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On Brexit and the future for federalism in the UK

On June the 23rd 2016 the government of David Cameron finally fulfilled a pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union which he had arguably been gradually cornered into by the eurosceptic quarter of his Conservative party and the threatening rise of UKIP. The validity and applicability of the result of that referendum has been, and will continue to be argued back and forth for some time. As the result became clear it was hailed as an overwhelming victory for the Leave campaign, mandating the British government to begin the process of withdrawal from the EU. This appeared to be validated by Cameron when he stood on Downing St the following morning and announced his resignation as Prime Minister, effectively conceding a total defeat. Whoever was to take over the leadership of the Conservatives, and by default become PM, would have the heavy responsibility of implementing the Brexit mandate, the ‘will of the people’ as it has been so frequently lauded. And that is just the role that Theresa May has taken up. But the truth is that the only overwhelming feature of the result was its unexpected nature. Most pollsters and political commentators, even politicians, indeed even on the night of the 23rd, Nigel Farage himself, had expected a victory for Remain. But Leave’s win, surprising and shocking though indeed it was, was in fact only by a very narrow margin. The referendum revealed a nation divided, and not at all some kind of all-empowering mandate for an absolute reversal in the country’s relationship with Europe and the world.

As soon as the result became clear, the hearts of millions who held out hope for a different result, sank. For them, the result wasn’t just about the EU and Britain’s membership of it, but about our place in the world, indeed, the cohesiveness of society beyond national boundaries. On June 23rd, the cosmopolitan world view took a beating. But for as much as we could attack the referendum, be it for its advisory nature, its limited participation, the complicated nature of the decision, or indeed the extent to which it might undermine established parliamentary representative democracy, the result was what it was. Many of those whose hearts sank, who awoke to a darker, less predictable, more dangerous world on June 24th, have begun to resist. We have been searching for answers, to find out why, what went wrong, and how can we stop it? The 48% as many proudly label their collective resistance to the Brexit nightmare, draw hope from legal challenges, parliamentary procedures, technicalities of international law and even opinion polls. And although there may be merit in many of the complex arguments that can be put forward, the most fundamental element of Brexit, whichever ‘type’ of Brexit we get, soft or hard, is that Brexit means the UK ceasing to be a member of the EU. For whatever voice and entitlement the 48% have to be heard, to have their views considered as we proceed towards this, the 52% also has a voice and entitlement which is at the very least, no lesser than that of the 48%. Britain must, therefore proceed to give notification of withdrawal under Article 50, and commence the march towards the door. For whatever others argue, there is a democratic and unavoidable mandate for that. But that alone. Any other element that might comprise Brexit has no clear mandate of any kind, be it leaving the single market, the customs union or restricting immigration from Europe. Just because Nigel Farage erected a racist billboard aimed at appealing to xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment for the Leave campaign, it does not mean and we cannot assume that anyone (other than perhaps Farage himself) voted Leave for any reason other than to leave the EU. We cannot play a game of interpreting the motives of voters with crystal balls, we can only act on their mandate, nothing more, nothing less. The final circumstances under which Britain leaves the EU must reflect the true mandate derived from the referendum. Prime Minister May has repeatedly called for the nation to come together, leaving aside the divisions and their accompanying labels of Brexiteer and Remainer, and she is right to do so. But they are hollow words, unless she is ready to bring forward a compromise between the two sides around which both can unite. Expecting Remainers to give up everything and accept an extreme version of Brexit such as she has proposed, to negotiate taking the UK out of all existing arrangements and seeking a new bilateral Free Trade agreement with the EU on Britain’s terms, is as unrealistic and unlikely to end these divisions as if she were to ask Brexiteers to accept not only staying, but further integration and joining the Euro.

The challenge before us, irrespective of how we voted, is to accept the result of the referendum within the terms in which the question itself was posed, but without shrinking away from the emerging political reality in the UK, or giving in to those who want to ‘tack on’ to Brexit additional meanings that would seek to turn us away from our cosmopolitan outlook. In Brexit Britain, the country’s identity and self-image, its social and political vision, and its constitutional arrangements are all in a state of flux, transitioning to an as yet undetermined and unknown future. It is now, more then ever, that we need to stand up and engage in the debates about the future of Britain, and in particular the potential for reshaping the United Kingdom’s political structure along federalist and more democratic lines that would move power and decision making much closer to the people who are affected by those decisions, to give a voice to millions of Britons who feel so disconnected and removed from Westminster politics, many of whom expressed their anger and frustration with the political classes on June 23rd. A federal future for Britain would also help to heal growing rifts within the UK, not just between different social, political and economic classes, but also between the home nations. Particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the referendum result was a further blow to the cohesion of the UK’s nations, contributing to the alienation of some segments of society and reviving threats of separation. A federal Britain would be altogether more cohesive, binding together the home nations, whilst empowering national and local governments to feel and act more independently.

We should also seek to forge a new role for Britain in the world, not buried within the EU, nor seeking desperate trade deals with whoever might listen, nor setting ourselves up as a super-Singapore tax haven. And we must never give in to some who hail the death of multilateralism and co-operation. The rise of globalisation, global warming, international flows of migrants and continuing political instability in many parts of the world demands an urgent new drive towards a reformed international system, no longer based on the spoils of war or some feigned principle of ‘sovereign equality’ of states but a federation of all democratic states based on the equality of all people, with the potential to bring social cohesion, justice and representative democracy onto the international level. We are not citizens of nowhere. We are citizens of Britain and of Europe, and to paraphrase Diogenes, we are citizens of the World.

By Robert Jones, Federalist Party Board member.
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Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal views of its author, and may not necessarily reflect the official policies or views of the Federalist Party.