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The thing about the “will of the people” is that it changes

It is still not too late for MPs to put the Brexit question back to the country

By Schona Jolly  

Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

One particularly disquieting feature of post-referendum politics has been the pursuit of simple sticking-plaster clichés across complex problems—ones that demand nuance and intellectual honesty. A “jobs-first Brexit” is a painful example of this deceit. So, too, the age-old populist mainstay the “will of the people.” Deployed by those seek to claim that they alone understand and represent their singular, immovable interest. On the most slender of majorities, after a referendum campaign marked by naked dishonesty and disinformation, this was always a risible defence for a government caught constantly on the back foot.

But reliance on the “will of the people” can bite the government back. Survation polling, revealed by Channel 4 this week, shows that the goalposts have moved whilst many of the country’s politicians were stuck gazing into June 2016. Twenty thousand people were interviewed between 20th October and 2nd November 2018. Fifty-four per cent of those who said they knew how they would vote, are now backing Remain.

The survey showed that it is no longer only Scotland and Ireland which are predominantly Remain, but that England and Wales have become Remain majorities. Significantly, some 70 per cent of Labour voters are pro-Remain. Interesting features of the poll include the fact that support for leaving the EU has fallen most sharply in local authorities that saw the highest Leave vote in the first place. The data also shows that it is predominantly Labour areas in the north that have seen the greatest change. And yet, none of these shifts are reflected in the Labour leadership, nor sufficiently in a parliament that is cowed by the mandate it believes it is required to implement.

In truth, the will of the people always was an irresponsible throwaway for one of the most divisive issues in living British memory, relegating 48 per cent of the electorate to a mere irrelevance. It was the endless repetition of this stock phrase that led to the shocking headlines labelling judges “Enemies of the People,” and the branding of MPs as traitors over the Withdrawal Bill. Rational opposition was portrayed constantly as a threat to democracy. The “with us or against us” simplicity alienated significant parts of the population; the simplistic question on the ballot paper filled in none of the difficult gaps about the country’s future, and those who led the Leave campaign, despite sitting at the heart of government, have failed to find credible answers since.

The reality is now there for all to see, in the daily assault of rolling Brexit news: the warnings from business leaders who had been reluctant to speak out; the companies and organisations pulling out of Britain, including those run by some of the most vocal Brexiters themselves; the impact on policing and security that losing EU tools will have; the impact on British academic institutions, science and research; the impact on our NHS; the threat of deregulation to get trade deals; the reality of losing EU workers across so much of our industry; all this and more. Slowly, too, the dawning realisation that our mid-sized island nation actually needs partners, that 21st century problems require global solutions. The divide and rule, once a mainstay of Empire, has failed in British attempts to divide the EU27. British influence appears on the wane in diplomatic circles. And swapping our partnership for one with Trump’s America looks increasingly precarious and unattractive. All of this comes as serious questions are posed about the legality of actions relating to Leave’s biggest funder. The sanctity of any mandate can no longer be considered reliable.

It turned out nobody knew what Brexit meant, and for every person who insists they did, another will roll out another version still. It is now abundantly clear that we cannot keep exactly the same benefits of the club we have chosen to leave. And it also turns out the will of the people can change, does change and is likely to keep changing. Not least because the idea of a homogenous whole is, and always was, a cynical construct, designed to suppress critical thought at a time when it was most needed in our society.

The biggest political failure since the referendum has been the refusal to speak hard truths, leading to the presentation of a fiendishly complex set of decisions as a simple binary question. The consequences are already being felt socially, economically, legally and culturally. The glow of London’s 2012 Olympics—inclusive and internationalist—feels long ago.

The question for Remain-supporting MPs of all political stripes is now this: how will you justify pressing ahead with a destructive Brexit when you also know that the majority, if it ever was with you, is not with you now? There is a choice that MPs can make to be certain of the next steps: put the question back to voters. That is the way to take back control of a situation that has veered out of control for too long. It will not be simple. A referendum, which requires an extension of Article 50, is not an easy option. There are no easy options left. But we have to start with honesty and clarity.

Parliament should have asked for clarity before it agreed to triggering Article 50. But there is still time left.

As things stand, we are taking from young voters what we enjoyed ourselves. We do so on a basis that was not spelled out clearly, fairly or honestly then, and the position is still not clear 20 weeks before we are set to leave. There are British citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK who have been used as bargaining chips, and we owe a duty to them explicitly before we further disrupt or wreck lives, almost (but not quite) incidentally. The consequences of Brexit—any Brexit—are not to be underestimated. We owe it to every Briton, Leave or Remain supporting, to be sure—before we leap, or push.

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