she seeks to deny anyone who might want to follow in her footsteps: “Leave had a clear majority on a high turnout”, she reminds us. Except that 51.8% is not that clear a majority; in a binary referendum (as opposed to an election in which multiple candidates stand), it’s a wafer-thin one that in many democratic systems would not be enough to enact major change, and given what is now known about the overspending of the Leave campaign, its validity is, to say the least, dubious. Had a threshold been set of, say, 60%, we could have spent the last three years debating why, and what could be done to fix the way we engage with Europe and to readjust our economy so that people across whole areas of the country did not (justly) feel left behind. A slight majority in favour of leaving is not a strong mandate for leaving without a deal; it’s a mandate for a compromise, in which we leave, but leave the door open, if possible.

I’m not under any illusions that the “will of the people” has any bearing on the Tories’ position on leaving the EU without a deal. This is all about them and their lust for power: they and their media want to be untrammelled by European standards, the same reason for which they seek to extract Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights, despite this being of partly British heritage (much as, of course, is almost all the EU law they dislike). This is why they seek to hurry the UK out of the door and why they fear a further referendum, in case an electorate better informed of both the consequences of leaving and of the character of many of our Brexiteer politicians, might vote differently. The referendum was more than three years ago; there was a general election only two years after the Tories won a majority in 2015, and the electorate changed their minds. Let’s not pretend that any mandate is eternal, and let us not entertain illusions about Europe’s negotiating position: we know and they know that leaving without a deal would hurt us — ordinary British people — more than them.

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