Toby Young and Jolyon Maugham debate one of the most important questions in politics todayby / September 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Yes, says Jolyon Maugham
Democracy is a living thing. Power comes from the people and exists for the people. The decision to “Leave” is what the people wanted—then. But what if the people change their minds? What if we see in the opinion polls sustained support to “Remain” above 60 per cent? Who is to say the people must be ignored? That although they must be heard then, they must be ignored now? And where does the power to say any of this come from?
Delivering last year’s referendum could betray the people. In a YouGov survey last year, only 11 per cent of “Leave” voters said they believed Brexit would make them worse off. They believed what they were told by the “Leave” campaign—that the warnings were “Project Fear.” What happens to our democracy if those voters come to believe that they were lied to? They will feel betrayed, and they will rightly be angry.
Interpreting the referendum result is a political act. We voted to leave the European Union. But the ballot paper didn’t say whether that meant leaving the single market or the customs union; whether our net contribution should go to the NHS or to wealthy farmers; whether we should cut immigration whatever the economic cost. These post-referendum choices are matters of political judgment. At the general election, the government asked for a mandate and did not get one. There is a democratic deficit. How, without a referendum, will we fill it?
Politicians lie. But if they lie in a general election campaign there is accountability—we can punish them next time around. Not so with a referendum. When you treat as sacrosanct a result secured by lies you encourage liars. Neither side’s conduct was admirable, but it is the winners you hold accountable. Democracy cannot function without that. In a referendum, accountability can only be delivered by listening, before it is too late, to the people. And asking, “Now that you have seen all the evidence of what Brexit means, is this a thing you still want?”
No, says Toby Young
The issue isn’t whether there should be a second EU referendum—we’ve already had that—but whether there should be a third. I have no objection, but the gap between the second and third should be the same as that between the first and the second: 41 years.
Remainers say there should be a referendum “on the final deal”—is that the Article 50 exit deal, or the Free Trade Agreement (FTA)? I assume both because there wouldn’t be much point in holding one until we know our future trading relationship. Michel Barnier has recently restated his opposition to negotiating the two deals concurrently. So we won’t be able to make progress on the FTA until after we’ve left on 29th March 2019. If we wait until we know where we are with the FTA—say, in 2024—the third referendum would then be about whether to accept the FTA, or reject it and re-apply to join the EU. But openly planning for that now would encourage the EU to offer us the worst possible deal in the hope that the British electorate would reject it and rejoin—bringing its net contributions (Europe’s second-highest) back with it. And if the EU were in a position to dictate terms, as it would be if we re-applied, it would insist that we ditch the pound, join Schengen, abandon all hope of vetoing any future EU laws and, presumably, embrace the federalist project in all its glory. Even a Europhile such as yourself would baulk at that. Better, surely, to rule out re-joining and stick to our guns—no FTA deal is better than a bad FTA deal—thereby putting us in the strongest negotiating position.
Or do you mean instead there should be a referendum in early 2019, when we know the terms of the Article 50 deal, but before we’ve left? That assumes the Article 50 process is reversible. If it isn’t, but a referendum rejected the Article 50 deal, what then? Even if a vote to “Remain” before 29th March 2019 did stop the Article 50 clock, would it really be as if the 2016 referendum had never happened? Would the EU let Britain keep the pound, remain outside Schengen and retain its veto if we changed our minds?
JM: I want a referendum on the final deal because, as I said, there is “a democratic deficit” on the choices that Theresa May has made. She asked for a mandate for those choices and she didn’t get one: in a Brexit election, the Conservatives went from a majority to a minority government. You haven’t responded to that point, or any of my points. You haven’t said how, if the evidence showed that the voting public had changed their mind, we can ignore them. You haven’t said what it will do to democracy if struggling families find life even harder. And you haven’t said how democracy can function if a result based on lies is treated as sacred.
Instead you raise process questions about the timing—my answer is that the referendum has to be before we leave, otherwise it’s not a vote on the final deal. There will be plenty of time. Article 50 says negotiations must take account of our future relationship with the EU; both Barnier and David Davis have said the deal will be done by late next year. Only this summer Boris Johnson said it was “vanishingly unlikely” there would be no trade deal. I’m sure you’re not suggesting Davis and Johnson would just make stuff up.
You claim that the possibility we might not “Leave” would incentivise the EU to offer us a poor trade deal. But if the EU was so desperate for us to “Remain” that they would deliberately offer us a poor trade deal, the Commission would hardly be saying we cannot unilaterally revoke Article 50, would it?
You ask whether a new “Remain” vote would be deliverable. We’ll know in time whether we can revoke our notification; there are legal initiatives afoot. But the worst case is that we would need the consent of the other 27 member states. And if a new referendum delivered a clear majority to “Remain” then, if—as both you and Europe’s leaders are agreed—they’d prefer us in, then a “Remain” result would be delivered.
TY: Thank you for pointing out that Article 50 cannot be revoked by the UK alone. So your argument is that Davis and Barnier can negotiate both an Article 50 deal and an FTA before 29th March 2019, that a referendum could be held on those deals, and that if “Remain” won there would be enough time to secure the consent of the 27 before the Article 50 clock runs out? To quote Johnson, “that’s an inverted pyramid of piffle.”
No one believes a FTA can be negotiated in 18 months—that’s one of the arguments for a transition period. It’s possible that if the UK agrees to pay the EU’s leaving bill, Barnier may be flexible about when he will engage on the FTA, but the chances of an early consensus are remote. So, no—we won’t know what our future relationship with the EU will look like before 29th March 2019, so we can hardly vote on “the final deal” until we’ve left. A referendum in, say, 2024, could only be about whether to re-join—and it would be a bad idea to pre-announce that because it would incentivise the EU to give us a bad deal.
But even if your plan were feasible, I still don’t think a third referendum would be justified. The possibility of two referendums—one on whether to “Leave,” the other on the final deal—was proposed by “Leavers” and rejected by David Cameron. Indeed, Cameron ridiculed Johnson for suggesting it. I don’t recall anyone on your side speaking up for a further referendum then.
Your arguments for a “second” referendum are not entirely without merit. But they could all have been made in the aftermath of the 1975 referendum. My side waited 41 years for another opportunity; yours should too.
There would be a tremendous backlash if you told the 52 per cent who voted “Leave” that their votes didn’t count. Britain would become ungovernable. The attitude of Eurosceptics would be: “Our opponents refused to accept the result when it didn’t go their way. We’re not accepting this.”
JM: There’s only one real question: would a final deal referendum be a good thing? If it is, the rest is mere machinery. You’ve responded to only one of the four reasons I gave for why democracy requires a fresh vote. I said that only 11 per cent of “Leave” voters had believed Brexit would make them worse off. They believed what the “Leave” campaign told them—that the warnings were “Project Fear.” I asked what happens to our democracy if those voters, now finding themselves impoverished, come to believe that they were told lies?
Your response is to say there would be a backlash if a referendum on the final deal led to a “Remain” vote. Yes, there are risks both ways: I acknowledge that and, if you’re honest, you will too. But if remaining is what the electorate wants then that’s what we must do.
What about the machinery and time-table? I’m pleased we seem to agree that Johnson, Davis and other “Leavers” were kind of making it up when they said a trade deal would be done in 18 months. But unless there’s clarity inside that 18 months about what that deal will be, we won’t be able to ask the other 27 for permission for the implementation period that you regard as our right.
That’s the view of the Commission, and it’s also the view of our own government, whose White Paper proposes “a phased process of implementation” to prepare for “the new arrangements,” which rather implies knowing what these are. The practical consequences of those “new arrangements”—a border in Ireland, frictions and possible tariffs with our biggest trading partner, long queues for holidaymakers, lower food standards, disinvestment in manufacturing, an understaffed NHS, no reciprocal healthcare, uncertainty around farming subsidies—will be plenty clear enough for people to vote on.
And as you acknowledge, if the people of the UK chose to remain part of Europe, that would surely be welcomed by the EU. Why? Because we strengthen Europe and Europe strengthens us.
TY: The chances of us having a clear sense of the future FTA in the next 18 months are zero. During last year’s referendum, Remainers made the point that it takes years to negotiate trade deals with the EU. You cannot now say they can be done in 18 months. No—a referendum on “the final deal” could only be held after we have left.
I’m unclear why you set so much store by a “second” referendum. If last year’s one was merely “advisory,” why would another be more conclusive? As someone who voted “Leave” to restore the sovereignty of parliament, I’m inclined to the “advisory” view. Constitutionally, the decision to “Leave” came in February, when MPs voted to allow May to trigger Article 50 by a huge majority. That made our departure legitimate.
You say June’s election indicates the public has had a change of heart. Nonsense. Eighty-four per cent of votes at the general election were cast for parties committed to leaving the EU. If MPs now voted to revoke Article 50, all but a handful would be breaking the promises made in their manifestos. Not exactly democratic.
I note that there has been talk recently of setting up a pro-EU party—something you initially proposed to do yourself. As a Tory, nothing would please me more, since a new left-of-centre, pro-EU party would take votes from Labour and help the Conservatives win in 2022. But you were wise to drop the idea. A party of this kind fielded candidates in June—the Lib Dems—and polled 7.1 per cent of the vote.
Resign yourself to the inevitability of Brexit. Think longer term. There’s no reason why a campaign to re-join the EU might not pick up steam over the next few decades, particularly if Brexit is the disaster you predict; you could get a “second” referendum in 2057—41 years after the previous one. Besides, you never know, your doom-mongering could just be wrong. The Common Travel Area with Ireland will be maintained; travel to the continent will be no more difficult than it was before 1975; foreign banks won’t go anywhere; and British manufacturing will go from strength to strength. Most importantly, the British people will have their democratic rights restored.