A week after Brexit, I fear for my country

First published in Portuguese in Público, 1 July 2016

I am very concerned about what is happening in my country, Scotland, and throughout the United Kingdom, following the referendum of 23 June, and about the possibility of losing my European citizenship and, consequently, my right to live and work in Portugal or any of the other European Union member states.

The United Kingdom is in political, financial, social and economic chaos. There is a power vacuum in London, and a chance both Scotland and Northern Ireland may choose to leave the UK to protect their EU status.

Meanwhile, the Leave campaign’s two main leaders, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, along with many of their supporters, recently seem to have admitted they neither expected nor wanted the result they got. It is beginning to look like their campaign had more to do with the desire to remove David Cameron and George Osborne from the leadership of the Conservative Party and of the country. The Prime Minister’s resignation on Friday morning spoiled the party, making it clear to Brexit supporters that it was now their problem to fix. Apart from the brief appearance of Boris Johnson leaving his house on Monday when he said the currency and the markets were stable – just as sterling fell strongly against both the dollar and the euro – not one of the Leave campaign’s leaders has been seen since their rather subdued press conference on the morning of 24 June. The spokespeople who did appear either chose not to mention or backed away from the promises made during the campaign, whether in respect of immigration, health spending, access to the single market, even in relation to the urgency of the UK activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

The consensus seems to be that no formal request to activate Article 50 will – or can – be made, at least until the new leader of the Conservative Party is selected (which will not be until September). In any case, it is possible – if not probable – that there will be a need to hold a general election to give the new government legitimacy. Only then will the new parliament – which is the only institution with the authority to make constitutional law – be able to authorise the government to activate Article 50, which could take at least seven to eight months. Complicating matters even further is the insistence by some EU leaders that there will be no negotiations, formal or informal, until Article 50 has been activated, and the view at Westminster that parliament cannot authorise the government to formally begin the Brexit process without prior negotiations with the European institutions. It is important to note that most current MPs favour remaining in the EU, and there is no guarantee this will change after an election. It is always possible that parliament will refuse to empower the government, thereby rejecting the referendum result, and without parliamentary authorisation, Brexit is going nowhere.

Boris Johnson, the ex-Mayor of London and former leader of the Leave campaign, said there is no hurry in leaving the EU and that his preference is to negotiate more concessions for the UK, particularly over the free movement of EU citizens. It is important to recall that just 15 days before he decided to campaign for Leave, Johnson wrote in his Daily Telegraph column: “for the last couple of years I have argued that we would be – on the whole – better off in a reformed EU.”

However, following an exchange of messages in which his campaign deputy Michael Gove said he could not support him, Johnson, who had been favourite to replace David Cameron, withdrew from the Conservative Party leadership race. In a decision that caught almost everyone by surprise, Johnson announced that he was not the right man to lead the country through this difficult time. There are some rumours that some powerful Brexit supporters did not believe Johnson was wholly committed to the cause. Gove then threw his hat in the ring, with his main Remain opponent being the Home Secretary, Theresa May.

As for the Labour Party. The so-called moderates revolted against the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, leaving the party in a state of civil war. Corbyn’s campaign in support of Remain was very weak, with repercussions at the electoral level with the regions in traditional Labour Party heartlands – the north-east, the Midlands and the north-west of England and Wales sending a message of complete disaffection by voting massively to leave the EU. The Leave vote in these regions was not so much an expression of their desire for Brexit as it was a protest vote against years of neglect by London-based politicians, perhaps without being fully aware of the potential consequences. The coup against Corbyn has been seen by many as simple political opportunism, and there is a view that instead of getting involved in internal conflict, the party should be taking advantage of the political vacuum to position itself as an alternative government. Nevertheless, there appears little doubt that a party led by Corbyn will be unable to win the election. One recent poll suggests that up to 29% of those who voted Labour in 2015 will not vote for them in the next election.

Despite the apparent success of the coup, with the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voting against their leader during a vote of confidence, it is almost certain that Corbyn will win any leadership election given the enormous disconnect between the party members (who are mostly young and radical) who elect the leaders, the party’s electorate (mainly socially and economically conservative working class) and the party elite (mainly neoliberals and career politicians).

The situation in Northern Ireland is full of challenges. It has the only land border between the UK and the EU. The removal of this “hard” border was crucial for the success of the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to the Troubles. There is a fear that the reintroduction of this hard border, with checkpoints, passport control, customs, fences and patrols, could lead to a return of violence. The result of the referendum in Northern Ireland, where 56% of the electorate voted to remain in the EU, has led to renewed calls for a Border Poll, a referendum to remove the border altogether, which in the context of Brexit would mean the effective reunification of Ireland.

Things in Scotland seem clearer but no less difficult. The Scots voted overwhelmingly for the EU, with 62% voting Remain. After nine years in power, the Scottish National Party (SNP) was re-elected to government in May with almost 50% of the popular vote. The party manifesto made a clear statement that there will be another independence referendum should Scotland be pulled out of the EU against the will of the majority of the Scottish people. Now that this is what seems to be happening, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said she would do all she can to ensure the will of the Scottish people is respected, and that if there is no solution with Scotland as part of the UK, then there will be with Scotland as an independent nation. She made it very clear that an independence referendum is the final option but that her government will proceed with the preparations to ensure the country is ready to have the debate before the UK leaves the EU. She is currently involved in meetings and discussions with leaders and senior officials of the EU and its member states to see what options exist to ensure Scotland remains within the EU.

Returning south of the border. UKIP and other parties on the right have exploited the discontent and impotence felt in the deindustrialised areas of northern England and Wales, suggesting that the problems – low pay, high unemployment, poor housing, etc. – are largely caused by immigration. Here in Scotland, watching events as they unfold in England, I am shocked by just how unpleasant they have become. There are increasing reports of people who do not look “British” being attacked, insulted and threatened, and told to go home, and there are stories of tourists being approached in the street and told to leave the country.

So, just one week after the referendum, we are in a no-man’s land. There is no functioning government; there is no plan B; the two main parties are embroiled in internal conflicts; there is no leadership, and there is no one to take responsibility. I fear for the future of my country, whatever happens.

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