Monday, 21 August 2017

One year on, we're still heading to the door - whatever happens next: My Universe column

It is well over a year now since that June day when Britain collectively decided to take that fateful step into the unknown to withdraw from the European Union.

This spring witnessed the Prime Minister formally declaring the Article 50 process; and just as importantly the vast majority of parliamentarians conferring on her the right to do so.

In less than two years as a nation we will be out of the EU, there is still arguments over ‘divorce bills’ and ‘transitional periods’ but essentially we, Britain, will have seen the fruits of our democratic mandate come to pass.

The referendum campaign was a long, bitter one; accusations and bare-faced lies reigned down from either side of the argument. Anyone with any sense would have completely disregarded a promise painted on the side of a bus offering £350 million a week to the NHS as little more than air-headed propaganda. Similarly talk of punishment budgets and the cajoling of a receptive US President into, ostensibly, bullying for a ‘remain’ vote were the worst of politics and the worst of an otherwise decent Tory government.

This column certainly isn’t the place for rerunning the referendum campaign; there are always going to be stupid people who vote for either side of any argument. The fact remains that the vast majority of the electorate evaluated the information available to them, both the farcical and the realistic, and the clear majority decided on balance that they would prefer to withdraw from the European Union.

I wrote at the time how I personally had campaigned for Remain and was hugely disappointed; but that is how democracy works and it is frankly beholden on all of us to make a success of BREXIT.

Voters weren’t hoodwinked; the vast majority who voted Leave knew exactly what they were voting for; and to my mind there is no evidence or argument for a second referendum. We collectively made a choice it is now time to collectively attempt to make a success of it.

With all of that said I must concede that a number of stories emanating from the media over the past week or so have set me thinking.

Last week The Guardian ran a story on their website about the cost of going on holiday. Announcing that ‘British holidaymakers should brace themselves for more Brexit pain when they change their pounds into euros, with a leading investment bank forecasting the currencies are on the way to parity.’

The Guardian’s Deputy Editor, Paul Johnson, promoted the story on his twitter feed highlighting that the day before last year’s referendum you were able to get €1.31 for your pound, last weekend that figure had reduced to just €1.09. Highlighting that bankers Morgan Stanley have modelled a picture where in the not too distant future one pound may be worth just one euro Johnson commented “They didn’t put that on side of the bus (sic)”.

I must confess that for the first time in many years this year my family and I have opted for a ‘staycation’. The ever reducing value of the pound has been a material factor in not being able to afford an annual family sojourn overseas. We mulled over a pilgrimage to Lourdes but, frankly, the combination of security concerns and having less to spend was enough of a deterrent to say ‘let’s leave it till next year’. I’ll be honest and say I am a bit fed up about it, but as we might have said as confirmed Europhiles ‘C’est la vie’.

Of course missing my family holiday pales into insignificance when you consider some of the other EU related stories currently doing the rounds.

By the time you read this column the government may well have issued a series of position papers stating their preferred solutions to a number of issues which still need to be determined before Brexit finally takes place.

One of those papers, the contents of which appear to have been released softly on a piecemeal basis to gauge public response, will focussing on the issue of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

It is reported that whilst the Irish government, and therefore one supposes by definition the EU too, favours a border in the Irish Sea essentially keeping free movement between north and south Mrs May is likely to remain strong about plans for a physical land border which would rely on smart technology to control most of the traffic going either way.

Clearly there are both strong economic and immigration arguments for a land border between the two countries; at the same time there are grave concerns for the potential reigniting of hostilities between those who fervently believe in a united Ireland and those with deeply held affinities to Britain.

Tragically it certainly isn’t beyond the realm of possibilities that we could see a return to the violence and terror of ‘the troubles’.
The third story that has caught my attention this week is about the beleaguered discount retailer Wilko. The business, a staple of most high streets for many years, announced that it was considering cutting 4,000 jobs from its workforce. The company has conceded that whilst it would try to find at risk employees alternative positions the consultation exercise may well lead to a significant number of redundancies.

Last week The Financial Times reported that the company was ‘blaming the collapse in the value of the pound for a steep rise in costs following last year’s Brexit vote.’

There is at least a possibility that by Christmas a large number of Wilko employees will be out of work essentially because of the outcome of the referendum.

If you are forced to claim benefits and are at risk of losing your home; or if you are genuinely concerned about violence rearing its head in your community after it has been at peace for so many years; or if you are simply fed up that you haven’t been able to go on holiday this year there is very little doubt that you might start having reservations about the referendum vote that took place last year. You would be fully justified in doing so.

None of the stories that I mention today are good. In fact they are all fairly miserable and directly attributable to a Leave vote.

But, and there a crucial point here, they are not that Armageddon that was promised by those advocating remain. Each story is sad and affects real lives but doesn’t take account of the fact that bad news does tend to be cyclical.

Tourist exchanges will get better, there has been a steady strengthening against the US dollar for some time now. Some jobs will be lost but others will be gained, many businesses are already planning for growth at the prospect of being able to export more successfully with a highly competitive pound to help them. And yes, there is a potential for a resurgence in violence, but we have learnt so much since the Good Friday agreement and many who were once active in violence have long since retired or died.

I was shocked last week at a quote that I discovered about the Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. In his book the Making of Modern Britain Andrew Marr writes that this figure from the past used to refer to voters as ‘vermin’.

There is a tendency even now amongst politicians to think that they are smarter than the electorate, and empirically that may even be true. But a referendum isn’t about the ‘cleverest’ decision but the one that feels right to the majority of people.

Last year the majority didn’t vote Leave because it would be smooth sailing but because they wanted to see a strong, independent Britain unencumbered by the rules and regulations of Brussels.

Brexit is going to be a rocky road but equally, over time, things will get better and who knows even improve. It is all of our responsibilities, especially those amongst us who voted Remain, to give the will of the people a fair crack of the whip.

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