Europe wakes up to an uncertain future. A month ago, I was proud of my primary identity as a Londoner, as the UK’s capital voted against the grain of sentiment elsewhere to elect the city’s first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. Today I remain proud of London, but ashamed of England. I choose my words carefully: Londoners, and Scots, voted decisively in support of remaining in the European Union (EU). Englanders – little Englanders, specifically – voted to leave.
But I am not cross – or ashamed – of the 52% of voters in the UK referendum who voted to leave – they were to free to use the referendum as an anti-establishment protest vote, such is the breakdown in trust in traditional, representative democracy – but of the country’s political leadership, which let the people down and let Europe down.
Not so much a weak Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, beholden as he is to the Little Englanders in his own party – although his decision to hold a referendum will go down as one of the greatest political misjudgments of all time, one that has rightly cost him his place in Downing Street – but with the leadership of the Labour Party, who insipidly supported ‘remain’ while privately harbouring a profound ambivalence towards Brussels.
Part of Jeremy Corbyn’s psychosis, that locks him into an outdated 1970s worldview, is a deep mistrust of the EU. Some skepticism is, indeed, healthy: the EU is far from perfect. But it is an act of extraordinary foolishness to think that such a complex multilateral undertaking as the European project would be anything other than complex and flawed, but at the same time not to recognize its virtues and, especially for the leader of a left-of-centre party, the material gains that have accrued to working people.
Let me develop those two themes. First, the European project: it may be messy, it may be over-bureaucratic, and at times it may place too much power in the hands of unelected members of the European central bank. But how much better is Europe now than what preceded the European Union: a weak, divided, and often warring continent – one of both enlightenment and progress, but also conflict and colonialisation.
United, or relatively so, the EU has offered an alternative model of multilateral governance that is without precedent in human history. Not just a common market, but a bulwark against US, Russian or Chinese power and a counterpoint to a multi-polar world in which new, dangerous nationalisms hold sway and invite yet another era of instability and war.
Without British membership, the EU will be inevitably and irrevocably weakened. The European vision will diminish and its prospects of surviving and succeeding will substantially recede.
Which takes one to the second point: the progressive virtues of the European project, especially in the realm of human and labour rights. Despite resistance, and the UK’s half-baked constitutional accommodation of the European bill of rights, European law has had a civilizing impact on the jurisprudential trajectory of the UK. Workers, women, the disabled, gay and lesbian people have been the principal beneficiaries. Thanks to European law, British workers are mostly safer, better paid, more equal, and less discriminated against than before.
Yet, Corbyn failed to appreciate or articulate this. He is unfit for high political office. And like Cameron, he should go.
As a result, the racists and the nationalists were given ample opportunity to dominate the debate, which quickly descended into a dark and unedifying place. Reason was the loser and Britain is set to leave. Europe will never be the same again. The ripple-like consequences for geo-politics are too many to even begin to comprehend at this point. Which is why the ostensibly democratic mechanism of a referendum was so inappropriate for such a ‘polycentric’ decision (to use the word that the South African constitutional court has used to justify its understandable reluctance to be too prescriptive when forging remedies to executive failure to respect socio-economic rights, such as health care or housing). A referendum, like some court adjudications, offers only a binary response to complex policy choices – which can result in the sort of destructive debate that has characterized the EU vote in the UK and let to its confounding outcome.
The British people have made a huge decision, but in entirely the wrong circumstances. It will cause enormous harm to untold millions of people. Only in one hundred years will historians be able to look back and recognize the significance of 23 June 2016. In the meantime a deeply divided nation – or, more aptly, set of nations – will, ironically given the nationalistic claims of the leavers, further lose touch with its core identity, as its influence in the world dwindles yet more. Unless a new progressive-liberal formation, with fresh leadership, quickly forms, Britain’s political equilibrium will shift nastily to the right giving Scotland, and perhaps even London, every reason to press hard for some kind of secession. DM
RICHARD CALLAND is one of South Africa's most incisive and independent political analysts. He is an Associate Professor in Public Law at the University of Cape Town. A regular commentator in the press and on TV and radio and his column, 'Contretemps', in the Mail & Guardian is highly regarded for its original take on politics, based on an extensive range of contacts built up carefully over the years, from which he has drawn in his books Anatomy of South Africa (2006) and The Zuma Years (2013). His latest book is, Make or Break: How the next 3 years will shape South Africas next 30 Years.