Many high ranking Tories told the Scottish people that a vote for independence was a vote for dire uncertainty. How would an exit from the union work? How long would it take? How would years of potential confusion affect in investment in Scotland, jobs and trade? That argument seemed to stick as Scots voted to remain in the UK, albeit narrowly. And they were right: there is no method for a country to leave the UK and no certainty about how long leaving would take or what Scotland’s relationship with the rump of the UK would be. Fear of uncertainty swung the vote.
It’s amusing to see Vote Leave Tories struggling to counter the same argument they used to defeat Scottish independence. Just like a Scottish exit from the UK, Britain’s leaving the EU is a minefield of speculation and potential pitfalls. There is no precedent, no approved method for a country to leave the EU. The Brexit campaign has outlined no plan for the UK to disentangle itself from complex treaty obligations and then re-negotiate for the things they want. Some legal experts say an exit could take between five and ten years with no guarantee Britain will get everything it wants. Vote Leave has failed to provide answers, while Remain has failed to ask the right questions.
The usual Brexiteer line that ‘Europe needs Britain more than Britain needs Europe’ doesn’t hold water in European capitals or the EU bureaucracy. For many European leaders and citizens watching the referendum, Vote Leave is a petulant, arrogant campaign mired in a kind of English nationalism Europeans have hated for centuries. Britain is just not as special and wonderful as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson tell voters. EU elites will not make it easy for Britain to abandoned its obligations and cherry pick agreements that give Britain all the advantages with none of the responsibilities. Negotiations with the EU will be long and complicated; EU leaders will make it as hard as possible for Britain to get what Brexiteers want. From Brussels to Berlin, EU citizens are mostly sick of British posturing and won’t be ready to offer ex-EU Britain a plum deal.
The fall in the pound is just the beginning of Brexit difficulties. Just the idea that most Britons will vote to leave is sending shudders through the markets. Based on recent polling, English votes may be decisive. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland could all vote to stay but Britain could still be dragged out of the EU if England votes to leave by a large of enough margin (which is a smaller margin than you’d think). Speculation about a break up of the UK is already appearing in international media and Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon will almost certainly call a new independence vote if England runs roughshod over Scottish wishes. You won’t find Vote Leave future proofing any of this or Remain warning the public about it. These failures on both sides of the Tory campaign will cast long shadows if Britain leaves.
Brexit boosters are running a fantasy campaign, refusing to see obvious difficulties and blatantly lying about Britain’s abilities, as former PM John Major recently pointed out. For their part, David Cameron and Remain Tories are so lukewarm on Europe they aren’t even trying to explain the potential disaster of a Brexit vote. Both sides are failing the British public with a poor, information-light campaign. The Scottish referendum was much more candid ,with better analysis of potential outcomes and serious discussion of the obvious uncertainty of an exit. Britain risks sleepwalking out the door and facing dire economic consequences and years of drawn out negotiations that will satisfy no-one.
While the nation of shopkeepers worries about the number of immigrants per year or the cost of mortgages, the bigger issues are ignored. The cost of a Brexit won’t be counted merely in the consumer price index or the cost of visas to visit Greece. Can Britain afford a decade of uncertainty, a collapse of the pound and the potential break up of a union that has existed since 1707? With voting just two weeks away and polls showing a slight advantage for a Brexit, voters should be asking, what then?