Swiss-Irish economics professor Kevin O'Rourke explains Brexit, focusing on English and European history.
A Short History of Brexit is essentially divided into two halves. The first half examines Britain's history within Europe, especially its relationship and attitudes to the continent. It also builds up a complex picture of all the treaties and agreements that have been signed onto over the decades, resulting in a complicated web of economic integration, delivering many benefits. The promotion of free trade within Europe, however, wasn't always primarily about economics. Another key goal was political, to hopefully avoid devastating future conflicts.
The British have always remained ambivalent about the European project. For many decades Britain hoped to maintain trade within the Commonwealth, with countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Britain clung to fantasies of empire. Nonetheless, the European economy powered along, making trade with Europe inevitable. This rankled in some quarters. To highlight this ambivalence, O'Rourke gives the example of Margaret Thatcher. She did more than any other politician to sign Britain up to European free trade, all the while remaining virulently anti-Europe.
The second part of the book looks at recent history, since the referendum. Possible explanations for why the Leave vote succeeded are teased out. It's noted that regions deeply affected by austerity were more likely to vote leave, even though this was government policy, not EU policy. Unscrupulous politicians, who were unschooled in the intricacies of what Brexit would actually mean, campaigned hard to leave. Boris Johnson is a case in point. He wasn't sure on which side he stood – remain or leave – until the very last minute. He seemed to enjoy the politicking, rather than have a policy.
The sections that deal with the technical aspects of Brexit are fascinating – and horrifying. So many responsible ministers didn't have the most basic grasp of the rules and frameworks that governed EU trade, hence found themselves dumbstruck by reality. And this doesn't even take into account the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a complex difficulty never discussed during the Brexit campaign, but a terrible hangover for the day after the euphoria of winning. This is the great tragicomedy of Brexit. The British thought they could magically enjoy all the benefits of the EU, and pluck out the unpalatable bits. There is even a new expression that encapsulates this thinking: cakeism. That is, having your economic cake and eating it too.
It's quite clear that Kevin O'Rourke is of the remain persuasion, and there are some sections where this bias comes through clearly. Overall, however, this is a cool-headed and informative study of a rare phenomenon, a country that decides to cut its nose off despite its face.
A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop, by Kevin O'Rourke. Penguin $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Professor of politics Judith Brett offers many reasons to be cheerful about Australia.
Despite there being much despondency about contemporary Australian politics, Judith Brett finds plenty to be cheerful about. In From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, Brett argues that the politicians, bureaucrats and citizens who developed our voting system deserve as much recognition in the popular imagination as the soldiers who fought at Gallipoli. A big claim, but worth paying attention to.
The story begins with the first parliamentary elections in 1843, held at Port Jackson (now Sydney). Elections in those days were rowdy affairs, with bribery and bullying the order of the day. An early innovation was the secret ballot, leading to a more orderly and secure vote. When concerns that first-past-the-post voting could lead to a candidate winning with a minority vote, a system of preferential voting was introduced. It was a woman, Catherine Helen Spence, who was at the forefront of this reform. By 1924, with the introduction of compulsory voting, Australia's modern voting system was pretty much in place.
Compulsory voting is the jewel in the crown of Australia's electoral culture, rare among modern democracies, one that tempers extremism as politicians must pitch policies to all voters – whether poor or rich, migrant or native born. Brett also argues that without compulsory voting, the disaffected would drop out of the process altogether. Compulsion makes them park their vote somewhere, allowing new voices to appear – Cliver Palmer, One Nation, the Greens. None perfect, by any means, but at least offering a way for the disenfranchised to let off steam.
The record is not perfect, however. There are dark stains on our voting history, namely the treatment of our first peoples. The aboriginal vote was by and large suppressed; rights were legislated away. Some aborigines, in some states, could vote, but it was always made difficult. Many worried about giving the vote to aboriginal people due to their dominant numbers. Shamefully it took until 1983, under the Hawke government, for full equality to be achieved when voting was made compulsory for indigenous Australians.
The last few chapters examine recent votes, with special attention paid to the same sex marriage survey. Brett is quite critical of this survey (it wasn't technically a vote) and its unusual process. The eight week voting period was far too long, the process wasn't secret, the postal surveys were easily tampered with and the method of announcement, by the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics who conducted the survey, unorthodox.
This is a terrific read. A pithy and engaging history of how Australia developed a first class voting system that has saved us from much division and extremism. A celebration of what Australia does best: fair, progressive, inclusive elections.
From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, by Judith Brett. Text $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books