Friday, 23 June 2017


“I’m not optimistic” began the eminent political scientist Professor Dame Helen Wallace on the eve of her Culture Talk. “I’m a very angry lady, I’m not going to be a bundle of laughs this evening”. The warning was hardly needed; the air within the room before a talk on Brexit was one of anxious anticipation. For a room full of people currently residing in an EU country, the question of what comes next is pressing. In the first week of the negotiations, it was clear that the future of England’s relationship with the EU and therefore Italy was about to change.

For Wallace, Brexit was a result of the “very troubled” relationship with the EU, she apologises again that her opinion for the talk will not be unbiased, Brexit “engages you very much as a citizen” as well as an academic; “I’m probably muddling the two” she muses. One wonders if that’s a bad thing. She began by giving us her own version of what was happening with the referendum and the negotiations that have only just started this week. Yet in order to do so she had to revisit the EU itself, giving us a whistle-stop guide of how it all began with only six countries. Formed out of a need that arose when many countries had been through the shared experience of World War II, the union was a means of banding together, a first option to form part of an organised European family to produce a framework for a united Europe. For England, Wallace was adamant that it was a “very transactional pact”, more about “nuts and bolts” than about comradeship.

After all as she remembers all too well – “I speak as a veteran of the 1975 referendum” – in 1973 neither the Conservatives or Labour parties were at ease with the idea of the EU. Both remained uncertain about the framework, with no stable rhetoric about its contributions to daily life and the investment with EU, as there was in other countries. “We’ve developed a habit for repetitive exceptionalism” Wallace declares, and her examples of such behaviour are compelling, including the more recent decision to not partake in the Euro. Rather than an exception she marks this as merely another decision added to a long history of arguments about budget contributions. “It became normal to be exceptional”. 

This continued “special treatment” as Wallace dubs it often clouds the brilliant work of the UK within the EU. We were crucial within the system of eastern enlargement, and hugely important in stabilising the EU after the cold war where such inclusion enabled countries to find a place in a democratic family. It is strange that while “explicit exceptionalists” like Denmark and Sweden are able to remain part of the European mainstream despite their differing regulations, we seem to have always remained apart. “We spend a lot of time whining” says Wallace, continuing wryly “we’re good when we’re not whining”. She also blames our isolation down to bad education about the role the EU actually plays in everyday life. The level of language competency in the UK is appalling, even in our own language. For other European countries language learning is practically a necessity.

So here we are, trapped in referendum dialectics; a scenario that Wallace predicted long ago. “I have often thought I should change my name from Helen to Cassandra” she jokes, with what one can sense is more than a little bit of seriousness, “I say that with no pleasure whatsoever”. Originally studying classics, Wallace knows that civilisations face dark times. Right now she believes Brexit is just part of “worldwide destabilisation” – “I think we’re living in very troubled times.” The question of why a referendum was called in the first place rears its head and we’re given the example of Brussels, where a friend of hers in politics decided to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. The Dutch have no history of referendums, and see them as “a hazardous process”, very different to electing a government, with much more dependence on fluctuating opinion. When she asked them why they decided on the move her friend replied that he wanted to give the people a chance to “have their say”. Without proper education the vote inevitably failed, and the plans for the Lisbon treaty were dissolved. Without educating the people on what they were voting for, it was no wonder the government didn’t received the result they had expected. The same attitude could be seen when the Brexit vote occurred. 

In 1975, she witnessed all parties mobilising their active members behind a yes vote, in 2017 she witnessed the Conservative party close down and Labour remain confused about which side it was on. There were no “troops on the ground” so to speak to mobilise as there had been in 1975. Looking at the Leave voters it was clear they had prepared much earlier, spending in Wallace’s view at least two years mobilising distinct sections of the population. The Leave campaigners had cleared lessons from the referendum in Ireland, which the Remain had not. The equation was a simple one, the Leave campaign developed simple compelling messages, simple messages that lent themselves to being artfully repeated in “new social media”. The internet offers a new dimension to politics, and Wallace commends the Leave campaigners in their cunning identification of those things that “get people in the gut”. Immigration and the control of borders were obviously issues that held huge sway, as outside of metropolitan London there are segments of the population who feel very keenly that they’ve been put at a disadvantage by emigration and globalisation. In the end it was simple a matter of simplified vs complex messages, it’s easy to see which were louder. 

Yet despite the Leave campaign’s majority their 52% was by no means a large win. For many countries the requirement remains that at least 2/3 must be met in order for there to be a majority at all. Most importantly Wallace highlighted how the referendum was in fact an advisory one, and yet is being treated as binding. Something that is itself problematic. 

So what do the negotiations need to do? That’s a question that’s still being answered, and hopefully resolved starting this week. What’s most important is that it “can’t be done in a rush”; the last thing our country needs is a hatchet job. Wallace herself lives in Yorkshire and knows first-hand how worried the farming community is about the March 2019 deadline. 

The general election earlier this year was held by Theresa May in order to establish certainty. She had hoped it would be a strong conservative government she would be leading into Brexit, with the results as they are without a real majority uncertainty has only increased. Now with her talks with the DUP the issues relating to Ireland only become more complicated we’ve witnessed “strong and stable turned into weak and wobbly.”

As the two negotiating teams begin their meetings the UK is coming from an even more divided and conflicted country, whereas the EU has remained impressively coherent and cohesive in negotiations so far. They’re “playing hard ball”, setting the UK as an example so that other countries won’t be tempted to follow; they’re going to make it as difficult as possible, they know where their red lines are. The problem is we don’t even know if we have red lines yet. So what are the aims and preferences of future settlement? Wallace notes how there is still a lot to come, that she’s worried at how self-confident the country is in assuming other countries will be generous with us. The cost of the financial settlement alone will be huge, then there are so many thorny issues within Brexit itself: the issues of a frictionless border in Ireland between North and South; the rights of EU nations in the UK etc. “Maybe we’ll have sheep wrestling on the Northumbrian border” she muses. With experts looking back over existing European deals, it’s been agreed that the current arrangements are the best we could want. 

So where do we go from here? What happens now? “Anyone who says they have an answer is telling fibs”. What is certain is that “we’re in for a very difficult time”. Wallace ends remembering how the day after the referendum 24th June, her 5 year old grandchild could tell his parents were preoccupied with something. When they tried to explain he let out a great, “hmm” in the way only a five year old can. “When I grow up” he said “I’ll make sure we’ll join this club again”. 

We can only hope.