I have been following the debates and negotiations around Brexit avidly. No matter how all this turns out, it will have serious consequences across the world, at a time of profound global changes and anxieties. What has been most fascinating is watching British politicians manoeuvre, lie and grand-stand in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. There are many lessons to learn.
First, a referendum with life-changing consequences such as this one should have incorporated requirements on minimum turnout and never have been purely on the “first past the post” system. As Ian Jack wrote in The Guardian, in 1979, MP George Cunningham insisted that upcoming referenda on devolution in Scotland and Wales needed to have support of more than 40 per cent of all voters — no matter how many turned up to vote, given their potential impact. The Brexit vote in 2016 was eventually passed by 37 per cent of all voters, hardly a resounding endorsement for so crucial an issue. Second, the idea to transform a difficult intra-party issue within the Conservative Party into a national issue was horrid, and something that David Cameron will never live down. Rather than working it out within the party to take a position one way or the other, Cameron arrogantly assumed he could pull a fast one over his rivals by taking the matter to the national stage. At which point many more factors came into play, including a Labour Party that was ambivalent and reluctant to be drawn into the internal wrangling’s of its competitor. And then there was the overconfidence.
Be that as it may, once Brexit was decided, weak though the mandate, there were basically three options for the political leadership. The first was a hard Brexit, meaning that UK leaves the EU without formalities or deals, and becomes like everyone else — Papua New Guinea, Senegal, Canada, DRC, Kenya, US, Russia, China — to the EU and negotiate trade deals like everyone else. This is the favoured option by the hardline Brexit leaders who concocted propaganda that it was the best option, with all gain and no pain, conveniently ignoring that the EU would levy huge fines and penalties for this exit. They lied that with this option, Britain would “slash immigration, enrich its health service, cut magnificent and profitable trade deals with the rest of the world, opt out of European Union laws and still trade with and travel freely in Europe.”
Yet, this was the most far-fetched option, based on an archaic assumption of British superiority, and that the UK was indispensable to the EU, and the world. (Former colonials should be familiar with this mentality that formed the bedrock of colonialism, of taking without a care). One need not be a rocket scientist to acknowledge that this was never an option for the EU as it would only result in opening the floodgates that would ultimately be the end of the EU. The second option was for the UK to be treated like Norway; having responsibilities to—and benefits from--the EU but no vote. Norway — whose people rejected joining the EU — accepted this option knowing it needed the huge market of the EU to keep progressing economically, and has not done badly by any stretch. The third option was to have a second referendum. While this was rejected outright by the political leadership, momentum has since grown substantially, with a massive push for a “people’s vote” that could have three options: accepting the negotiated settlement which is quite close to Norway’s position; remaining in the EU; or doing a hard Brexit.
I believe that in moments of crisis and with decisions that will have a huge and negative impact for generations to come — as pro-Brexit leaders now confirm — treading carefully and slowly is the way to go, and it would be patriotic and selfless if a second referendum were held. But seeing how some of these British politicians operate, I doubt that this will happen. In fact, sometimes it is easy to confuse them with our Kenyan politicians but for the skin color! For the amount of self-interest exhibited would make our politicians proud!
In our case, mostly what we get is financial self-interest that is bewildering in its contempt for Kenyans, especially when they want to be the ones setting their own wages, allowances and emoluments, not from the proceeds of their sweat but from ours. The renewed efforts to either emasculate the Salaries and Review Commission by illegal laws or ensuring that they have lackeys in office springs to mind, and now they are pushing laws that basically oust the Commission, and donate the powers to themselves to set their emoluments.
There is no other country where this happens, and our MPs do not seem to understand that we have an economic crisis in the country. Or if they do understand, they do not care. And with these attitudes, sadly following the example of State House which preaches water but drinks lots of wine, we can be assured that our future is bleak, and our next elections will be more brutal and violent.
- The writer is former KNCHR chairman. [email protected]
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