Robert G. Patman teaches international politics at the University of Otago. David A. Welch teaches global governance at the University of Waterloo.
“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” as the saying goes, and for similar reasons we call upon our respective governments to weigh in officially on Brexit.
Canada and New Zealand are no longer semi-autonomous dominions of the British Empire, of course – a status that, ironically, would have given them more standing and more opportunity to express their concerns – but the deep and abiding historical ties that bind them to Britain nevertheless justify what might otherwise be an inappropriate intervention in the country’s sovereign domestic affairs.
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The fact is that Britain stands at the precipice of disaster. Prime Minister Theresa May has no workable plan to withdraw from the European Union that would avoid calamity.
According to BritainStays, projections by the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Office of National Statistics suggest that an increasingly likely “hard” Brexit would lower British GDP growth by 8 per cent (£158-billion, about $265-billion) and cost 2.8 million jobs. Even a “soft” Brexit that kept Britain in the single market – leaving it with no say in EU decision-making – would lower the GDP growth by 2 per cent (£15-billion) and put 700,000 out of work.
This is to say nothing of the intractable problem of the Irish frontier. Anything akin to the status quo would effectively separate Northern Ireland from Britain; any significant barrier would risk triggering renewed sectarian violence.
Meanwhile, the Brexit to-do list continues to grow. The latest unforeseen complication defying easy solution is data-sharing legislation.
Britain finds itself at the brink thanks to a breathtaking combination of incompetence, ignorance and subterfuge.
The incompetence lies chiefly at the feet of former prime minister David Cameron, who smugly thought he could silence noisy Euroskeptics in his caucus by means of a referendum he was sure the Remain side could not lose.
The ignorance lies chiefly at the feet of the proponents and supporters of Brexit who had no idea in June, 2016, what Brexit would actually entail. For Leave voters, ignorance was a function of gullibility in the face of the Leave campaign’s pitch that Brexit would be all gain and no cost. For the non-mendacious leaders of the Leave movement – if there were any – it was, at best, a function of woefully ill-considered wishful thinking.
But we must not overlook the role of subterfuge in the form of illegal money, data crimes and Russian involvement. We now know, for example, that Leave.EU – one of the main Brexit campaign organizations – reportedly exceeded its legal spending limit by at least 10 per cent.
Vote Leave, a campaign group headed by Boris Johnson and cabinet member Michael Gove, has been fined £61,000 by the British Electoral Commission and referred to the police for alleged breaches of electoral law. Among other things, Vote Leave spent £675,000 with a smaller group, BeLeave, on an initiative led by Aggregate IQ using social media to target voters. This spending should have been declared and effectively meant that Vote Leave exceeded its legal spending limit of £7-million by almost £500,000, according to the commission.
Furthermore, in mid-July, Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office announced it was fining Facebook £500,000 – the maximum amount possible – for allowing the improper use of millions of users’ data by Cambridge Analytica and is pursuing a criminal prosecution of its defunct parent company, SCL Elections Ltd.
Finally, there is growing evidence that Russia colluded with the Brexit camp to influence the outcome of the 2016 referendum in ways eerily similar to its interference in the most recent U.S. presidential election: through fake news, fake Twitter accounts and dirty money (Britain’s National Crime Agency is reportedly currently investigating alleged links between Brexit’s biggest donor and Russia).
All of this leads to but one clear conclusion: The June, 2016, referendum did not provide a legitimate mandate for Brexit. As Conservative MP Anna Soubry recently said passionately in the House of Commons, “Nobody voted Leave to be poorer, and nobody voted Leave on the basis that somebody with a gold-plated pension and inherited wealth would take their job away from them.”
In short: Leave voters were hoodwinked and the Leave victory was tainted.
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As countries committed to peace, order and good government, Canada and New Zealand not only have an obligation based on friendship and historical ties to urge Britain to live up to its own standards of governance, but also a powerful interest in upholding sound democratic principles and not rewarding deliberate efforts by the Kremlin and others to subvert them.
If the British people vote Leave in a (fair) second referendum on the basis of full and complete information about the consequences, so be it. Until then, Britain’s friends should make every possible effort, both publicly and privately, to keep Britain from driving over the proverbial cliff.