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Paul Vallely: This is no time for simple certainties

16 June 2017

The election has laid bare the uncertainty of a post-Brexit future, says Paul Vallely



THE expectation is that the brand-new political party of President Macron will sweep to power in France on Sunday with a landslide. The old French socialist and conservative parties have been brushed aside in that nation’s presidential, and now parliamentary, elections by a party which did not exist a year ago, when it was invented online. Like the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the Brexit vote in the UK, it seems a victory for simple solutions in a world of complex problems.

The outcome of our General Election has laid bare the complexity which confronts us. The yearning for simplicity and certainty — which­ever variety we adopt — leads down a road of delusion and disappointment.

If the devil lies in the detail, that is nowhere clearer than in the outworking of the Brexit decision. Day by day, over the months since the referendum, successive disclosures have unders­cored the lack of forethought which went into a vote dominated on both sides by simple slogane­ering.

This week, we have discovered that Brexit, which was supposed to be good for the NHS, has already caused the number of European nurses coming to work in our health service to fall dramatically — from 1304 in July last year to just 46 in April. England currently has a shortage of 30,000 nurses.

On the financial front, a threat has emerged to the $900 billion a day which London handles in the lucrative euro-clearing business, with the European Commission not unreasonably insisting that, post-Brexit, these finances must be handled in a European Union country.

At every turn, new issues emerge. Some are obvious, like the dilemma over whether a hard border will have to be restored between northern and southern Ireland. Others were completely unforeseen, such as the disadvantage to British football clubs who will be banned from recruiting European players under the age of 18, unlike clubs across Europe, since FIFA rules regard the EU as a single country.

Every new detail exposes how ill-prepared we were to make this decision. EU grants to academics and scientists, which will end with Brexit, turn out to be far greater than the total amounts from the UK government and charitable foundations combined. Already, we have seen a top Cambridge academic, an Italian working on computer algorithms to identify children at risk of being molested, and his pioneer wife, who is developing human transplant livers from stem cells, emigrating after the Brexit vote made them feel unwelcome. On the examples go.

The upside of the chaotic outcome of the elec­tion is that a softer Brexit now looks more pos­sible. To maximise that, we need British politic­ians to set aside their traditional winner-takes-all mentality and find new ways of reaching con­­sensus — as John Major, William Hague, Ruth Davidson, Vince Cable, Nicola Sturgeon, and Yvette Cooper have suggested.

Government ministers must eschew the simple certainties that political journalists press them to utter. As the great Conservative philo­sopher Edmund Burke reminds us, our MPs are not dele­­gates but representatives who owe us their judgement. To exercise it, they must set aside the public’s thirst for simple solutions.

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