Thirty months after the referendum people still ask me if I have any regrets about voting Leave. “Surely,” they say, “you must have realised the problems that Leave could have for the Union; you must have been aware of possible economic chaos; you’re bound to have concerns about the future for your children (20, nine and 16 months)?”
I spent months before the referendum reading and thinking. I spoke to economists, business people and politicians on both sides of the debate. During the campaign I interviewed key players on both sides, pressing and probing and trying to follow the logic of their arguments.
I could never understand why, if membership of the EEC/EC/EU was so beneficial, almost every Remainer began their conversation with: “Look, I know that there are a lot of problems and that it needs reform. The UK certainly has to make it clear that there are number of areas we will never accept and we will stop fellow members from trying to move us in that direction. But surely it’s better if we stay in and try and reform than going out on our own?”
It was a weak position and one I had no sympathy for. Similarly, I thought that a lot from the Leave side was muddled, delusionary, openly racist and, far too often, downright mean-spirited.
I hadn’t expected a referendum: but when it was announced I had a choice to make. My own decision was based on a number of beliefs. Since 1973, when the UK first joined the EEC, the entire project had developed into something we were told it could never become. Indeed, in the 1975 referendum the Remain campaign mocked the Leave side and insisted that the EEC would never ‘develop into a political, constitutional entity in which a centralised bureaucracy would increasingly take responsibility for key decisions involving all members’.
Well, that’s exactly what happened. And with the latest talk of a Euro army and common foreign policy it is obvious that integration remains the end goal. I oppose that integration. That’s one reason I voted Leave.
The UK is one of the strongest economies in the world. There is no reason to believe that it wouldn’t retain that position outside the EU. There was no reason to believe that a perfectly amicable agreement couldn’t have been reached between the UK and the EU. There was no reason to believe that the joint interests the UK has with EU countries, collectively and individually, couldn’t have been accommodated. The EU has perfectly good relations with non-EU members, so there was no reason to believe there wouldn’t be good relations between the UK and EU post-Brexit. Yes, there could have been teething problems and lessons to be learned from experience, but again, no reason to believe they couldn’t be resolved. That’s another reason I voted Leave.
I was well aware – and wrote about it at the time – that, ‘a vote for Leave would raise some questions about the stability of the relationship between NI and the RoI and maybe even for the constitutional integrity of the entire UK’.
But even if every single person in the UK had voted Remain it wouldn’t have stopped the SNP or nationalists in NI from pursuing their goals of independence for Scotland and Irish unity. The SDLP and SF always viewed the Good Friday Agreement as a stepping stone towards eventual unity and reckoned that demographics and other factors were in their favour. Some even took the view that NI inside the EU was easier to push towards eventual unity than NI, along with the rest of the UK, outside the EU.
Anyway, inside or outside the EEC/EU, the Union has always been under challenge here, so Remain wouldn’t make the issue disappear. Another reason I voted Leave.
Another questioned I considered was the long-term viability of the EU itself. It has had a series of economic crises over the last couple of decades and a number of members still need bailed out; huge divisions are emerging, particularly over immigration; there has been a populist surge across the EU (much of it in response to issues other than immigration); and yet the political centre of the EU project is still pushing for deeper, broader integration rather than addressing the underlying problems. Put bluntly, there are no guarantees that the EU won’t just implode at some point: and much sooner than people now imagine possible. Again, another reason I voted Leave.
But yes, I do have regrets. I didn’t factor in David Cameron not instructing the executive branch of his government to prepare a strategy for Leave. I didn’t factor in him scarpering off in a massive huff. I didn’t factor in the possibility that his government and Brussels hadn’t even begun preparations for Leave. I didn’t factor in both the Labour and Conservative parties being so woefully useless in their response and strategy. I didn’t factor in the possibility that the supposed champions of Leave would prove to be so monumentally useless; keener to pick pointless fights rather than come up with viable alternatives. I didn’t factor in that Parliament, at the most important moment since 1945, would have absolutely no idea what to do. I hadn’t factored in that the EU negotiators would be so absurdly hard line when it came to the idea of an amicable divorce.
Those regrets don’t mean that I would change my mind if there were a second referendum. But they have led me to the conclusion that there is now no reasonably amicable way of resolving our dilemma.
I wrote in December 2016: ‘It looks like we’re heading down the path of a constitutional granny flat – neither in nor out; or another referendum which reverses the first one and keeps us in.’ Two years on and those still look like the main options.
One thing is certain: millions of people are likely to be very, very angry. Hmm. Maybe 45 years of expecting Brussels to make decisions for us has left us with a UK Parliament incapable of either taking decisions, let alone implementing the will of the people expressed in a referendum.