Psychologists understand the importance of the framing effect, where somebody’s choice is heavily influenced by the way a question is framed. Pollsters also understand the framing effect, and that is why so much scrutiny must be applied to the wording of a question in a referendum. This decade has seen Brits gain more experience of referendums than they ever had before, with three national referendums being held since 2011, the last of which resulted in the surprise decision to leave the European Union. However, it seems large segments of the population refuse to learn from experience. There appears to be a contingent of Brits who genuinely believe that if the Brexit referendum was re-run as a so-called “people’s vote” then the decision would be reversed, and all would continue as before. This is a mistake, as evident from what has happened in Scotland since the nationalists were defeated in the independence referendum. The only seeming explanation of this mistake is that supporters of the people’s vote have adopted an exceptionally peculiar frame of reference, which asserts that events since 2016 have proved that the referendum decision was wrong, and that if Brexit is not averted then there will be further proof of how flawed it was. What this frame of reference lacks is any imagination about what would happen to Britain if the decision was reversed. That is the real choice: between Brexit and the reversal of the decision to Brexit, not between Brexit and the status quo before the vote was held. The British government either honours the 2016 referendum decision or the decision is reversed. The one option that does not exist, but which is seemingly cherished by supporters of the people’s vote, is that we return to a pre-2016 state of naivety, and that we collectively behave as if there is no alternative to membership of the European Union.
Events in Scotland have shown why a vote in favour of the status quo does not mean it is possible to maintain the status quo. Here is what would happen to Britain, in the unlikely event that there is a second referendum which votes to remain in the European Union.
- The UK will need to take part in the next election to the European Parliament. These elections have hitherto been won by the most Eurosceptic parties standing, whilst pro-European parties have fared poorly, partly because the turnout is so low, and partly because there are very few voters who can explain the relationship between their vote and the policies adopted by the EU, except for those voters who support parties that reject the EU altogether. A reversal of Brexit would lead to a massive surge in support amongst UK voters for the most Eurosceptic parties standing in those elections, just as there was a huge surge in support for the Scottish National Party after they lost indyref. Instead of stabilizing the UK’s relationship with Europe, the UK would soon send a very large and highly-motivated bloc of wreckers to the European Parliament, where they will proceed to do everything possible to prevent any rapprochement with other EU nations.
- There will be intense scrutiny of every instance where the EU previously spent money in the UK but stopped doing so because of Brexit. Either the money will flow as it did before, which will irk the other European countries that hoped to benefit in each case, or else Brexiteers will howl that the UK continues to be punished because it dared to contemplate departure from the EU. Once again, it will be very difficult to engineer a rapprochement when many of the supposed benefits of belonging to the EU will be denied to the UK for political reasons.
- The Franco-German commitment to a common EU military will prove to be a constant and recurring provocation to Brexiteers. It only became possible for these two nations to openly promote the concept of the combined command of the military because the UK, which is Europe’s greatest military power, had decided to leave the EU. Put simply, the Germans are laggards on military spending, whilst the French are inclined to be nationalistic in how they project military power, and neither quality is conducive to the British military putting their warships and jet fighters under the command of German or French military leaders. A uniquely Franco-German conception of how to maintain peace, not widely respected outside of those nations, would somehow have to gain popularity in a Britain that already pays its NATO dues, already subsidizes the defence of others, and has a long history of disdain for European attempts to use military force to override the interests of the UK.
- The European Union will increasingly need to pool economic sovereignty in order to limit the dysfunction of the Eurozone. Meanwhile, even Scottish Nationalists accede to the popular will to retain the pound. Either the UK’s remaining within the EU will force the EU to suspend further integration of the Eurozone, or more likely the chasm in the ‘two-speed’ Europe will widen at an accelerated pace. Each instance when the UK is asked to hand additional control of taxation or spending to the EU will be a flashpoint for those who wanted to leave. Supporters of the EU will most likely have no useful or positive response to such challenges, and will instead opt to ignore them in the hope they go away, much as they have typically done in the past.
- The UK will remain one of the EU’s most significant economic powers, and will thus need to be respected as an important leader in the European Council. But each time an individual Brit is put forward for a position of authority in the EU there will be rancour on all sides. Within Britain the question will be whether the appointee is sufficiently respectful of the section of the population that voted for Brexit. Within the EU, the question will be whether the appointee is willing to work with European partners or will only cause obstruction. And when the EU appoints German after German after German to key positions, it will become increasingly difficult for EU supporters to explain why pooling sovereignty consistently means accepting German leadership.
- From time to time the UK will need to take the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. This position allows a country to set the agenda for the EU. But what agenda could possibly be set by the UK following a divisive pair of referendums? Either it will be hostile to the direction pursued by the Franco-German alliance, begging a question about the oft-claimed amplification of Britain’s power by belonging to the EU, or else UK leadership will accommodate the wishes of the French and Germans, upsetting those Brits who already felt that the British establishment is too keen to acquiesce to foreign objectives. Major summits will be seen as battlegrounds, and any false step will further enrage the section of the British population who believe their wishes are ignored by the national and international elites.
- The fear of Brexit has drawn attention to the extent to which Britain is dependent upon imported food. This favours the remainer argument in the short term, but goes against them in the longer term. Remaining in the EU will sharpen concerns that short-term thinking has consistently trumped Britain’s strategic interests. The UK produced almost 80 percent of the food it consumed during the 1980’s, but now only produces roughly 50 percent of what it needs. During that interval it has also become considered ‘normal’ for the UK population to grow by tens of thousands each year due to uncontrollable net migration from the EU. So the long-term strategic trend is that membership of the EU results in an ever-larger island population depending ever more on food imported by sea and air. Add to this the poor treatment of British fishermen and the seeming impossibility of pursuing useful reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and we have the conditions for Britain to suffer a massive and divisive ‘shock’ if any temporary issue – volcanic ash clouds, stormy seas, union strikes – leads to a sudden reduction of imports of food from the EU.
A large portion of the Scottish population remains very highly motivated to leave the United Kingdom. They may be in a numerical minority, but the strength of their feeling is far greater than that which is common amongst their opponents. They maintain the passion for their cause even though it suffers some tremendous flaws, most pointedly with the feeling they will find willing and gracious political partners elsewhere in Europe even as they curse an English people with whom they share far closer cultural and historical bonds. If the Scots can persist in truly hating the English, and fantasizing about the glories of independence after they lost a referendum, it follows that Brexiteers may feel even more strongly about being denied the victory that they won. Focusing narrowly on a people’s vote, and the downsides to Brexit, may permit some remainers to ignore the problems with negotiating peaceful coexistence with the millions of Brits who will resent them if the UK continues to be part of the EU.
When great military powers engage in foreign adventures they must consider how they will win the peace, as well as the war, or else the natives will turn against them because they feel occupied by a foreign power. This sentiment explains why some Scots resent the union with England, and why some Brits resent the union with the Europe. By focusing narrowly on what they dislike, and a vote designed to reinstate the status quo, the leaders of the remain faction have blinded themselves to the need to win the peace that would follow success in the battles they have chosen to fight. There seems to be no evidence that any of them have contemplated the enormity of that challenge, and they appear to take comfort in telling themselves that EU membership is good, just as some Vietnamese must have believed it was good for the USA to support the government of South Vietnam against the communist North, and some Afghans must have preferred foreign intervention to domination by the Taliban. Being liked by some is not a reason to believe the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people will ultimately be won over, and the Europhiles struggle to countenance why so many Brits can see the European Union as a form of invading force, taking control of British institutions with the help of an elite divorced from the realities of ordinary people.
Remainers may mock talk of ‘project fear’, but the criticism of remainer negativity works because it is based on observation. Supporters of the European Union find it easier to discuss the downsides of leaving the European Union than highlighting the advantages that have accrued from belonging to it. They struggle to make a positive argument for the benefits of the European Union. This may lead them to frame their point of view in a way that obscures the most obvious disadvantages of EU membership. However, these deficits will be seen readily enough by many other Brits. And when a section of the population pretends to ignore real problems that lie in plain sight the result can only be further division, alienation and resentment. Reversing Brexit might only be a temporary reprieve before an even more determined break between the UK and the EU. Unfortunately, the architects of a plan to reverse a referendum decision only a few years after it was taken lack the foresight to appreciate what would come next.