As I See It: EU referendum
A divided nation, and more questions than answers
Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a rocky ride. The British public have decided they have had enough of the enormous and anonymous Brussels bureaucracy and demanded we take control of our own affairs.
What they have actually done is knocked over the first domino and Britain will have done well if we get through today without turmoil on the world stock markets, calls for a second Scottish independence vote, and even a few political resignations.
The vote shows the country deeply divided. Half the UK does not agree with the verdict. There is also a split between Scotland – which voted unanimously to remain in the EU – and provincial England which was heavily in the Leave camp.
Working class areas of England and Wales voted to Leave, raising questions about Labour’s relationship with its core voters, given that it was in the Remain camp.
The Prime Minister will need to decide if he can continue in office. While Tory MPs – including his EU opponents Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – have demanded he stay on, it may prove difficult for him to lead negotiations on something he does not believe in.
Fundamentally, the voters have expressed a dissatisfaction with the way they are governed and it is for government to listen to them.
For many, even Remain supporters, the EU is an enigma; a vast and impenetrable machine that influences all our lives with little accountability. As for the European parliament, it barely registers a mention in the British media. It is a forgotten, yet well-remunerated army of invisible MEPs. Who can name their MEP, let alone explain what they have been doing since the last election? Whatever they have been doing, they had better start thinking of an alternative career.
Back in 1984 I accompanied a young Tory hopeful Edward McMillan-Scott on my one and only visit to the parliament in Strasbourg. In my interview with him ahead of the European election that year, he expressed his own frustration at the lack of engagement and connection between officials and elected members, and between the institution and the public.
In a comment that could have come straight out of the Donald Rumsfeld book of “known knowns and known unknowns”, Mr McMillan-Scott said: “Those who need to know what is going on know what is going on, but I would like to see more people knowing what is going on.”
Thirty-two years on and we still don’t really know what is going on. Mr McMillan-Scott told me: “Do you know there is so much Euro-speak it seems almost designed to make things dull?” A dictionary of Euro-jargon had just been published and he was trying to get hold of a copy.
Mr McMillan-Scott was elected that year and remained an MEP for the next 30 years, although he resigned from the party in 2009, sat briefly as an independent and then joined the Liberal Democrats.
But his comments to me in that 1984 interview could have been said in the past week. Despite becoming a patron of the European Movement for greater understanding of the EU, we still suffer from a general lack of understanding of this monster. No wonder the British public last night said: “Enough is enough”.
There is the possibility that other EU countries will follow suit. One way or another, the EU itself will see this as a wake-up call for fundamental reform. There are claims that rather than enlarge it will be dismantled as its members grapple with ongoing problems in Greece, with handling refugees and the pressures for ever-increasing political union.
The European Parliament remains little more than a talking shop, a body that more closely resembles Britain’s House of Lords than the Commons, revising laws and directives dreamed up by the unelected Eurocrats. It is this red tape creating, interfering, molly-coddling machine that lies at the core of the EU’s failure to connect with the public. The British people will not miss it.
Of course, leaving the EU does not mean severing all ties with it. But we are entering an unknown period that will last for years as we recreate new relationships and trading agreements. It will still be there, it just won’t be telling us what to do.
Whether we will be any better off by running our own affairs is the $64,000 question. Good government depends largely on who is doing the governing and there is no guarantee that bringing the rules and regulations back to Westminster will make us happier or better off. Every sector and company will be watching nervously to see what impact the decision will have on them.
In the meantime, the markets will need to be stabilised and that may require immediate action by the Treasury and the Bank of England.
Anglo-Scottish relations will inevitably be tested. Nicola Sturgeon urged Britain to vote Remain and warned that if it did not then it would be difficult to hold back demands for a second independence referendum.
This will put Mr Cameron in another awkward spot. Would he have the stamina and appetite for another fight with his northern territories while trying to rebuild relations in Europe?
He has already indicated that he will not contest another General Election as PM. He is expected to leave, probably at the end of this parliamentary term. Maybe this vote will bring forward those plans.