It is quite likely that the British public will vote to leave the European Union this week. Supporters of staying in are left with straws to clutch at. Perhaps the pollsters have overestimated the propensity of less educated Leave supporters to turn out and vote. Perhaps the awful murder of Remain supporter Jo Cox MP will give people pause. Polls show that there may be a modest swing back to Remain, but the political momentum behind Leave still looks formidable.
But the consequences of a vote to leave are incalculable, not because the aim of leaving the EU is necessarily so awful, but because Britain’s governing institutions are so unready for the consequences of the vote.
This shows the limits of the referendum as a means for governments to consult their electorates. Referendums work best when the electorate is offered clear and coherent alternatives. This is only likely if the government of the day is recommending a change from the status quo; it is clearly going to be accountable for the change – while the status quo is what the public and governing institutions are familiar with.
This is what happened in 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence. In that case the Scottish government ( though not the UK one) set out a prospectus for independence, and it was clearly up for leading the country through the transition process. A referendum proposal that had been cobbled together by members of the public without the support of major political institutions would have been a wholly different thing.
The EU referendum does not fit the bill. It was designed by David Cameron’s British government to make his Internal Conservative critics, who passionately oppose the EU, go away. But nobody has formulated a clear prospectus for life outside the EU; instead a number of half-baked and irreconcilable alternatives are advocated (characterised in an earlier post of mine, as following Singapore, Switzerland or Japan), and it is far from clear which the public is being asked to sign up to. And exit does not command a parliamentary majority, still less any of its particular versions. A Brexit vote would create political chaos. And, given Britain’s dependence on trade and external finance, this political chaos threatens economic chaos. It is the lack political leadership, more than the exit proposition itself, that threatens the country’s economic stability.
This was illustrated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Last week he suggested that a Brexit vote would have to be followed by an emergency budget, driving through austerity measures as government revenues fell with the economic shock. This was clearly a stunt, which convinced few – even those, like most economic forecasters, who accept that Brexit would put government finances under pressure. And yet many Conservative MPs immediately said they would reject such a budget, and they were joined by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who rejects all austerity ever. This presents the prospect that there is no working parliamentary majority for any given way forward. Neither is it clear from where any such parliamentary majority would emerge, even if there were a general election. There might even have to be another referendum to resolve the constitutional deadlock.
So it is not hard to imagine that a financial crisis could follow a Brexit vote. Inward investment would halt to see how the dust settled. Sterling could dive as a result, and the government could start finding it hard to fund the National Debt, with the still considerable budget deficit, as it loses its status as an international safe haven. Creating new money to fund the debt may solve the short-term crisis, but only at the expense of harming the country’s longer term financial standing. Britain has a large current account deficit, meaning that it depends on flows from abroad – a key point of departure from the inveterate money printer, Japan. This could be worse than the financial crisis of 2008 to 2010; the deficit may be smaller, but overall debt is larger, and political leadership then was clearer; indeed this was the most compelling logic behind the Conservatives forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010. In due course the British government might have to call in the IMF to stay afloat. Something like Mr Osborne’s putative budget might then follow. The irony than an attempt to become independent of EU institutions led only to becoming dependent on the much more intrusive IMF would be bitter.
I happen to think this sequence of events is quite likely if Britain votes to leave, though many would consider it absurd given how easily the country floated through the earlier crisis of 2008 onwards. But what is unarguable is that the lack of political leadership on the Brexit side, with no clear political accountability for any Brexit result, makes this outcome more likely.
This is the wrong way to leave the EU. What should happen is that one of the main parties puts leaving the EU in its election manifesto, gets a majority, and then takes the proposal to the country in a referendum. If it wins, it is clearly responsible for the consequences.
Curiously enough, in today’s grumpy politics, the lack of a clear prospectus, and the threat of political chaos, seem to be no disadvantage to the Leave side in the referendum. Indeed it adds to an anti-establishment appeal. There seems to be a curious death wish at large. The leaders of the Leave campaign thrive on their power without responsibility, seemingly relishing a ringside seat in the chaos that would follow.
Mr Cameron’s judgement looks poor in getting us to this dismal point. And yet what could he have done instead? His big mistake was his attempt to lead his party to a place it did not want to go. The most honest thing for the Conservatives to have done would have been to elect a leader that was explicit about leading the country out of Europe. If they had done that, then Gordon Brown might still be Prime Minister, but the politics would have been more honest, and the risks to nation fewer.