If the government presses ahead without legitimising its Brexit agreement in a popular vote, millions will fight backby Vince Cable / January 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
Brexit is generating conflicting passions: boredom and rage. And there are at least 15 months to go, perhaps even years if a “transition” leads to the can being kicked down the road.
There should be a point when the negotiations crystallise into an agreement. We can then form a view as to whether Brexit will be “good,” “bad,” “soft,” “hard,” “aligned,” “non-aligned” or one of the numerous other variants being advocated or denounced.
At the very least, in the coming months, there should be a clearer indication as to whether Britain will opt for a very close trading relationship with the EU in some variant of the Norwegian or Swiss arrangements or drift apart into what is called a Canada type agreement. The EU, which has so far been an impressively united team of 27 facing a disunited Conservative “team” of one, has made it clear that this is the stark choice.
Either will be immensely difficult politically, since both the divided Conservative cabinet and the divided Labour opposition will be forced, for the first time, to take definite positions: to continue with free movement (as in the Norwegian model); to jettison the interests of the financial services community if we leave the Single Market; to honour or breach the commitment to avoid a “hard” border in Ireland; to agree to meet the divorce settlement with only very limited freedom of trade.
It will be a test of Conservative and Labour tribalism as to whether they survive intact the process of making those painful choices. One test will come when parliament is given a “meaningful vote” on the outcome. When MPs secured this vote it was a bad defeat for the Conservatives but it’s not totally clear what has been agreed.
If the “meaningful vote” is to reject the negotiated agreement, what happens then? Does the government go back and negotiate again? Do we “crash out” of the EU with no agreement? Is the alternative choice the status quo ante: terminating the Article 50 process and an “exit from Brexit”?
It is the last which should be an option in a “meaningful” choice. But it raises the important question of whether parliament can make such a choice without going back to the public. I think not. I say that despite my being a believer in representative democracy. I also say that despite having been publicly critical of those, including in my party, who were demanding a “second referendum” no sooner than the last one had been lost. I didn’t, and don’t, believe that the public “got it wrong” and should try again. However narrow the vote, and however tendentious some of the Brexit campaign, there was a clear result that must be respected.
The real argument for a referendum on the deal, a valedictory referendum on the facts once they are known, is not about re-running the 2016 vote. The referendum poses a different question.
There is an analogy with house purchase. A purchaser decides to move house and makes an offer on a new one. But the deal isn’t sealed without a survey and legal due diligence. Until the deal is sealed, the buyer can change his or her mind, walk away and choose to stay put. The hard Brexit option being pursued by the Conservatives, of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, was never properly debated or understood—even by the campaigners.
“This is not about re-running the 2016 vote—the referendum poses a different question”
Three objections are being raised to a referendum on the facts. The first is the 2016 referendum was the settled “will of the people.” But, as explained above, the question is now different and those claiming to have such confidence in the “popular will” must surely trust the public to have their say.
The second is that a referendum would be bitter and divisive. I have some sympathy with this argument. There are still divided families, neighbourhoods and work places. But Brexit will in any event be divisive when (or if) it happens. If Brexit turns out badly for jobs and living standards, there will be clamour to reopen the issue when we have already left the EU. Re-joining will be more problematic than not leaving.
The third is that referendums become “neverendums.” Why not have the best of three? Or five? There is, of course, a risk the issue never goes away. But if the Brexiters were to win a valedictory referendum the issue would certainly disappear for the foreseeable future. As a Remainer and Remoaner, I would get behind any government then seeking to reunify post-Brexit Britain. But if the government presses ahead without legitimising its Brexit agreement in a popular vote, millions will want to continue the struggle.
Brexit Britain: the future of industry is a publication which examines the future of UK manufacturing through the prism of the recently released Industrial Strategy White Paper. The report features contributions from the likes of Greg Clark MP, Miriam Gonzalez, Richard Graham MP and Frances O’Grady.
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