Interview Paul Seaward (Brexit 2)

De Hofvijver sprak met Dr. Paul Seaward, directeur van The History of Parliament Trust over de Brexit. We vroegen hem naar de aanloop naar het referendum, de gevolgen en de toekomst van het Verenigd Koninkrijk. Seaward denkt dat hoewel nog veel onduidelijk is, de Brexit sowieso doorgang zal vinden. Dat de vraag nu voornamelijk gaat over wat voor soort Brexit er moet komen, noemt Seaward een positief gegeven. Zolang Theresa May echter haar kaarten op de borst houdt over concrete Britse plannen voor de onderhandelingen en de post-Brexit situatie zal de polarisatie die het referendum teweeg heeft gebracht voortduren.

To what extent did the outcome of the referendum come as a surprise to you?

It was both a surprise and not a surprise. For a long time, conventional wisdom told us that the British were split around 55% - 45% in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU, and it was generally assumed that this proportion would hold. ‘Euroscepticism’ was regarded as a fringe obsession and was nowhere near the mainstream. It became very apparent, though, as the referendum campaign went on, that what was thought in the mainstream media was quite distant from what was thought in the country more widely.

It was clear that the Remain campaign, strongly supported by the ‘expert’ community, did not have a message which really energised the public. Anyone who watched comment programmes or political debates in which members of the public were involved would have got the distinct message that the referendum was going to be a very tight race. There was much enthusiasm and determination among supporters of the Leave side: Remain supporters seemed much more muted, and probably fewer on the ground, in such programmes, even though the programme makers do try to ensure a balance of views within the audience.

The fact that the polls were so wrong did mean, however, that the end result did come as a surprise, although throughout the campaign there was debate about how accurate they were. We had also been misled by the precedent of the Scottish referendum of 2014, in which, despite a very narrow lead in the polls towards the end, the ‘No’ campaign, against Scottish independence, won a convincing victory. Remainers thought that the same would happen this time.

Does the Brexit play a role in people's life at all at the moment or is it just something that occupies the mind of Europeans?

It would be difficult to discern any impact at all of the referendum on daily life. To the delight of Leavers, despite (and probably because of) the sudden devaluation of the pound, the economy has so far held up well, with upward rather than downward revisions to estimates of growth. There are plenty of warnings of trouble ahead, with the inevitable beginnings of an uptick in inflation, and elements of the economy highly nervous and actively working on contingency plans. I imagine if one works in the City or in the Civil Service, the impact on daily life is very considerable – but for the ordinary person, at the moment, not.

That said, it has had a very big impact on our minds. Many Remainers were profoundly upset by the result of the referendum. People talk of it as being similar to a bereavement, and talk about the stages of grief. Leavers talk about ‘remoaners’ (remainers who keep moaning about it!), and feel that an elite is trying to wriggle free of the result, and avoid the ‘democratic will of the people’. It is clear that a very big divide has opened up in British politics and public life, one which we didn’t see coming at all.

Leavers see this as the beginnings of a process of dethroning a dominant liberal elite, the start of a process of real democratic revolution in which the voices of ordinary people are properly heard. Remainers see it as a lurch towards a nostalgic, nativist politics, in which Britain turns its back on the rest of the world both economically and diplomatically.

Do you think the Brexiteers are already having regrets?

Polling has shown little significant evidence of this as yet. Brexit campaigners became adept in the campaign at countering the warnings of domestic and foreign statesmen and experts, claiming that this was either ‘scaremongering’ or undue influence in the affairs of another country. This has perhaps kept the pro-Brexit voters keen on the project, and it’s fair to say (on both sides) there is very little as yet to either prove or disprove the claims of either side on whether the outcome will be positive or negative.

Can you give any indication of how you think the Brexit will play out?

There are so many uncertainties and dependencies it seems impossible to predict the outcome. The British political system will need to absorb a lot of stress over the next two to four years in order to cope with it.

There are huge issues to sort out, of which one of the most difficult is the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with Ireland. The Northern Ireland peace process is to a large extent underpinned by the UK’s membership of the EU, and the historically close relationship between the UK and Ireland will be complicated if the UK’s withdrawal means the creation of a hard border with Ireland.

Is there a chance the Brexit does not materialise in the end?

Perhaps one of the good things about the referendum is the way in which the ‘political class’ have generally accepted the result, and agreed that it is not possible to dismiss it. Many Brexiteers believed (and still believe) that the political class would try to frustrate it. A few Remainers might wish they could, but most recognise that such action could have very serious consequences. Instead, though, the debate has moved on to the question of ‘what sort of Brexit’ – i.e., what sort of association will we have with the EU after we have left it.

This of course, is quite as difficult as Brexit was in the first place, and was blurred during the campaign. While Theresa May keeps to her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ line, without revealing further details of the government’s plans, this argument is to some extent smothered. But as soon as the government’s hard plans are revealed more clearly, there will either be a chorus of fury from Brexiteers, or a huge shout of angst and concern from British business and a lot of Conservative and Labour MPs.

Given the general acceptance of the result of the vote, and the hawkish eyes of the Brexit lobby on any ‘backsliding’, my guess is that Brexit will happen, but it will be a longer process than the government hopes, and exactly what shape it will take is very unclear. It is clear that the government is very keen for it to be achieved successfully by the expected date of the next election, May 2020. But whether that is feasible, and what we will all look like by then is anybody’s guess.