Referendum rumble: countdown to make or break

“If the people of Europe resolve to come together and work for mutual advantage, to exchange blessings instead of curses, they still have it in their power to sweep away the horrors and miseries which surround them, and to allow the streams of freedom, happiness and abundance to begin again their healing flow. This is the supreme opportunity, and if it be cast away, no one can predict it will ever return or what the resulting catastrophe will be.”

Winston Churchill, 1947

“And always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.”

Hilaire Belloc

“The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”


Events have moved much more quickly than most people had anticipated and the referendum on Britain’s membership European Union is to be held on June 23. By 10pm on that day, assuming that the exit polls are correct, we will know if the UK is to remain or leave.

Recent polls suggest that the ins and the outs are running roughly neck and neck at around 38 per cent with the undecided being clocked at just below 25 per cent. Crucially, very substantial numbers of voters have still to make up their minds These people will, therefore, determine the outcome. How might they vote and why? What are the main issues that will determine their decisions in the coming months?

This will have to reach their decisions on the basis of a tsunami of hyperbole and mendacity from the committed. The following issues are likely to be prominent.

* Which option holds out the best choice for the UK economy – in or out of the EU?

* Migration.

* The views of the other 27 members of the EU.

* The possible break-up of the United Kingdom.

* Perceived weaknesses of present arrangement within the EU.

*  The EU Social Chapter.

What are the prospects for the British economy if we stay in on David Cameron’s renegotiated terms as compared with the prospects if the outcome of this great democratic exercise is to walk away from the EU? Is there any point to leaving the EU if we still have to abide by the rules of the single market if we want to have access to it?

Cameron has secured agreement that the UK can remain outside the eurozone, but we should not forget that exchange rate fluctuations between the euro and sterling impose an additional and undesirable complication.

UK voters are being daily assailed by the raucous apostles of the Remain and Leave groups. The “in” advocates describe the “outers” as ready to take a leap in the dark. This metaphor is unhelpful because many of us are reluctant to take leaps in the dark or, for that matter, in the light.

The outers talk confidently about the ease and speed with which alternative trade arrangements can be firmed up to replace existing trade arrangements within the EU. This assertion difficult to accept in part because such alternative arrangements are inevitably time consuming to sort out.

More importantly, the other 27 EU members, already irritated by what many perceive as the British problem, are likely to ensure that any discussions proceed at a pace that will make the Chilcot inquiry seem positively brisk. Businessmen trying to sell their products into competitive markets have enough problems as it is without having to cope with this inevitable additional layer of uncertainty.

Migration may be the number one issue

Migration may well emerge as the main campaign issue, especially in the current appalling circumstances. The scenes in the jungle camp outside Calais are distressing enough, but the pictures of the trail of horror from Turkey through Greece and the Balkans are truly heart breaking. Those fleeing from Syria still have hopes that they will find a safe haven somewhere in Europe, and surely any civilised solution has to satisfy this very reasonable aspiration.

The British have a moral responsibility, along with the rest of the EU, to minimise the suffering. Accordingly the British must go on to answer the question: is Britain better placed to assist as an EU member or from outside the EU?

For my part, I believe that: a UK in the EU is better placed to help it arrive at better arrangements.

The least dangerous solution in the short to medium term would be for Europe collectively to enforce the rules in place before the huge exodus from Syria and neighbouring countries, ie asylum seekers to reg­ister in that category as soon as they arrive on friendly soil.

There is a risk that the prospect of uncontrolled immigration will fuel racialism in Europe and the measures adopted should ensure that this risk is minimised.

The UK does have a degree of responsibility for the situation in the Middle East because the invasion of Iraq in 2003 did contribute to the ensuing political and social chaos.

One feature of recent events has been the extent to which initial declarations of support for refugees from heads of state have been attenuated as the consequences of unlimited and uncontrolled entry have been examined.

Some argue that German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a mistake in agreeing to suspend the existing migration rules with their defined categories of asylum seekers and economic migrants by extending an unconditional welcome to hundreds of thousands of would-be migrants regardless of status. Was her initial declaration of support an example of a commendable humanitarian response to a huge human tragedy or might it be described as an emotional spasm?

It is unfortunate that the first real test of the EU immigration arrangements has found them to be wanting both as to their workability and as to their acceptability.

On a slightly more optimistic note, we have seen what could be a most helpful initiative when the EU agreed significant funding to help Greece to provide shelter and support for migrants. It would be difficult for the UK to assist in the task of formulating and implementing this commendable policy from outside the EU.

There are indications that an out vote will trigger difficulties in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.  ]The SNP has hinted that an immediate consequence of Brexit would be a demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence, with the likelihood that this would favour an independent Scotland. The newly independent Scotland would promptly seek to join the EU and its application would be accepted.

In the case of Northern Ireland, there is a feeling that a combination of Brexit and the Irish Republic staying in the EU would create additional problems just as the Irish, both north and south of the border were enjoying relative tranquillity after decades of turmoil.

So, there may be at least two good reasons to vote for Britain to stay within the EU.

One strongly held view is that the UK should either be wholly integrated into the EU or fully out of it. It would be better for those countries opposed to or deeply uncertain about a federal Europe to stand aside and let the core enthusiasts get on with it.

It may well be the case that the other 27 EU members are not entirely happy with the behaviour of the disruptive Brits in an otherwise calm institution.

They have, however, conceded a couple points of substance, made a pretence of conceding a couple more, created a late-night drama from which the protagonists emerged perspiring and pugnacious, and proclaiming a deal. Then, assuming that David Cameron can persuade the British electorate to support him, the hope is that the EU can get back to business as usual.

The problem with democracy, though, is that every now and then – at election times, for instance – power is briefly transferred from politicians to the people and, not to put too fine a point on it, the people simply can’t be trusted.

A disunited kingdom

Thus far, the ins and the outs have couched their respective arguments in terms of what’s best for Britain.

Who exactly are “we” in the context of the referendum? The debate is being conducted on the basis that the United Kingdom is united, and that we are one nation apart from a few malcontents and trouble­makers. But the acrimony and mendacity unleashed by the campaign indicates that the UK is neither united nor one nation.

Are the interests of managers in the UK financial sector who are anxious to reap the rewards of another uncontrolled bonanza identical to those of steelworkers justifiably anxious about the future of their industry?

Are the interests of acquisitive university vice-chancellors identical to the interests of the lowly lecturers in their various establishments?

Are the interests of managers in the NHS identical to the interests of the nurses and junior doctors at the sharp end?

Are the interests of those who retired when the going was good identical to the interests of the generation now leaving full-time education and facing bleak prospects in terms of jobs and housing?

Are the interests of those in secure public sector jobs identical to the interests of those in the much more volatile private sector?

As with Westminster, current EU arrangements do need to be reformed. The shortcomings include excessive bureaucracy, the transfer of power from nation states to Brussels, the perceived passivity – with a few honourable exceptions – of MEPs, and the excessive cost of  dubiously democratic arrangements.

A good start could be made by electing MEPs committed to devomax arrangements, a reform that Britain could help to promote from inside the EU but with no ability to do so from the outside.

Bureaucrats saw the beckoning cushy numbers open to them within the EU and they seized them. So to party activists of all parties must work to ensure that as many UK MEPs as possible are selected from a list of fearless whistle blowers and from the awkward squad.

For many, the EU Social Chapter is a key part of the case for the UK to remain in Europe. The employment arrangements in the Social Chapter provide a sound basis for a fair society, and y a society in which employees are entitled to be consulted rather than simply informed about management plans and intentions. The Social Chapter contains many commendable rules on job protection and security. It has the full support of the EU trade unions and mainstream left-wing parties throughout Europe.

Is there an issue of greater significance to working people, and of no more powerful incentive for them to vote to stay? An educated guess is that Cameron, ever anxious to appease the right of his party, would gladly see the Social Chapter diluted or even abandoned if he thought that this would enhance the prospect of a Remain vote.

From 2003 to 2014, I worked as an advisor to the National Trade Union Steel Co-ordinating Committee, a body made up of the national officials of trade unions with members in the UK steel sector. In early 2014, Tata Steel announced plans to close its technology centre in Rotherham and establish a new centre in Warwick. All Rotherham employees who so wished could move to Warwick. Problems arose not because of flaws in the project itself, but in the brusque treatment of employees that were unhappy with the plans.

In my report to the NTUSCC on the project, I said that the European model of joint consultation was established after the Second World War and has been a force for progress in that management plans are subject to scrutiny. Works councils are emphatically not there to serve as rubber stamps. The European model remains one to be embraced.

The Greek tragedy

The history of Greece during its brief stay in the EU has been one of triumph followed by disaster. The initial phase was characterised by a series of gains in terms of EU subsidies for large-scale projects in the public sector, and support for changes such as the provision of generous pensions paid earlier than had previously been the case. This unwise generosity in the distribution of other people’s money could not and did not last.

National affluence gave way to national austerity with inevitable hostile reactions. These were not assuaged by the fact that the very rich in Greece, just like the very rich throughout history, took effective measures to isolate themselves from the widespread poverty that has become a key feature of the Greek economy.

The national Greek bitterness has acquired an additional element in recent months. The proximity of some Greek islands to Turkey has made Greece a magnet for huge numbers of migrants fleeing the conflicts in Syria and neighbouring countries. Thus Greece, with the least resources in the EU, is having to shoulder one of the biggest burdens generated by the Middle East wars. Is not incumbent of all of us to help?

At this stage, on balance and with events moving at speed, I remain convinced, rather more so than I was previously, that the case for staying in the EU is much stronger than the argument for coming out.

And we must all hope that the outcome of the referendum will be a policy based on logic rather than prejudice, on debate rather than assertion and on a long-term vision than on short-term electoral gain.

Nevertheless, it is hard to contemplate a future – possibly a very near future – in which Cameron is rejected by the British voters and replaced at the helm by that blond bloated blatherer Boris Johnson, or that yapping lapdog, Michael Gove.

This article was first published in Tribune on March 22, 2016

Image courtesy of Catholic Herald


Author: holdenforth

50 years in management - mostly as a sharp-end man. Occasional contributor to Tribune.

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