Guest Notes

Brexit notes

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

A victory for the voters

Who remembers the Sydney Morning Herald’s editorial on the eve of Britain’s Brexit referendum in 2016? Its heading was: ‘A victory for hate should Brexit prevail’.

As it turned out, most of the hatred that was generated in the wake of the referendum seemed to spring from those who were on the losing side and had wanted to remain in the European Union. But the Herald’s somewhat histrionic view typified the reaction of the ruling groups – often to be distinguished from the elected government – in all Western countries to the prospect of Britain moving out of the EU.

Nowhere, of course, was this more true than in Britain itself where most prominent members of the media, the civil service, the business community and the cultural sector were violently opposed to the idea of Brexit. Some of the country’s leading authors even produced a new fiction genre – the anti-Brexit novel. This is why Boris Johnson’s electoral victory in December was such a rare event in a country like Britain or Australia. Not so much the election result itself but the fact that it meant that Brexit would proceed against the will of a wide range of forces whose consent is normally necessary for any important decision in modern Western society.


The opposition of these forces to the referendum vote was graphically illustrated in Britain by the fact that for a period of years the House of Commons would not accept the result of the referendum or the government’s basis for negotiating with the EU but refused to agree to an election that would resolve this deadlock. And in September of last year the UK Supreme Court intervened in this political contest to stop the government proroguing the parliament for a short period in a decision that ignored centuries of legal precedents against this kind of interference with the political process.

The opposition to Brexit was not, however, confined to forces within Britain. The EU, which has never taken the unfavourable results of referendums in its member states seriously and has usually had them later reversed, determined to place every obstacle in the way of Britain’s leaving their supra-national entity. To some extent the EU negotiators were aided and abetted in this intransigence by the British negotiators who, like the great majority of senior bureaucrats and politicians, considered the referendum result to be a terrible anomaly and something that could hopefully be overturned at some point in the future.  The Irish government was a major contributor to this stone-walling on the part of the EU because they allowed it to raise the false issue of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland as an obstacle to any final agreement between the parties. It was said that there could be no customs procedures on this border, although it was never explained why this should be so when it divided two separate nations.

Also snapping at the heels of the British administration in Westminster was its Scottish counterpart in Edinburgh on the basis that voters in Scotland had rejected, albeit narrowly, the notion of Brexit. This was in many ways a product of the determination of the ruling Scottish National Party to have a second referendum on the question of independence for Scotland, despite a referendum on this proposal having been lost in 2014. What was particularly noteworthy about that referendum was that the voters were confined to residents of Scotland itself, which has approximately eight per cent of the UK population, so that the rest of the UK had no say in whether it should be broken up after more than 300 years of union with Scotland.

It is hardly surprising that moves for independence by provinces or regions have almost always been resisted by the nations of which they have formed a part.  The costliest attempt at secession in modern history was made by the Confederate states of the Union in 1861 and resulted in a civil war that cost more than 600,000 lives. In more recent times the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Chechens in the Russian Federation lost armed struggles for independence. Catalonia in Spain and the largely German-speaking northwest province of Italy have been unsuccessful in their unarmed efforts for separation. A rare exception to this trend was the detachment of Kosovo from Serbia in 2008 but only after the bombing of Belgrade by NATO flights. Kosovo has been generally recognised by the international community, although its independence status is still not accepted by Serbia. It is hard to see why Boris Johnson’s new government would facilitate the efforts of the administration in Edinburgh to achieve this same end.

Still on the same subject of breaking up the United Kingdom, there have been suggestions that a referendum be held in Northern Ireland on the question of its joining the Irish Republic.  The prospects of such a referendum succeeding would have seemed absurd in earlier times but demographic changes have made any result much less certain. Arguably, however, this should also be a decision for the voters of the United Kingdom as a whole and not just those of the province of Northern Ireland. This province has been so troublesome to Westminster over many years that it might be tempting for any British government to be rid of it but that is not an option for a nation state.

All of this suggests that there are some difficult issues confronting the new Conservative administration. The negotiations over Brexit with the EU will still be thorny even though the EU will now have to accept the reality of Britain leaving. And the future of both Scotland and Northern Ireland, assuming this to be as continuing members of the United Kingdom, will be an on-going source of acrimonious debate.  Nevertheless, as already noted, Boris Johnson’s election victory is that very rare event in modern times where the will of the people has prevailed over the best – or worst – efforts of the establishment.

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