I believe it was Disraeli who said “England is governed by evolution, not revolution”. This has been a constant feature of English history since at least the 17th century. What happened on Thursday was a revolution – and England’s institutions simply cannot cope with it.
Leave voters wanted to answer the question “Who governs Britain?”
The answer? No one.
By rejecting the advice of the very government they elected last year, the people have caused an accidental revolution and rendered the country ungovernable. (To be fair, the messy devolution settlement already in place suggested this day would come, just nothing like as dramatically.)
Parliament cannot deal with this as it takes a different position, by a sizeable majority, from that expressed by the people. The Government cannot deal with it because it took the opposite view. An election would solve very little because it would be held hostage by the same populists who made promises about leaving the EU which are now unravelling one by one.
On top of this, two of the legal jurisdictions which make up the UK – Scotland and Northern Ireland – have expressed a clear view at referendums over the past two decades in favour of remaining within both the UK and the EU. Denying them this clearly expressed right (expressed in each case by at least eleven points) is no less democratically scandalous than disrespecting the overall result last Thursday.
To make matters still worse, there is no clear direction in last Thursday’s result. Given the choice of EU or not-EU, a narrow majority choose not-EU. But given, say, a three-way choice between EU, EEA (single market with free movement) and neither (outside single market with full border control), we do not know which option would be chosen – it could be any of the three.
The political parties are also hopeless for resolving this. The way the country voted on the EU bore almost no relation to the way it votes along party lines. Labour Liverpool and Conservative Reading voted Remain; Labour Sunderland and Conservative Basildon voted Leave. Both parties are totally split on the issue and, in any case, both main parties are utterly confused and rudderless. This is all while UKIP offers no detail on how to leave, the LibDems refuse to leave, and the Greens are in shock. The only coherent voice comes from the SNP, but it only adds to the complication. The parties are just no use at all right now.
As we in Northern Ireland know only too well, such vacuums get filled inevitably by anger and bigotry. The referendum campaign included a political assassination. Already there is clear evidence across England of a rapid rise in overt xenophobia. Nearly to quote Churchill, it takes centuries of careful building to develop a tolerant civilisation, and one thoughtless act to dismantle it.
This is nothing to do with the way people voted. The referendum is the symptom, not the cause, of long-term issues which have led many poorer and typically white English people to be taken for granted. This is not just or even mainly an EU thing. Even the devolved settlement leaves people in Sheffield and Sunderland light years away from those making the decisions which affect them, all while “their money” disappears over Hadrian’s Wall or the English Channel. It is fair to challenge a Leave vote at a rational level because frankly it only makes matters worse for most of those casting them, but no one should underestimate the validity of the sentiments people voting that way (particularly in the poorest parts of the urban north of England) were trying to express.
In summary, the combination of 2015 and 2016 leaves no one in office with any real democratic legitimacy, yet a further election would resolve nothing. The institutions are simply not capable of managing the legal and diplomatic complexities of leaving the EU. The economy is too fundamentally dependent on EU trade to enable departure from the EU without a material decline in living standards. That vacuum and that decline will inevitably be filled by bigotry. None of this will actually help the people who were trying to make their frustrations heard by voting Leave. The next Prime Minister faces an absolute hospital pass and knows it.
The only way out that I see is a Constitutional Convention, with the outcome of that Convention put to the people at a further referendum.
I cannot say I have the expertise to suggest exactly how such a Convention would be formed or would take place. It would consist of delegates most likely appointed at random (similar to jury service), who would have access to expertise (legal experts, academics, senior civil servants) and to resources for consultation. The purpose would essentially be to establish what future form the UK should take – politically, financially, even socially up to a point – and what compromises need to be delivered to achieve this.
I am wary of putting forward the type of question that such a Convention would have to answer, but it would have to resolve the balance of Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s preference to remain in the UK and the EU while the rest of the UK wishes to leave the EU. If the UK leaves the EU, is there an arrangement for “favoured access” which Scotland and Northern Ireland could arrive at while remaining within the UK, or would they have to leave? On the other hand, on what conditions would English people reconsider leaving the EU in order to keep the UK intact? In other words, essentially, do we need to commence an orderly break-up of the UK, or are there compromises (not just with reference to the EU, but also to devolved functions, financial formulas and so on) which we should make now to maintain the UK and deliver some form of stability for the next generation?
I would of course welcome any ideas other than or building in this one. We need to build a movement of some kind which respects what happened on Thursday but is also realistic about which options are really available – an anti-populist movement, if you like.
Let us turn crisis into opportunity. All thoughts welcome.