British Politics

Does Brexit really need to happen?

With talk of a so-called People's Vote aimed at stopping Brexit growing, it's time for Remainers to ask whether a second referendum might pose some dangers of its own.

THIS month’s European Union summit, in which the final details of Brexit were to be thrashed out, has been cancelled. A fractured, arrogant, myopic political scene at home and inflexibility in Brussels means an agreement remains distant, so the Brexit circus is set to drag on for at least another month. Some members of parliament are now talking about a transition period, during which Britain effectively remains a member of the European Union, extending to at least December 2020.

Meanwhile, campaigns for a so-called People’s Vote, for a suicidal ‘no-deal Brexit’, and for the eminently sensible option of EFTA membership continue apace, making it nearly impossible to find a consensus. Polling varies as to the British public’s preferred outcome, with different wording creating different results: for instance, a ‘second referendum’ is typically rejected out of hand while a ‘People’s Vote’ attracts majority support. It is broadly true, however, that the public’s overall view on Brexit has turned somewhat sour.

So does this mean Brexit can be stopped? It’s unlikely, and requires a fairly fortuitous sequence of events, but it is possible.

If polls suggest unarguable support for a second referendum (it is still only a slender majority), if Theresa May fails to deliver a withdrawal agreement acceptable to a majority of the House of Commons, if someone influential from the Leave camp comes out in favour of a People’s Vote (Boris Johnson, anyone?), and if the problem of the Irish border proves unsolvable, a second referendum and a victory for Remain is perfectly plausible.

A better question might be: should Brexit be stopped? I think the answer here is still fundamentally yes, but it comes with a whole host of caveats. People campaigning for a People’s Vote should understand the damage that a second referendum would do to British democracy, public trust in government and institutions, and perhaps even to civil harmony. Some Remainers will not unjustifiably see the risk of violence as great enough not to support a second referendum, choosing to campaign for some form of soft Brexit instead.

It’s vital, I think, for Remain campaigners to recognise the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum. There has been a movement among people like Alastair Campbell towards delegitimising the vote itself, highlighting the electoral rule breaking of the Leave campaign. While this is undeniably an issue, and an investigation should be launched, rejecting the referendum and the winning campaign as somehow illegal does nothing to address the underlying causes of the vote to leave, and nothing to convince voters it was the wrong decision. It simply casts legacy Remainers as sore losers.

Furthermore, to suggest there is something fundamentally broken within our democracy weakens the case for a second referendum.

It’s a strange tactic to try an justify another vote by arguing that the first one was a mistake – after all, Leave supporters could simply dismiss a Remain victory on the same terms, by suggesting the electorate were misinformed, or that the Remain campaign somehow subverted democracy. And it will be an easy argument to make, especially to the millions of Leave voters who will feel totally disenfranchised, as if their original vote to Leave in 2016 didn’t count and their opinion is worthless. Many will feel that’s a price worth paying to save the country from a destructive Brexit, but to my mind it sends entirely the wrong message to a demographic that felt left behind even before the referendum.

A People’s Vote sends entirely the wrong message to a demographic that felt left behind even before the referendum.

Having said that, it’s equally wrong to dismiss the sixteen million of us who voted to Remain in 2016, as this government has done. A sensible prime minister would have opted for a compromise Brexit that reflected the extreme closeness of the result. Since many leading Brexiters – Nigel Farage included – seemed happy enough with the so-called ‘Norway option’ before the vote, this would have been a sensible, unifying option had Theresa May chosen it from the very beginning. But, by giving the hard-right European Research Group carte blanche to effectively dictate Brexit’s direction of travel, they have cast the Norway option they once supported as a kind of treason.

Remainers probably would have been better served by campaigning for this soft, Norway-style Brexit instead of a second referendum. This would have been far easier to sell to Brexit supporters in the days after the referendum, particularly after its inherent contradictions became clear; the Norway option would also have fundamentally respected both the result of the referendum, and the tightness of the margin of victory.

But we live in polarised times, and instead of reaching for this moderate, sensible option, Remainers have drifted towards down a path that would ultimately ignore the result of the referendum, just as Leavers have gone far in the opposite direction, towards the most extreme form of Brexit. Although I still firmly believe that remaining in the European Union is the best future for Britain, I will concede that this polarisation makes it politically inadvisable to pursue – other Remainers ought to reach the same conclusion.

However, it’s time that Leave supporters made some concessions of their own. They need to concede that their project is unworkable in its present form; that solving the Irish border will inevitably involve some close association with the EU either for the whole United Kingdom or for Northern Ireland alone; that they need to abandon freedom of movement as a red line to reach a deal; that becoming a swashbuckling free trade superpower is all but impossible when we will inevitably have to adhere to the regulations set by either the European Union or the United States; and that the United Kingdom is simply too small and not influential enough to strike out on its own.

If Brexiters fail to come to terms with reality, we are left with the prospect of no deal. This would spell disaster for our economy, our society, and our international standing, and perhaps lead to a renewal of violence in Northern Ireland. Nobody wants that, yet the arrogance of the extreme Leavers could make it unavoidable.

With talk of a lengthy transition period – or ‘implementation’, as Theresa May continues to call it – growing louder, and the problem of the Irish border proving intractable, an unsatisfactory compromise has become all but inevitable, with promises of a proper deal once the kinks have been ironed out. We may yet end up in an unusual situation wherein Britain’s membership of the European Union is extended year-by-year as successive governments kick the Brexit can further and further down the road, stuck in a kind of purgatory until it’s finally forgotten about all together. Perhaps that’s the most sensible option after all.

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