Enough is enough: let’s stop Brexit before it does irrevocable damage

Negotiations over Britain’s exit have begun—but the process of leaving is an act of folly. Article 50 should be withdrawn, and another referendum held

June 21, 2017
Brexit Secretary David Davis. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images
Brexit Secretary David Davis. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

When Theresa May called a general election in April, it was “to get a mandate for the Brexit negotiations.” She thereby confessed that she did not have such a mandate already; and indeed there never was a mandate for Brexit. The EU referendum of June 2016, advertised to all as “advisory,” resulted in just 37 per cent of the electorate voting to leave the EU (. By no democratic standard is that a mandate for anything, still less for a major and consequential constitutional change. The outcome of the general election has reaffirmed, and emphatically, that there is no mandate for Brexit.

Yet May is clinging gracelessly to power, by seeking help from a profoundly unappealing political group—and doing it with an unconcern not merely careless but dangerous for the Northern Ireland peace arrangements. What and who will she not sacrifice to keep power, even when her request for it was refused?

The general election demonstrated not only that there is no mandate for Brexit, but that the idea of a so-called “hard Brexit” is dead: the voters refused to rubber-stamp May’s extreme Brexit vision in the manner she thought they would. Because so-called “soft Brexit” is a pointless unsustainable fudge—explanation below—and because sentiment in the country is turning against the whole idea anyway, Brexit is dying. All that remains is to put it out of its misery, thereby to save the country from the misery that the mere idea of Brexit is causing and threatening further.

"One painful year after that profoundly flawed 'advisory only' referendum, and the UK is in a mess"
The Article 50 notification should be withdrawn. To draw a line under the mess we are in, another referendum should be held—with a properly constituted electorate including 16-17 year olds, all expatriates, and citizens of other EU countries resident in the UK, plus a supermajority bar as is standard in a properly run referendum. This way the real sense of all those affected by its outcome can be tested. The exposure of the falsehoods and fraudulences of the Leave campaign in 2016 means that debate leading to a second referendum has a chance of being more sensible. Ideally, voting in it should be compulsory.

So, here we are one painful year after that profoundly flawed “advisory only” first referendum, and the UK is in a mess. Brexit Secretary David Davis has gone to Brussels this week with no plan, no blueprint, no roadmap, no position, no idea. In London behind him is a fatally divided Conservative party, the rabid Brexiters among them seething with rage at the loss of their beloved “hard Brexit” hopes, and their Remainer “colleagues” plotting against Brexit itself. Labour MPs know that many people voted for them not because they share the confused and unworkable contradictions of Labour Brexit policy, but because they wanted to get rid of May.

The painful experiences of this last 12 months, from the desperate financial struggles of the NHS, to the stressed and overstrained police services, to tragic proof that deregulation is a murderous folly—something we do well to remember: for what the Tory Brexiters want is to cut regulations purely for the sake of saving cash—carry another lesson. This is that our constitution is in urgent need of reform.

The first-past-the-post electoral system, nowhere near fit for purpose in a representative democracy, and the parliamentary system controlled by party whips who remove MPs’ independence and turn them into zombie lobby fodder, have both been hijacked by party and partisan forces. The tabloid press is a disgrace, and needs to be held to account for purveying trash news, blatant falsehoods and distortions, thereby corrupting the public debate. No-one should be allowed to defraud voters by lies and false promises, and by opaque manipulative campaigning techniques paid for by “dark money.” The referendum “Leave” campaign allegedly did this, and is yet to be held accountable likewise. The system is sick, and the EU referendum has torn open its rotten underbelly. There can be no going back to that “normal” once the right-wing Tory-Ukip attempted coup has been defeated.
"In their potential betrayal of the interests of their natural constituency, Corbyn’s Labour looks worse than Blair’s"
Why is “soft Brexit” a fudge? Because access to the benefits of association with the EU requires accepting EU conditions and regulations across a wide range of issues. The idea of accepting those conditions, together with how they will change and develop in future, but with no say on them or how they change, is a remarkably stupid one. The only form of association with the EU that is sensible and advantageous is membership—exactly as we have it now.

Ask a Tory Brexiter: ask the John Redwood, who will tell you that a nearly-semi-exit “soft Brexit” is a disguised form of EU membership, only with disadvantages. And because of those disadvantages it would quickly be apparent that fully rejoining the EU is a necessity. It would be a necessity anyway; that is the imperative of history in our world. But it would have given us wasted years on half-throttle, and we would look back at the deal we have today, with our full membership, opt-outs and exceptions, and marvel at how utterly inane this whole Brexit matter is.

As to the Labour position: its more sensible MPs know they owe their relative success to an anti-Tory vote, not a pro-Labour and certainly not a pro-Brexit vote. The Labour position on Brexit is incoherent. As a party whose leadership is seeking to return it to its socialist roots, where is its internationalism? Why is it buying the anti-immigration rhetoric of the political right? Where is its understanding that Brexit will hurt most, and hurt badly, people on low incomes in the most deprived areas of the country—people whose interests they are supposed to represent? In their potential betrayal of the interests of their natural constituency, Corbyn’s Labour looks worse than Blair’s, and without the compensating intelligence.

The year since the EU referendum, although it has felt a long time because of the various tragic shocks that the UK has suffered, has exposed the mess of the idea of Brexit, and the inadequacy of our political and constitutional orders. The country needed to learn this latter fact, but the lesson is proving a brutal one. What is needed now is genuine leadership with the message: stop Brexit, let’s take a long hard look at ourselves, and let’s get the country back onto a better path.