There are lessons for Australia in Brexit - but not the ones we think

Simon Cowan

01 February 2020 | Canberra Times

After voting 52% to 48% to leave, the United Kingdom has finally, officially, departed from the European Union — following three and a half years of uncertainty, confusion and delay.

There are a number of lessons for Australia from the whole shemozzle.

The first is that the appalling process around the referendum, Brexit, and the functioning of parliament turned a political challenge into an ongoing circus.

Prior to the referendum vote, the UK Independence Party (or UKIP) had had some success in European Parliament elections and local elections. But the party was hardly a major political force. In 2010, it received only around 3% of the national vote.

While this had grown to more than 12% by 2015, UKIP remained a minor party. Former conservative prime minister David Cameron’s 2013 promise to hold a referendum on EU membership was not driven by a majority of voters demanding it, or because he believed in the reform, but at least in part to ward off further vote losses on the right.

Yet once the vote was in motion, it unleashed political forces that tore down the orthodoxy in relatively short order. This political miscalculation cost Cameron his job.

However, Cameron’s resignation solved nothing. Neither major party had anticipated the referendum result, and neither any plan to achieve Brexit once the voters supported it.

Supporters of the Indigenous Voice, or an Australian Republic, who wish to rush to a referendum would do well to invest more time in implementation planning rather than assuring the public that such concerns are in fact minor issues.

Of course, even the lack of planning was not the biggest problem in the UK. The biggest problem was the way fixed parliamentary terms prevented the government from resolving the issue in accordance with the will of the people.

In 2017, Theresa May rather cynically attempted to cash in on the Brexit confusion to lock in a substantial parliamentary majority. However her ineptitude led to a parliament that had no majority for any position on Brexit, and as a consequence, a more or less perpetual stall.

Those committed to Remain would not vote for any deal, while those committed to Leave were concerned that the deal in effect didn’t result in actual departure from the EU.

The proper resolution of this issue was to dissolve the parliament and allow the voters to elect a government that would either give effect to the referendum, or (if the remainers’ theory of ‘Regrexit’ was correct) commit to remaining in the EU.

In other words, the voters should be given the choice.

However, the government could not simply call an election without the support of the House of Commons — which it could not gain, because the Labour Party rightfully feared an electoral wipeout, and the broader Remain coalition did not want to give up the political power it had obtained through the quirks of the system.

The parliamentary paralysis resulting from the UK’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act should be a warning to those determined to introduce fixed terms in Australia. The unintended consequences of having fixed parliamentary terms have been laid bare.

Yet the politics of Brexit are far from the most important lesson from the past three and a half years.

The bigger point we need to understand is that local and national identity means more to the ordinary person than just cheering for your national football team, or your country’s entry in the Eurovision song contest.

One of the key ideas of the European Union is the commitment towards “ever closer union” as the Treaty of Rome (among other documents, such as the 1983 Solemn Declaration) states. For the geographically mobile, well-educated elite of London, this is an exciting promise of an integrated, outwardly looking union where national borders become ever less important.

In practice, however, it has meant a shift of power away from the various component states and towards the European Union itself. It is not clear whether the end-point is the creation of a kind of federalised ‘United States of Europe’ — as was once (but apparently no longer) favoured by EU Commission President, Ursula von der Layen.

Yet many people in Europe do not support this goal: it is not just the British who are seeking to halt the ‘ever-closer union’.

Yet the lesson from successful federations is precisely not to attempt to centralise power. It is the principle of subsidiarity — the idea that political decisions should be taken at the local level wherever it is possible — that makes federalism work.

Stripping power from nation states and handing it to the central authority only makes things easier if your goal is to implement big changes in society: it’s a lot easier to remake the world from the top down, than it is from bottom up.

Of course this is precisely why many ‘Remainers’ love the EU.

Yet for those less educated — who tend to be identify more strongly with the place where they come from — the loss of subsidiarity, and the corresponding dissolution of ‘place’, is highly unwelcome.

These are not just the types of people who, as Michael Parkinson once observed of his grandmother, ‘never set foot outside the borough of Doncaster’.

Often this sense of place is conflated with a fear of immigration, more precisely a fear of ‘immigrants’, or dismissed as mere racism. While race may play some role in some of the support for Brexit, there seems relatively little evidence it’s the primary factor.

The message that Brussels is making decisions for your community — and you have no say in it —resonates very powerfully with people.

The removal of power over one’s circumstances, together with the creation of ongoing financial dependence, is poisonous for a body politic. It saps motivation and breeds resentment.

Australia will do well to remember this lesson too. Co-operative federalism, especially where more and more power is vested in Canberra at the expense of state and local government, might seem like a good idea to the radicals. But it can create mendicancy and dependency in some communities, and resentment at having to always pick up the tab in others.

Australia is in many ways fortunate to have avoided the political and social upheaval caused by a Brexit-style event; but this does not mean we can ignore Britain’s Brexit lessons.

Political upheavals are often unexpected, sudden, and devastating.

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