Fools Rush In—Brexit

On Facebook I decided to repost an article which reported on the Liberal Democrats’ extreme, and highly odious, policies on abortion. Therefore I advocated against voting for the LibDems. In response some have been enquiring as to whether I now support Brexit. It is something of a non-sequitur but not totally illogical, since the LibDems are explicitly committed to reversing Brexit.

However, responsible voting must allow for the fact that there is more than one issue involved in general elections; they are not single-issue referendums. That so many elections often revolve around single issues is another matter. That the LibDems advocate abortion with the barest of limits, and desire to export their anti-life advocacy overseas, represents a single issue which acts as an effective veto on their desirability. What good is it staying in Europe if we condemn our unborn, and therefore powerless, fellow human beings to arbitrary death? To vote for a single issue is usually unwise; the foregoing notwithstanding, to vote against a single issue is sometimes morally necessary.

Labour is no pro-life party either but Labour’s current advocacy of a second referendum should not be allowed to entice Remainers into its camp. The first referendum was a grotesque mistake; another wrong will not make it right.

The problem is the mechanism of the referendum in the British system. It is a glorified, and vastly expensive, opinion poll of those who can be bothered to give their opinion. It requires only a simple majority across the entire United Kingdom. A referendum is not legally binding and there is no mechanism to balance regional variation. Such a referendum is a recipe for discord.

In Australia, also governed on the Westminster system, referendums are required to change its written constitution. Ordinarily the proposal must pass both houses of Parliament (and always at least one) before it can be put to the people. To pass, the question posed at the referendum must be supported by a majority of people in a majority of the six states; that is, there must be a majority of votes in at least four states as well as a majority nationally—a double majority. Moreover, if the proposal being voted on affects specifically the constitutional rights or status of a particular state, that state must return a majority vote for the proposal to pass. Voting is compulsory in Australia. Thus the result will authentically reflect the opinions of the entire nation.

Only eight out of 44 such referendums have succeeded in changing the constitution. There is a high threshold to surpass, and this acts as a brake on ephemeral, or merely regional, enthusiasm. But when a proposal does pass, it has the secure support of the majority of the nation. It is not a perfect system, but it superior to what transpired in 2016 in the UK.

By contrast the Brexit referendum of 2016 required a simple majority among voluntary voters taken as a whole across the Kingdom. 51.9% against 48.1% does not represent a sufficiently wide margin to ensure widespread acquiescence to the result. In total 33.6 million people voted out of a registered electorate of 46.5 million. Thus the referendum result can only be said to have reflected with certainty the opinions of 72.2% of the registered electorate across the Kingdom. Moreover there is no mechanism to take account of significant regional variation. That is why Ms Sturgeon cries foul on behalf of Scotland, that its No vote was disregarded, as in one sense it was since a simultaneous majority of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom was not required in addition to the overall simple majority.

Another referendum will duplicate this situation, and no doubt exacerbate it. Having had the referendum, and the government of the day having pledged—unnecessarily—to act on its result, that referendum needs to be respected.

A further tragedy is that, absent a referendum system fit for purpose, it is not fair to dump all the blame on Parliament for the failure to enact, as yet, the referendum result. Parliament was not legally bound to do so. It is unlikely that MPs were elected solely on their opinion about EU membership. They were elected not to conform to the latest opinion polls but to act and vote in accordance with the principles and policies on which they campaigned to be elected, and also according to their conscience (St Thomas More could teach us much on this point). That is representative democracy. The referendum has set up a rival authority to Parliament, and one that is not countenanced in the British constitution.

In all this can we surely find the roots of the current debacle.

I am not pro-Brexit, but neither am I do-or-die Remain. Another referendum would be pure and destructive folly. The bitterness that has been injected into the British body politic is appalling. The sooner Brexit is done and dusted the better. Then we get on with trying to make the best of it.

No more politics hereafter, but it does at least save me writing at length to all those who suspect a change of opinion on Brexit. And it took my mind off the Church for a while…

Reluctant Referendum Reflections

Tomorrow’s British referendum will be best quickly done and dusted, one way or the other. Election campaigns tend to stoop occasionally to the gutter but it is not encouraged and usually quickly decried. I think the British like to the think of themselves as moderate, balanced and well-mannered when it comes to politics. Alas, the referendum has exposed deep veins of nastiness in British society. Maybe this exposure is a good thing in the long run, but for now it makes uncomfortable viewing. One of my cyber-interlocutors has suggested very politely that I have been hinting at my opinion without clearly stating it, suggesting that there is a certain duplicity in this. A fair call, so despite my love for the Australian practice of a 24-hour moratorium on political debate the media before a vote, here is an answer of sorts. Some will resent clergy giving their opinion, being “lectured to”, but why should we have less right than others to state our opinions and why we hold them?

Personally, the decision which way to vote has been a long time settling. Continue reading “Reluctant Referendum Reflections”

The Final Days of the UK

We subscribe to only two newspapers here at the monastery, and only to the Economist for other current affairs. The Week is an effective way to catch up on what the media have been saying about the affairs of the day. In the process they include a number of letters from the various papers. This week was this remarkable letter to The Independent.

The Scots will vote yes. And the rest of us will owe them a debt of gratitude. Their vote will send symbolically, in the only effective way our current democratic system permits, these messages to all our politicians:

We want not a change of government, but a change of politics. You lack the competence to run the country, and the vision to lead it. You lied to us and deceived us into an illegal war. You cheated and stole from us. A privileged, privately educated 7 per cent permanently holds up to 73 per cent of positions of power. Our representative democracy entrenches a profoundly unrepresentative power structure. The privileged power elite are not held accountable or punished for their venality, incompetence or mistakes.

We are justly proud of our NHS and the inspirational ideals that underpin it. We want those principles preserved, not undermined by subversive privatisation.

Good luck, Scotland. We respect your courage and admire your confidence.

It is remarkable for at least two things. First, it shows how clueless many people are about the referendum and the campaign for Scottish independence. To claim that a vote for independence will send a message to politicians about the nature of politics or the privitization of the NHS is wishful thinking at best. It is primarily about nationalism and the desire of some Scots to be free of the rest of Britain. It could be portrayed as romantic, though the incidents of intimidation of those speaking for the “No” campaign rather gives the lie to that image. Nationalism, unlike patriotism, is rarely if ever attractive. The twentieth century is nothing if not a memorial to the destructive power of nationalism.

Secondly, even if a “Yes” vote could be read as a cri de coeur about the state of British democratic politics, it is breathtakingly excessive. To the mind come images of sledgehammers cracking, no – crushing, peanuts or babies being thrown out with the bathwater. Because our leaders apparently “lack the competence to run the country”, the solution for this man is to dismantle the nation itself. We can only thank the good Lord that this correspondent is not one of the seven percent which holds 73 percent of power.

If the polls are accurate, Thursday may see the demise of the United Kingdom as it has existed for the last 300 years (well, with Scotland that is. Ireland was not included until 1801). The dismantling of one of the greatest nation-states in history (for better or for worse, or for both) will have been determined by a poll open to only 7% percent of its population. In this, at least, we could agree with the epistolator cited above, that “(o)ur representative democracy entrenches a profoundly unrepresentative power structure”. The decision will be based on a simple majority of those Scots who actually vote. The fate of an immensely important nation is in the hands of a tiny minority. In Australia for any constitutional change to be made a double majority is needed: a majority of voters in a majority of the six states. If the change affects one state in particular then a triple majority is needed: a majority of votes in the relevant state itself is also necessary. It is inherently, but not impossibly, conservative of course: of 44 constitutional referendums in Australia since Federation, only 8 have been passed. It makes for impressive stability and security.

The pro- independence campaign seeks a more prosperous Scotland, blaming Westminster for its woes. But The Economist (September 13-19 2014) puts its claims into question.

Scotland’s relative economic decline is the result not of southern neglect but of the shift of manufacturing and shipping to Asia. If Westminster has not reversed all the deleterious effects of globalisation and technology, that is because to do so is impossible. The nationalists know this, which is why, sotto voce, they would continue many of Westminster’s policies.

We might translate “sotto voce” here as “on the sly”. Westminster’s politicians, our epistolator opined, are not fit to govern, yet the government of a newly-independent Scotland would copy many of their policies. Who then, we might ask, is actually incompetent?

The nationalists make much of Britain getting all her North Sea oil revenue, yet they want to keep the British Pound. The nationalists seek effectively sovereign power over the British Pound and British oil, and sod the rest of us. If even if they had such a right, their economic arguments are equally unconvincing. Again from The Economist:

The nationalists’ economics are also flawed. Scotland would not, in fact, be richer alone. The taxes that would flow from the North Sea would roughly compensate for the extra cost of its lavish state, which would no longer be funded by Westminster (last year spending was some £1,300 per person higher in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain). But oil revenues are erratic. They would have earned Scotland £11.5 billion in 2008-09 but only £5.5 billion in 2012-13. If an independent state were to smooth these fluctuations by setting up an oil fund, it would have less cash to spend now. In any case, the oil is gradually running out. In order to maintain state spending after it is gone, taxes would have to rise. And the crunch might come much sooner. Foreign investors and big businesses that mostly serve English customers could well move south.

The nationalists have either failed to think long-term; or they have done so, not liked what they saw, and pretended they did not see it. Oil revenue is wholly dependent on the market price. And there is not that much oil left. The BBC quotes figures that suggest there is only 30-40 years of production remaining, and the Office of Budget Responsibility estimates a fall in oil revenue by 2017-18 of 38%. Moreover, since 1999 production has consistently declined. So who will pick up the tab for an independent Scotland? Not England and Wales and Northern Ireland. No, the Scottish taxpayer and moneylenders.

(Courtesy BBC)
(Courtesy BBC)

It is highly unlikely that Scotland will get to keep the Pound. To get the Euro it will have to apply, and indeed it will have to apply to join the EU itself. Both are very much in question. And to enter the EU a unanimous vote of member countries is required. Even if the remainder of the UK were not to vote against it, Spain probably would. Scottish independence would give heart to Catalan separatists, to the horror of the Spanish government. So Scotland could end being very, very much alone, sinking under debt, and with only themselves to blame; or rather, the slender majority who would have voted for such a state of affairs.

Some heady idealists on Facebook dream aloud (and perhaps mainly tongue in cheek) of the opportunity for an independent Scotland to restore a Catholic monarchy. Not likely! Scotland is a majority Protestant country and sectarianism there lives on. Moreover, Mr Salmond will want all the power and glory for himself.

And here is the rub. The only guaranteed winners of a “Yes” vote would be politicians and civil servants. A new civil service will have to be created to replicate what has hitherto been done by the UK civil service, and it will have to paid for by taxes and volatile oil revenues. And of course Scottish politicians would become leaders with international stature. How proud they will be. Their salaries will go up to reflect this new status, naturally. Then embassies and high commissions (one presumes Scotland will remain in the Commonwealth) will have to be built, and diplomats appointed. More money. From somewhere. Now wonder Scot pollies are so keen!

Truly, it is hard to see how the ordinary Scot will win, other than to have that wonderful frisson that comes from putting two fingers up to England. That frisson will not last long. The English will probably return the gesture, with a more devastating long-term effect on Scotland. While Scottish nationalists, in their triumph at having destroyed the UK, will be singing Scotland the Brave for a few nights, the remaining UK will sing Scotland the Knave for a lot longer.

It is Scotland’s choice, and hers alone. Laddies and lassies, you had better get it right.