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Friday 21 June 2024

Silver linings

Eight years ago almost to the day, a referendum in the United Kingdom voted 52/48 to leave the European Union. Regular readers cannot fail to have noticed that I was one of the 48% (nowadays more like 63%). I didn't imagine I could know in advance whether the eventual outcome would be good or bad, but I do know that extreme perturbations to complex systems (like modern societies, for example) can have highly unpredictable results. Unless the current state of such a system is catastrophically bad to the point of imminent failure, it never makes sense to make revolutionary changes rather than gradual ones. There were indeed British communities where people figured their situation literally couldn't get any worse. I couldn't even start to get my head around such thinking until I watched this, given that median wealth in the UK is twenty times the median wealth globally, though I tried to keep my own preferences (some would call them prejudices) out of the way enough to ensure that Can You Brexit was an even-handed look at the pros and cons.

I strive for an open mind on all issues, so it's only right to admit now that it's not all been bad news since the referendum. Admittedly the UK is considerably poorer as a result of leaving the EU's single market -- unnecessarily so, too, as the Norway model was an oft-touted Brexit plan among the more moderate of the Leave campaigners. But there are upsides. Immigration into the UK has increased since the Brexit vote and, contrary to the beliefs of the ship-'em-to-Rwanda mob, those immigrants are integrating well into British life and bring valuable skills, energy and culture. New citizens are also now coming from a wider diversity of backgrounds rather than just Europe. So that is good news, albeit the opposite of what most of the people voting Leave actually wanted.

By the 2010s the UK had long been in need of a way to break the old political mold. The main parties stood for fossilized versions of the socioeconomic classes of a century ago, not today's class structure, but Britain's first-past-the-post voting system prevented any reconfiguration of the parties to fit modern UK society. The Brexit vote had the effect of radically shaking up what the main parties stand for. The electorate would have done better to switch to an instant-runoff voting system when they had the chance in 2011, but that became another of history's missed opportunities. (See also the US Presidential election of 2000.)

Also, Britain seems to be escaping the trend towards nationalist populism (indeed, let's just call it fascism) that's surging across Europe. The British Isles have always been stony ground for fascists, and the Britain First party (whose leader has publicly supported lynch mobs) are faring no better among voters than Oswald Mosley's lot used to. Meanwhile, although the slightly less toxic Reform Party has been climbing a bit in the polls, that rise is largely matched by the decline in the Conservative Party's fortunes. Between them, Britain First and Reform are effectively Britain's far-right Tea Party/MAGA movement, liable to get noisily vexed about any measure that's even halfway sensible, informed, decent or rational. The greatest shame about their electoral alliance is that it's sullying the good Whig name of Reform, but eventually their supporters will get absorbed back into the Tories where their reactionary stridency will be dulled to a general grumble of dissatisfied resentment at the modern world. The example of Poland shows what harm can be done to the mechanism of state once you let people like the PiS stick their finger on the scales, but that threat seems far greater in many EU countries (and across the Atlantic, sadly) than in the UK.

Europe needs to worry about defence, of course, and while I preferred the days when Churchill could sell the concept of the Declaration of Union, post-Brexit Britain at least didn't vacillate in supporting Ukraine against Putin's invasion. It might make more sense to have a truly united European front, especially if Ukraine falls and Putin starts hoovering up the former Soviet states, and given that the next US President (and maybe the next French government) might be more pro-Putin than pro-NATO, but there's little sign that the EU as a whole is more alert to that threat than Britain is.

In another eight years, will I say that the Leave vote was a good idea? Steady on there. I'd still prefer my Enlightenment dream, but that might be one to put alongside the Mars colonies and controlled fusion for everybody and the von Neumann probes equipped with strong AI. At this point I'll settle for a world with fewer despots and more equality, and if getting that means distracting populists with some shiny trinkets like Brexit then so it goes.

Cambridge Econometrics analysis of the effects of Brexit (PDF)
Post Factum analysis of the pros and cons of Brexit as of summer 2024


  1. A nice 'State of the United Kingdom' summary, Dave! I agree with all your reasons for optimism, even against that background threat of "the lamps going out all over Europe."
    The British (and Irish) do have a (healthily) self- critical conscience, as well as self- satirising sense of humour, but should be proud to say of these rain-blessed isles: "A green and pleasant land - but stony ground for fascists."

    1. Let's hope it remains so, John. A lorry with a huge black "Vote Reform" hoarding on it went past me today and it was hard to suppress a shudder. Fascists? Maybe not, but between their slogan "Let's make Britain great" (the last refuge of scoundrels, never forget) and their plan to recruit the police primarily from ex-military personnel, I can't help feeling their spiritual home is a 1930s Munich beer hall rather than an honest modern pub.

    2. Yes, well, let's just say I can easily imagine a beer-swilling "Lord Haw-Haw of Albion" making excuses for the True Magi!

    3. Now who could we be talking about...?