Citizens must be confronted with the whole truth—and then asked to decide anewby Tom Clark / January 31, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Brexit locomotive is running out of legal road, and everybody is fuming. Even Leavers who would be content to coast off the tracks are raging that the May government devoted two years to her deal, rather than properly planning to go it alone. Those who had vaguely hoped for a softer exit were disappointed by the stark shortcomings in Theresa May’s plan—which hands back, rather than takes back, control by requiring the UK to submit to rules it can no longer help to write. And as Jaguar-Land Rover sheds jobs, and Dyson’s HQ shifts to Singapore, Remainers think the economic damage of which they’ve long warned is at last starting to translate from theory to fact.
Even before Brexit, to adapt from the Dodo in Alice, the mood could be characterised as “everybody has lost, and all must have grievances.” Gaby Hinsliff’s brilliant tour d’horizon of our troubled political culture explores why nobody feels like they’re winning today. Online “debate” has fostered a fashion for taking umbrage and venting outrage (see Adam Wagner). Party cohesion is collapsing—just look at what the mild-mannered Dominic Grieve has to say about the Tories—and this has combined with constitutional changes (which I discuss here) to produce a grudging stalemate, where no one feels on top. Amid this resentment all round, Britain’s politics must now nonetheless, somehow, recast half a century of commercial and diplomatic policy—and at break-neck speed.
After the thumping defeat of May’s deal in mid-January, something surely has to give. But what? The usual British way to resolve an impasse is a general election. It may come to pass, and yet nobody can explain how it will help. The best guess is that the result would roughly reproduce something like the current Commons. Even if the Conservatives were to win back their majority, the government benches would still be hopelessly split; as for Labour, in the heat of a campaign it would most likely double down on its artful ambiguity. Besides, in solipsistic Westminster, it is too easily forgotten that the status of the UK is in the end a matter of international law not local politics. The ticking clock that matters is in Brussels.
The first thing that needs to give, therefore, is time—London must ask Brussels for an extension. Brussels may in return ask what comes next, a question that will anyway soon have to be settled. The unloved May deal could be recast to achieve a cleaner break from the single market, but only at the economic cost of impaired access to that market. It could, instead, be softened, but only at the cost of submitting to freedom of movement, which would—for many Leavers—make this a pointless break. Or Whitehall could instead try to win over MPs by delay—just consent to the formal withdrawal for now, it will plead, and we can haggle about the destination in the transition. But if our politicians choose this escape route for themsevles, the nation will pay a price. It would leave London conducting the “real” negotiations as a third country, with none of the leverage that it enjoys while it is still settling the financial divorce on the inside.
If plumping for a harder, softer or a later Brexit are all self-defeating, then what does that leave? A rethink. A fresh referendum would certainly be divisive, it could embolden chauvinist forces and its result cannot be presumed: in volatile times it could end up pushing us towards a more impoverishing exit. But there is no avoiding risks: they are found on every path. The graver charge is that a rerun would treat Leave voters with contempt. The worries in Leave-leaning towns run especially deep. But right across the country, you hear the moan that self-serving politicians “should just get on with it.”
Sadly, there is no agreement on what “it” is—any more than there was a defined Brexit proposition on the ballot in 2016. The people need to be heeded, but it was the same British people who voted in the referendum that a year later picked the MPs that resoundingly rejected May’s plan to implement it. And while mandates clash, opinion is moving. Polls bob about, but overall there is a slide away from Leave. It is not huge, but it doesn’t have to be in a 52-48 country. As competing Brexit dreams are dashed, this shift could pick up pace. Should we end up leaving on terms a clear majority regards as harmful, that would be as damaging for democracy as pressing ahead on the strength of a three-year-old mandate that emerged when nobody had heard of Canada deals, Irish backstops or any of the details that all sides today hold up as show-stoppers.
Any real world Brexit involves painful trade-offs which the public were not exposed to last time around. Voters on all sides deserve respect. But in the end, the way to show it is to confront them with the real choices, rather than a mirage. If the mood of defeat is not now to warp into a sense of feeling cheated, citizens must be confronted with the whole truth—and then asked to decide anew. A second referendum might be uncomfortable. But if it can finally break the stalemate, then the mood might just begin to lift.