By Tony Allen
The Queen might have visited UEA last Friday, but the previous week the Thomas Paine Study Centre played host to political royalty as four speakers were invited to UEA as part of the Spring Public Lecture Series to give their responses to the question: “Brexit means Brexit, but what does that mean?”
The format of the free public lecture was that the four speakers each gave a short speech relating to their choice of Brexit-related theme, before a Q-and-A session with the audience and a drinks reception afterwards.
A plethora of respected political names had been invited to UEA for the event, the latest in a series of similar events. They included Prof John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde, Dr Jo Hunt from the University of Cardiff, Prof Michael Keating of the University of Aberdeen and UEA’s own Dr Nikos Skoutaris.
First to present was Prof Keating who discussed one of the most contentious and important conundrums of the referendum result: the debate over the Irish border.
The border is a matter of particular interest to me as it seems to embody the continuing uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Much has been written about this but, in short, there is no way to control migration into (or out of) the UK, a pet fixation of many Brexiteers, if there remains no physical land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is because EU migrants could enter the Republic, who of course did not vote on the EU, then travel to the North and take the short ferry to England. However, considering the relative recent successes of the peace process, a wall could prove catastrophic for the area, not to mention for those living near the border who regularly spend time on both sides.
Prof Keating discussed the Good Friday Agreement and Sewel convention, which state that the UK government needs to gain consent from devolved legislatures if they make certain changes that affect them. Prof Keating forecasted that a “constitutional crisis” would ensue if devolved administrations are not consulted on the terms of Brexit, something that it has since been confirmed would not be a necessity in the recent Supreme Court ruling.
Next, Dr Hunt gave a Welsh perspective. Despite a majority in Wales voting to leave the EU, the position of the Welsh Assembly as a devolved legislature was discussed. Dr Hunt examined the updating of the Government of Wales Act, soon expected to receive Royal Ascent, which changes the nature of Welsh government from being able to legislate on any issue they have not been told is Westminster’s prerogative (like in Northern Ireland and Scotland) to only being responsible for specifically delegated policy areas.
The dichotomy between Wales’ net benefit from EU subsidies and the nation’s referendum result was not something lost on Dr Hunt.
Prof Curtice was next to talk, using a presentation of electoral statistics, his area of expertise, to illustrate his argument that Brexit will not necessarily lead to a second independence referendum in Scotland, but could well do in the future. He made the interesting observation that although ‘Leave’ would gain support from those wishing to remain in the EU with Scotland as an independent member, some previous ‘Leave’ voters would switch sides to ‘Remain’ from 2014 because they believe that the union is a lesser evil than re-entering the EU. He noted that neither side could be confident of victory, so until the impact of Brexit is felt more clearly, there was no way a referendum would be called.
Prof Curtice also explored ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ a white paper which outlined the, albeit unlikely, preferences of the Scottish government for Brexit, which included freedom of movement being maintained, and Scotland at least being allowed to remain in the single market.
Finally, Dr Skoutaris gave a legal perspective from his position in the Norwich Law School. He elaborated more on the Irish question and pointed out that, when analysed in detail, the legal obstacles which stand in the way of Brexit are highly complex and by no means certain.
Afterwards, the academics answered questions about their Brexit predictions from interested members of the public, which is more than can be said so far for Theresa May. These included queries on the sway held by the other EU states, and whether the panel believed the devolved assemblies were being listened to in the formulation of Britain’s negotiation tactics. The final question asked whether there was any possibility of the UK not leaving, to which Prof Curtice replied that the public have not yet changed their minds enough. He noted, however, that another referendum was not impossible, reminding those in attendance that the recent vote was actually the second, after the previous ‘remain’ majority in 1975.
I think the final words of Prof Keating’s opening speech summed up the evening well: despite his eminence and expertise, even he has “no idea what the outcome is likely to be”. The path of Brexit is hardly any clearer than the morning after the referendum. The fact is that despite the bluster of certain politicians and May’s bullishness, still no one knows what is going to happen. The UK voted for uncertainty and more than seven months on with Article 50 still not having been triggered, that’s exactly what we’re getting.
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