We need a break from Brexit: opposition parties need to show they can stop the current madness and help the country move on
Standby for the deception election. An election where all sorts of myths and untruths will be peddled. Blame the EU. Blame Parliament. Blame your opponents. But we need responsible politicians who can appeal to those who are fed up with the whole thing and just want Brexit to go away so the country can move on.
And let’s face it, that’s most of us. Any party wanting to make an electoral breakthrough needs to persuade the electorate that they can be trusted to help the country move on in the best possible way.
Remainers have the advantage here. Leavers have had three years now to make Brexit happen and have failed to agree on anything. This isn’t surprising. They have proclaimed all sorts of variations of Brexit but, in the end, none of them make any sense. Now, its proponents have boxed themselves into a position where they claim crashing-out with no-deal is the only way to move on.
“We’ve had a vote, let’s just do it”, they cry, conveniently ignoring the reality that this would not make Brexit go away. Instead it would herald the best part of a decade negotiating from a position of weakness with the EU and the rest of the world. If they acknowledge this hard truth at all, they fall back on bluster about Britain being great and able to battle through. In the meantime, they gloss over the likelihood that, far from being great, the UK would quite possibly shrink from being a union of four countries to being little England and Wales alone.
A second referendum is seen as another way of moving on. The logic for a second referendum is sound – a confirmatory referendum in the light of the experience of the last three years and with a definite ‘leave option’ (e.g. no-deal) vs ‘remain’ on the ballot paper. I’ve been campaigning for a second referendum for a long time. And I continue to support it. But a difficulty is that, while it is necessary given the fact of the first referendum, it doesn’t really appeal to the many parts of the electorate who want Brexit to go away and for the country to move on.
There is also a real danger of repeating the mistakes of the first referendum and intensifying division. Instead, there is a strong appetite for a return to a normal country, that is not obsessed by Brexit and that can focus on the pressing issues that people really care about such as social care, the NHS, transport, the economy and the crisis of the environment and climate change. Brexit has always been, in essence, a Tory project. There is no need for the opposition parties to be complicit in it.
Quite simply, the country needs a break from Brexit and a chance to really tackle the things that matter to people. ‘No-deal’ or indeed other softer forms of Brexit would not offer that chance. Instead, they would prolong uncertainty, weaken the economy and open up years of wrangling on future relations with the EU and the rest of the world. In contrast, a clear break from Brexit would appeal to many voters, especially if they were excited by the social and economic programmes that could then be implemented by that government.
The pitch to the electorate would be that the country needs a break with Brexit, that it needs politicians who are not obsessed with Brexit and that, after a long, cool pause, it needs a way of finally resolving Brexit by way of a second referendum in the second half of the new government’s term. In the meantime, Britain would remain a member of the EU, either by revoking Article 50 or through some other arrangement with the EU, pending a second referendum.
The country would get a chance to recover from the damage inflicted in the last three years. Business and citizens alike would get more certainty and the country as a whole would get a chance to be normal again. At the same time, any new government should commission an enquiry into the conduct of the first referendum, to examine the legitimacy of that referendum and to make recommendations that ensure a second referendum could be conducted in ways that are free of foreign interference, manipulation and breaches of electoral law. Such an enquiry might also be used to consider the role of and rules of referenda in British democracy.
A new government shouldn’t prolong uncertainty by trying to reopen negotiations with the EU or pretending that some form of soft Brexit would be preferable to remaining in the EU. Instead, it should focus on healing the country. It could establish ‘citizens enquiries’ and ‘sector enquiries’ to examine the facts and evidence about EU membership and the implications of remaining or leaving. These findings should feed into decisions on a second referendum. The country badly needs a better way of doing things and a break from the current madness. Any party offering such a way would stand to gain in the forthcoming election.
By Dominic Byrne, Nottingham People’s Vote campaigner