I have largely retired this blog, but I did feel it necessary to write one brief piece stating my concern that far too few people on either side of the Brexit debate are actually thinking.
Brexit is a far more profound shift than, for example, Suez, with which it is often equated. If carried out, it marks a complete change in direction for the UK from its foreign and trade policy since the War. It will have a profound impact on everything from recruiting staff for the Health Service (making a purely taxpayer-funded service an impossibility) to satellite navigation systems. It may well force the UK itself to break up.
Yet in public debate it is still seen too often like a football match, with “fans” of “Leave” and “Remain” debating it in much the same way as Arsenal and Spurs fans or Liverpool and Everton fans debate the outcome of Sunday’s derby matches. All that matters is winning, and never mind the practical social and economic consequences for millions of people up and down the country. A lot of people are to blame for that – from a media which seem intent on reporting politics like a soap opera to politicians themselves who are so caught up in the Westminster bubble they have lost all connection with the daily lives of the citizens they claim to represent (witness this weekend’s incredible episode of Conservative MPs visiting foodbanks to applaud rather than bemoan their existence). It is worth noting that Brexit is in fact a symptom of a gradual political failure, not the cause of it.
One reason the whole thing has become so ludicrous is that it has become so tribal – and each side merely blames the other for making it so, rather than taking responsibility for the necessary “de-tribalisation”. Here, generally speaking, the broadly “Remain” side is guilty too; this is something it will need to fix if it is ultimately to save us from the calamity lying ahead.
Having a go at Leavers for being stupid on social media does not constitute a serious (or successful) campaign strategy. Many people voted Leave with good reason – ranging from a very genuine concern about the distance of decision makers in Brussels from those affected by the decisions, to a more emotional but no less genuine one about the scale of immigration into an already very densely populated country. It is not wrong to be concerned about the quality of democracy when it is so distance (although I do think it is hypocritical to be so without being concerned about the quality of democracy in London, which is “distant” from most parts of the UK); nor is it even wrong to ask a question about whether levels of immigration into such a densely populated country are sustainable (although I look at it the other way around; the UK needs to invest hugely in infrastructure, particularly housing, in order to accommodate what will, inevitably, be a rapidly growing population). A bit of understanding – and remembering that we have two ears and one mouth and we should probably use them in that proportion – would do no harm.
Most fundamentally, whatever we think of the lies told during the campaign or indeed of the illegal funding activity around it, the fact will always remain that a clear snapshot of public opinion in the UK in June 2016 returned a majority preference for not being in the EU. There is little doubt, for me, that that was a fair reflection of the public view, however unfairly I think it was arrived at, because there were also people who voted “Remain” not particularly because they loved the EU but because they wanted to avoid chaos (ahem, how right they were).
Yet it looks as though the “Remain” side may be on the verge, whether through luck or skill, of securing a further vote of some kind. However, in just the same way that Leavers had not thought through the detail of what leaving would actually entail and how it should look, I have heard little detail from Remainers about what exactly the next vote should ask.
The assumption, at this stage (and assumptions are always dangerous), is that the Prime Minister’s deal will not clear the Commons. I am a hugely reluctant convert to the case for a further referendum (in a democracy with parliamentary supremacy I am unclear what purpose any referendum is supposed to serve), but if the Prime Minister’s deal fails it is clear too that Brexit has failed. In June 2016 people may have voted to leave the EU, but only a tiny minority thought this meant doing so with absolutely no future relationship in place; and it is not unreasonable to suggest that had “Leave” specifically meant leaving with no such relationship, more than the few hundred thousand necessary to switch sides for a “Remain” victory would have done so (and of course if there is any doubt about that, it is reasonable to test it now – the very case for a further referendum).
However, it would be as ludicrous as anything else to go back to the people with a straightforward second choice of “Remain” versus “Leave” where the former means continued membership of the EU with no further questions asked and the latter means leaving with no arrangements at all in place (to secure not just future trade, but also relationships in all kinds of other areas from aviation to health research). Those two options are simply far too far apart for either of them to be a reasonable way forward likely to earn a broad consensus of support.
For me, the question has to be more clearly something like this:
The UK is negotiating a new relationship with the EU. To enable the basis for this negotiation to continue, should the UK now:
REMAIN in the European Union
LEAVE the European Union
This clearly states that the status quo ante is not an option and that consideration will continue to be given to the outcome in 2016 (as no such renegotiation would be necessary without that vote having gone the way it did). However, it also offers the people the frankly safer choice of remaining in the EU while a new relationship is sorted, with the people able to assess whether they are happy about that renegotiation at future elections.
It is just a first thought and I could well be persuaded from it, but the key point is this – both sides need to stop trying to “win”, and instead start to think.