There seem to be three possible ways forward from the current position, all of which are absolutely disastrous for democracy. I have no idea which of these is more likely, all of them are very bad, and all of them represent a betrayal of voters – especially those that voted to leave.
Leaving the EU and the single market is the simplest proposition – in terms of democracy it would allow a government to deliver on the key pledges of immigration controls and bringing law making back to Westminster. However, the extreme financial situation the UK would likely find itself in would certainly make £15bn of extra investment in the NHS impossible. The costs to jobs and wages would be appalling, ‘Britain’s service economy would be cut up like an old car‘, and the nation would be in deep economic shock.
Ignoring the referendum (unless there is another general election) would obviously be an enormous affront to democracy, and the tabloid newspapers would howl with rage. The unexpectedly large constituency who voted leave, who already believe they are ignored and forgotten, would rightly be incensed. Such an option may easily lead to the rise of extremist parties.
The UK remains in the single market but out of the EU — the Norway option, the middle ground. Norway pays an enormous monetary price for access to the single market, if the UK got a similar deal there would not be spare cash to spend on the NHS. Norway accepts free movement of people, breaking the Leave campaign’s promise of border controls. Finally, Norway obeys many of the EU’s laws in order to gain access to the single market, and has no say during the process of EU legislation – which is difficult to square with Leave’s ‘taking back control’ motto.
The UK will not get an exact copy of the Norway deal. Perhaps a better deal can be struck? Someone, presumably Boris, would have to achieve a heroic feat of negotiation. He does not start from a good position, on a personal level, he has been lambasting the EU for months, even comparing the organisation to the Nazis. Many European leaders fear that a good deal for Britain would encourage discontent in their own countries, and may want to make an example of the UK. Watching David Cameron’s resignation speech must have had a visceral effect on other European leaders.
According to the rules of the Article 50 process, the UK will not be in the room for exit negotiations, results would be presented fait accompli to the UK, and if we don’t find agreement after two years, we’ll be automatically ejected. The single market option has been explicitly ruled out by several leading European politicians, so it looks set to be an uphill battle. Just in case it wasn’t hard enough, Scotland could leave, or threaten to leave, the UK during the negotiations – possibly to join the EU, maybe even the Euro.
It looks as though Boris hopes to find some combination of the Norway deal that keeps a watered down versions of his promises, probably mostly achieved through obfuscation. His Telegraph column sets out an impossible wishlist of access to the single market, border controls and savings in EU contributions which he will certainly never deliver.
This is, I believe, the most dysfunctional example of democracy of all the three options. The electorate have been sold an impossible dream of ‘taking control’, lowered immigration and a windfall savings in EU contributions. Under the Norway option, it will not be clear that any has been delivered.
We all know that political parties renege on their manifesto promises, but the Leave campaign set a new low. Within 48 hours of the result they had explicitly denied they felt at all bound to deliver on lower immigration or increasing NHS spending. The audacity is comedic, there are pictures of all the leading Leave campaigners standing in front of campaign buses emblazoned with huge slogans which they now claim mean nothing. Perhaps they believe technicalities about which leave campaign said what, or whether their slogans were commitments or more like ‘serving suggestions’, will save them. They should consider what happened to Lib Dems when they (quite reasonably) blamed their broken tuition fee pledge on the coalition.
Before the referendum, no one had realised how much anger was directed at the political classes. After the referendum, there are only reasons for that anger to grow. In Norway-style scenarios Leave voters will only get the palest imitations of the policies they believe they voted for, but at a terrible, terrible cost. Leaving the EU might cause a recession, and will certainly cost jobs. Then there are the tens, possibly hundreds of billions of pounds in foregone GDP. All Government policy of any kind is on hold for years as we renegotiate. The cost of Government borrowing could spiral. Scientific and medical research will be disrupted and damaged. UK citizens will finding travelling and working in the EU harder.
Most importantly, many Leave voters, already from poor areas, will be in even worse poverty. Boris’s stall, as he set it out in the Telegraph, is about throwing off the ‘job destroying coils of EU bureaucracy’. The idea that removing workers rights is going to play a big part in reducing inequality is a fairy tale. Leave voters are almost certain to see things getting worse not better, even if they are temporarily satisfied to have ‘taken back control’.
For a country that everyone recognises is divided and wounded, all of the routes forward point to ever more poverty, pain and division.