Guidance following the EU referendum result

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I was asked by the group The 48% to write a piece for the UK’s MPs following the EU referendum of 23rd June 2016.

So, I did.

The piece has now been sent to every UK MP, and will be sent to every one of the continent’s MEPs in the next few days (today being 1st July 2016).

So, I thought I would share it with you here:

We understand that, like almost everyone in the UK, you have been able to think of little other than the result of Thursday’s referendum on our country’s membership of the EU, and the likely effects of that vote.

And after deep consideration, it is with some regret that we must ask you to prevent the initiation of Article 50.

We have not arrived at this conclusion lightly. The will of the people is not something which should be ignored – though that is not what we ask you to do here – and as representatives of the people we do understand that you correctly feel a responsibility to carry out that will.

But there are a number of reasons why this course of action – not leaving the EU – is not only what is best for the country, but is also a fully justified decision for you to take.

First of all, the referendum was always held not as a legally-binding decision, but as an advisory plebiscite, to guide and inform the Houses of Parliament of the mood of the people, rather than as a direct and irresistible instruction from the nation to its politicians.

This may seem a small point, but it is not: if – as we all accept – those who refuse to vote in an election understand that the decision taken by others is the decision by which they must abide, then certainly those who vote in a referendum must abide by its rules: to demand the suggestion from an advisory vote must be followed to the letter is an unreasonable demand.

Of course, this alone should not be enough to convince you not to do what the referendum requests, it is simply to remind you that the decision on whether or not to leave the EU has not been made: it is for you, as representatives of the people, to make such a decision. The referendum must feed into that decision, but so must your own expertise and judgement: that, after all, is the responsibility for which you are paid.

Secondarily, the result itself, as Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign’s de facto leader has publicly conceded, is hardly overwhelming.

We should also note here that Nigel Farage, the man whose career has been built on ensuring this vote took place, stated in his (unnecessary) concession speech that the loss in the referendum for Leave would not mean the end of ‘the fight’. The same man specifically stated in May this year that he would ‘fight’ for a second referendum in the wake of an ‘inconclusive’ 52-48 victory for Remain: Thursday’s vote ended 51.9-48.1 in Leave’s favour.

There is agreement even from the Leave campaign that a close result should not be accepted as conclusive, and we feel the result could hardly have been closer.

Equally, statistically-speaking, the result was inconclusive by definition. The margin of error allowed in statistical modelling would mean any experiment or model which produced such a result would have to be re-run many times before anything close to acceptance and credence was given to it, and we should also note that in this purely literal sense, the result indicates at least as much as the ‘will of the people’ that on another day, we could expect that the outcome would have been different.

Of course, the vote was held on the day on which it took place, but we advise that decisions of such national – and international – importance should not be based solely upon such an outcome.

Thirdly, the vote itself. Slightly more than 17m people voted to Leave the EU, while slightly over 16m voted for the UK to Remain. But there are 62 million people in the UK. If you are to accept the result of this referendum as the sole factor in whether we leave or remain as members of the EU, you will be accepting that the correct, sensible and just course of action is to allow the (certainly heartfelt and strong) desire of 17m people to dictate to 45 million others the future of the UK, of the continent and to a certain extent the world.

We should note here also that while some 28 per cent of people simply did not vote (and so must be regarded as being content to leave others to advise the government), there were many others who could not and who arguably should.

For example, there were many thousands of UK nationals living in overseas territories – most in the EU itself – whose votes were cast but unheard because of problems with the postal voting system; others never received their polling cards in time to cast their postal vote. In both cases these are people who by the rules of the referendum were entitled to vote, but who were prevented from doing so. This does not add legitimacy to the idea that the government must accept the outcome of the vote as a conclusive order from the people.

A large number of young people who urgently wished to vote were also unable to. This is not the time or place to cavil over the electoral rules set for this referendum (even though the immediate precedent set by the Scottish independence referendum had been that in cases of unusual importance, 16- and 17-year-olds could be offered a voice) but it does underline the fact that even just outside those legally-entitled to vote sit a large number of UK citizens who overwhelmingly support the UK Remaining in Europe.

You have received guidance from (some) who could vote, but your responsibility goes beyond that: it is to the UK and all of its people. Please do bear in mind that the vote is – as all public plebiscites must be – only a limited cross-section of views on the issue across the country: your job is to ensure that this cross-section is part, not all, of what you base your decision on.

Fourthly, the vote itself reveals not only widespread division – and effectively that the UK’s population as a whole has not made up its mind – but serious constitutional crises ahead.

Not only is Scotland almost certain to leave the Union if Article 50 is initiated, there are signs that Northern Ireland may seriously consider its own position.

But the matter goes further: all four of the UK states’ capital cities voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining members of the EU, as did most other major centres of population: Birmingham; Bristol; Liverpool; Manchester; Glasgow to name but a few.

The reason that we note this is not to ‘threaten’ crisis: it is that crisis is already here. We care deeply about the UK as well as its position as a part of the EU, and we do not wish to see it fall to pieces as a result of an advisory referendum. We implore you to factor the UK’s future existence into your decision.

It is also impossible to communicate this message to you without touching upon some other, inter-connected, factors.

You will be as uncomfortably aware as we are that the Leave campaign made a series of promises – most notably that £350m per week would be spent on the NHS; that we could ‘control our borders’; and that we would ‘reduce immigration’ if we were to leave the EU. In the immediate aftermath of the result’s announcement, the Leave campaign’s leading figures have announced that none of those three promises will be kept.

Though we do understand that in elections people say things which they are later unable to live up to, we must seriously question whether a vote cast based on the three central and most-often repeated promises can still be considered valid if those who attracted that vote and made those promises then withdraw each promise immediately after winning those votes?

The word ‘democracy’ is easy to use, and has (understandably) been used often by the Leave campaign since Friday morning. But we must request that you consider whether winning votes by making promises and withdrawing those promises immediately after the result is announced can truly be part of any model of true democracy?

Connected to this is the worrying fact that many of those who voted to Leave have since stated that they were mistaken to do so, and expressed a wish that they could vote again, this time differently.

We do not, here, write to you about our own reasons for wishing to Remain. Those are important, and include the UK’s place in the world, its attitude to and experience of people from different nations and cultures from our own, our financial welfare (and that of our children and grandchildren), the opportunities granted to us by our membership of the EU, the fact that the mere threat of Leaving has caused a collapse in the value of our currency, the fact that we believe the UK is a state which should care about and be engaged in wider international issues – that it and its people are better as a result of engagement and the benefits it brings.

But while they are important, we are not campaigning to win a referendum here. We are simply reminding you that whatever your – and our – view on the UK’s membership of the EU may be, this referendum, for a number of reasons, should not be the only thing you consider when making a decision about what to do next.

Your decision is of course your own. But we would also remind you that you were elected to make this choice; that you have greater access to the realities of our situation than any member of the general public; and that a range of options remain open to you, including a re-run of the referendum, a General Election or an outright vote to Remain or to Leave. That decision is yours. It is literally what we elected you to do, and what you are paid to do.

The referendum was an advisory exercise. It is almost literally (and actually statistically) inconclusive. The major piece of information that we can gain from it is that the public – as a whole – simply does not know whether it wishes to leave the EU or remain within it, albeit that some in either camp hold strong, regularly-voiced opinions on the matter.

It was also flawed – more so than referenda need to be – and it is a decision with immediate and long-term implications for the UK’s future situation, the UK’s entire future existence, and the welfare and lives of millions across Europe, and billions across the world.

We ask that you bear all of this in mind when making your decision. The referendum is advice from the people. It should not be ignored. But neither should it be allowed to erase all other considerations. This is an enormous decision, and a real turning point in the history of our nation.

Please ensure that when making it, you do not ignore any pertinent and relevant fact, including all those set out above.

We truly hope and believe that you, as our representatives, will choose not to initiate Article 50. We believe we have outlined the reasons why you are not forced to do so.

Many thanks for reading.’

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Money, or: The Fallacy of UK Economics

Central to debate in the run-up to the 2015 General Election was the ‘economy’.

There’s a certain irony to this (though also a grim predictability: the Conservative Party has played this tune at every election since 1979, when it formed an administration which tripled unemployment, squandered the North Sea oil windfall on the increased benefits payments which resulted, and began to inflate an unsustainable housing bubble) as in fact there is little difference in economic outlook between Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP.

Though they certainly differ in the details, all four now fully adhere to a capital- and market-centric system, in which policy is driven (and also dictated) by money.

In this way, we hear arguments from Conservatives that we ‘cannot afford’ services (not only is this untrue in the most simple sense, inasmuch as the UK is the world’s sixth largest state – if we cannot afford something then who can? – it is also untrue in the conceptual sense: for a developed state, the words ‘cannot afford’ are literally nonsense, provided one is committed enough to the provision of what is best for its people to change its own rules).

We hear from Labour that we must ‘work with’ private enterprise to ‘fund’ hospitals, schools, and infrastructure projects (even though in effect this meant the state running up debts which must be ‘repaid’ to those private firms many time over – a little like claiming the £5 you borrowed off Bermondsey Dave at 1,000% weekly interest was a ‘partnership’ to help you ‘meet your immediate housing need’).

The Lib Dems are led to well-meaning but in the end self-defeating money-led initiatives which look progressive only until one spends a moment actually thinking about them (lifting the poorest from tax is a warm-hearted idea, but if one reduces the tax-take in our current system, those who are poorest suffer most, as they are the people who rely most upon tax-funded services).

And UKIP present us with ‘Tory Max’ – the arguments Conservatives might like to make, but have so far shied away from: ‘we can’t afford it’ combined with ‘…and it’s the fault of immigrants and the EU which allows them in’ (even if UKIP’s immigration figures were correct – and it is distressing that a party whose entire raison d’etre is immigration is so often so far from accurate on that – they would still not plug the central, howling gap in all of their arguments: if immigrants are stealing jobs, and tax pays for social services, how can immigration possibly be the reason we ‘can’t afford’ anything?).

In the face of such uniformity of approach (the Green Party comes closest to an alternative – underlying most of its policies is the necessity for a new economic approach – but so far has struggled to articulate it in the face of the blank cliff that passes for economics in the modern UK) it’s easy to forget the central question: why?

It’s a useful question in part because of the direct answers it suggests (perhaps the Conservatives govern for their friends, Labour in fear of the market, the Lib Dems under a mist of misunderstanding of the model and its parameters, and UKIP is literally nothing without the 10 per cent of people who look back rather than forward, always forgetting that like the Doppler effect, the echoes of history may not reflect any truth so much as distance and direction of travel).

But it’s also useful because asking it – perhaps only asking it – opens a new line of inquiry. If we can ask ‘why are things done this way?’, we must then accept that there is another.

From there, we can ask a series of questions ‘how did we come to this model?’ ‘what would happen if we altered this, ditched that, tweaked a third thing?’ can we, in short, innovate our way to a better system?

Because it’s hard to argue that what we have is the best we can do as a species. In the world’s sixth-richest state, the current argument is that we ‘cannot afford’ to improve services – indeed that we must make them worse – even as one million people here rely on charity food hand-outs to survive.

The UK’s five richest families own more money than its 12.8m poorest people, and the former more than tripled their wealth in the years 2010-2015, even as the latter suffered the longest consecutive fall in living standards in recorded UK history.

Some of this is deliberate. The political Right is driven by an economic belief that inequality is good for society, driving production and therefore national wealth (though the current government appears to have forgotten that that wealth is supposed to be used for the good of the nation’s people). But the Tory Party did not invent Capitalism, and far less is it responsible for the existence of money.

In the end, while it may give us a sense of dizziness and shortness of breath to think so, we should conclude that we are not where we are because of some kind of grand plan (whether benevolent, as the Tories claim, or malevolent, as conspiracy theorists everywhere are simultaneously angered and reassured to believe) but by a sequence of unthinking, unconscious accidents.

The discovery of this raw material, at this moment, by a state following this model, led to this outcome. Another material, in another time and place, could just as easily have led us somewhere else.

It’s useful to recognise this because the idea that we are where we are because we ‘must be’ or as a result of some grand plan, prevents thought. It prevents imagination, and it prevents innovation. And those three things are the human race’s greatest characteristics – they must not be shut down in relation to the most important matters facing us as a species.

When it was first used, money was a token. It represented goods, and could be exchanged for goods and services. It was not wealth in itself, nor was it the point of goods and services. It was simply a means to make their exchange simpler and easier.

Yet today, as noted above, money has become something else. It is at the centre of – and is a major determining factor within – all of national and international policy. A tool has become the central purpose of society.

It’s as if we had allowed hammers to become the fundamental purpose and point of all craft and construction – as if we were refusing to build because that cannot be done with hammers, and because all our activity should be about the collection of hammers, and in some cases the free movement of hammers across borders and social boundaries.

It’s absurd. Because it’s the process of exalting a tool to a position way beyond the sensible limits of its abilities and usefulness.

It’s probably not fair to level blame for this. The average politician is generally no more or less intelligent than the average voter (though of course some have been, and have changed the game in sometimes quite striking ways – and they are employed to be more focussed on exactly these issues than anyone else is) and if we have been caught up within this error, perhaps they have been as well.

Even in those cases where some blame could be attributed, it will do us little good now to attempt to hold the dead responsible for the struggles of the living.

And it’s easy to see how in a system in which money has become the central societal element; where everything literally relies on it, is driven by it, and is shaped to suit it, rather than the other way around, politicians and the rest of us are dictated to by it to the extent that even the innovators are trapped within the system and so create debt or come up with ideas which are undermined by the system itself.

But there is an alternative. And we have a responsibility to work on it. To spend our time, rather than blaming the dead, working to improve the lot of the living.

And the first step is to question what money is for.

The fact that this seems like an odd question is central to our problems as a species at this point in our history. The fact is, when someone tells us they want to be rich, instead of simply nodding, or – at best – saying something along the lines of ‘money isn’t everything’, we ought to be asking ‘why?’

Not because there’s no reason, but because the reason, not the money, should be the driving factor. That is, what we do with money is surely more important and enjoyable than simply sitting, staring at figures on a screen, or notes in a pile, and smiling to ourselves – at least, if we are not fetishists (and some of us are).

And this works at a national and international level. What is the point of money? Surely, the only point, if there is any at all, is to provide a decent standard of living for people, to provide housing, food, water, heat and light, to prevent people living on the edge of starvation and death. It’s not to say ‘look at all the money we have’ or to leave it glistening in a pile in the living rooms of the extremely rich.

Because that can’t be the point of humanity. The collection of bits of metal and paper we created and we have assigned value to, cannot be what we aspire to as a species, and cannot be how we judge our success or failure.

And in the end, that is what is missing from the argument about economics – not who is best at saving money, but what is money for, and how can we assure it is used to that purpose?