Simon Maxwell

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A response to the referendum

I was away when the referendum result was announced, so if David Cameron or Jean-Claude Juncker rang for advice, I missed the call. I am back now, however. If Theresa May has time to ring, this is what I will say.

First, the Remain camp lost the vote, and that should be respected. It really does not matter that the referendum was formally advisory, or that there may be legal wriggle room. It would take a material change to justify a second vote or an in-out general election.  

Second, my own reading of the polling evidence and the raft of analysis since the vote is that the driving force behind the No vote is a feeling of social exclusion associated with the unequal impact of globalisation. That feeling underlies much of the surface expression of anti-immigration rhetoric and the debate about ‘loss of control’. How ironic that such strong emotions should be triggered immediately after the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals, which focus so strongly on ‘leaving no-one behind’: we need to begin implementing the SDGs in our own ‘forgotten towns’ and among our own ‘forgotten communities’. Theresa May more or less said this in her speech outside No 10.

Third, social exclusion is a Europe-wide phenomenon. It is wrong to talk only of a backlash against austerity in the UK. If there had been a Europe-wide referendum, then there might well have been a Europe-wide vote for No. What an indictment!

Fourth, in that respect the UK may have done the EUEuropean Union a favour, by shocking the system and forcing Europe to confront its own failures. Maybe Europeans should thank David Cameron, not abuse him. Better the ballot-box than the alternative.

Fifth, the response of most European leaders to Brexit (and also the political class in most EUEuropean Union countries) has been defensive. In particular, calls for ‘more Europe’ just do not resonate (see e.g. the new global strategy). Instead, some serious self-reflection is required, a debate about the urgent need for reform, of structures, policies, budgets and messages. Some of us campaigned for Remain on this platform (see below). But where is everybody else?

Sixth, this does not mean automatic adoption of an anti-austerity model which throws fiscal responsibility to the winds. The building blocks of a new structural approach are available (see e.g. here, here and here).

Seventh, the UK remains in the EUEuropean Union until it leaves, and has an opportunity to help incubate reform before (and if) we do. The UK should not hold back.

Eighth, if we do leave, the EUEuropean Union will be different: a smaller aid programme, a shrunken market, reduced security assets, smaller diplomatic footprint. Will EUEuropean Union development cooperation necessarily become more African and neighbourhood-focused, for example? Will it have to spend more on humanitarian assistance? These are important questions for the new European Consensus on Development (consultation open until 21 August) and for the review of financial instruments in 2017.

Ninth, the UK will doubtless lose the opportunity to help leverage pooled funds in the EU, and to influence EUEuropean Union trade and climate policy. However, it will also gain some £1200 m a year to spend in other ways, and free human resources for alternative engagements, including initiatives on trade and migration. For example, could Brexit be a boon for the UN?

Tenth, and finally, both the UK and the EUEuropean Union need to be thinking about pathways towards continued engagement. What would a ‘material change’ look like?


There is urgent work to do on many of these topics.


For the record, I am pasting in below a list of my contributions to the referendum debate. Several contain useful background material and/or links relevant to future debate. I will also expand on several of the points made here.

  1. Helping coordinate the letter from development leaders to the Guardian: .
  2. A letter to the Daily Telegraph, refuting claims about Africa by James Cleverly MP: .
  3. A letter in the Observer from the Independent Vision Group on EUEuropean Union development cooperation (chaired by Margaret Jay) ( )
  4. An op-ed/blog in the Huffington Post about why developing countries should support the UK remaining:
  5. A studiedly neutral Briefing Paper on the EU’s role in international development for IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex ( ) .
  6. An op-ed on the theme of remain and reform in a development forum, Devex ( ).

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