On 28th July 2016 Lord Chris Smith, the Master of Pembroke College, current House of Lords crossbencher, and former Labour MP, delivered the second Pembroke-King’s Programme Plenary of the 2016 Programme.
The talk focused on the subject of the recent Brexit referendum and result.
Lord Smith began by talking about the reason behind calling a referendum and explaining that Europe and the European Union was not in the top ten of concerns for the general public. Rather the vote was the response to internal Conservative party matters such as MPs leaving to join the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
Once the vote had been called, it was quickly evident that people were voting ‘leave’ for a whole range or reasons, often not directly related to EU membership. These included immigration and sovereignty.
No one expected the result to come out in favour of leave, but Lord Smith pointed out that given the constitutional arrangements in the UK, a referendum vote is only ‘advisory’ not binding. At the time of speaking Lord Smith suggested that only time will tell if Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, will ‘trigger’ Article 50.
Lord Smith then went on to talk about the future of the Labour party, his former party. He said that Labour used to succeed because it was a ‘coalition between working class people, and liberal intellectuals’. This inter-class coalition has apparently, given the geography of the Brexit vote, now broken down, and it is an enormous task for Labour to rebuild it. This task will be difficult because of the lack of leadership shown by the current Labour leader in the referendum campaign.
The clear split in results across the country was something that Lord Smith also spent some time speaking about because the stark geography of Northern Ireland, Scotland, London, Oxford, and Cambridge all voting resoundingly to stay in the European Union and the rest of England and Wales voting to leave. This exposes a stark divide in the nation and poses deep challenges for the UK going forward. Although he did hint that at least the vote may have cleared the air and a second vote, if one was called, might return a different result.
In the question portion of his talk, Lord Smith predicted that the UK government would negotiate a new agreement with the EU institutions, which would be put to the people, probably in a general election (as opposed to by a second referendum) which would ‘change’ the UK’s relationship with the EU, but would prevent a full withdrawal.
The plenary was brought to a close on the news provided by a member of the audience that Boris Johnson had been made Foreign Minister along with several other new appointments to the cabinet which caused a collective intake of breath from the audience and a surprised reaction from Lord Smith.