Before we start, I should make it clear: I feel that Brexit is a supremely bad idea, and if I had any say at all we would not be doing it. It will mean huge economic and political upheaval and pain in the short term, for no gain in the long term. The referendum was won on lies, misinformation, and encouraging ignorance.
But vote out the UK did, and the question ever since has been what form the break will take. Economists have, in the main, been hoping for a ‘soft Brexit’, where access to the Single Market would be retained and the UK would suffer less of a financial shock. However, recent reports from the government have indicated that a ‘hard Brexit’ is more likely – leaving the Single Market with the aim of controlling immigration and regulations.
This is likely to have disastrous implications for the economy as a whole. Around 45% of British exports currently go to Europe, and without access to the Single Market it is unclear how this can continue. This goes hand in hand with movement of labour. Many small businesses are either run by or rely on immigrant labour – as well as the NHS – and it has been shown by numerous studies that immigration, particularly from the EU, is a net contributor to tax.
This desire for leaving the Single Market is not driven by economics or strategy, it is driven by Theresa May’s wishes to reduce immigration and to increase the ability of the government to monitor its citizens – work she began while at the Home Office, albeit ineffectually.
The problem that the government could have, however, is that controls on immigration are not what the referendum was about. The message that is endlessly repeated is that the government must abide by the wishes of the people, despite the referendum being an advisory poll. But the wishes of the people when it comes to the Single Market, or immigration are not known. The referendum only asked whether the UK should leave the EU.
The closeness of the result amplifies this. 1,269,501 more people voted to leave than remain – a margin of just under 4%. We can assume that all of the 48.1% who voted to remain wish to stay in the Single Market. If anything more than 3.65% of leave voters wished to stay in the Single Market, then the result of the referendum is reversed – and there is plenty of evidence that significant numbers of leave voters support membership of the Single Market, including those who led the leave campaign.
The Conservative party is claiming it has a mandate for leaving the Single Market and stopping immigration, when it has no such thing. Indeed, the Conservative manifesto from the 2015 general election – from which the government derives its current power – specifically stated:
We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market.
If there is a mandate, it is to leave the EU while retaining membership of the Single Market. Unfortunately, there seem to be few who have the ability and inclination to stand up to this point – particularly with the Labour party being an ineffective opposition.