I’ve been fascinated by the response to the new Lib Dem position to fight the next election on a platform of revoking Article 50 and doing so if (and at the moment, it’s a big if) they win an outright majority. Polly Toynbee has denounced it as “extremist” with Emily Thornberry deciding to up the ante by comparing the party to the Taliban (I don’t know where I stand with regard making jokes about this reaction, possibly because I haven’t come up with any good ones, but I think Rajin Chowdhury makes some strong points about the unfortunate racial dimension that, as a white man, I’m privileged to not be impacted by).
Even Caroline Lucas has got in on the act, describing the policy as “arrogant, self-indulgent, cynical and very dangerous” – her point being that the policy is likely to ignite divisions rather than heal them.
There’s a few things to unpack here. Basically, there are three questions: is the policy undemocratic?; is the policy divisive?; and, is the policy likely to be a vote winner?
In terms of the latter, I’ve heard a lot of people express the worry that it isn’t – including, funnily enough, some of the six million people who signed a petition a few months ago demanding article 50 be revoked without a referendum (indeed, I don’t recall Lucas, Thornberry or Toynbee denouncing that petition). All I can say to that, aside from that time will tell, is that I would imagine the Lib Dem leadership team did their research very seriously before committing to this position and that, thus far, the polls have borne that out.
Is it undemocratic? Well, this is an interesting one. I’m still trying to keep up, as a constitutional reformer, with the situation that all my opponents have switched from saying that parliamentary sovereignty should and does trump everything else to seeing them consistently argue the exact opposite, including by people who for decades argued to leave the EU on precisely these terms. Before the crazy started, a party pledging to keep the nation’s status quo constitutional arrangements after winning a democratic mandate in a general election wouldn’t be considered noteworthy, let alone undemocratic or extremist.
Of course, you can argue that if the Lib Dems were to do this it is still unlikely they would win more than 50% of the popular vote. This is of course true. Nor was there a majority in the popular vote to impose austerity in 2010. Nor was there a majority voting for a whole host of policies which have had a major impact on our lives since time immemorial. This is a problem the Lib Dems have always recognised and pledged to do something about; neither Labour nor the Conservatives have ever made any such commitment.
There is also the argument that a general election result cannot trump the specific mandate of the 2016 election. This is where things start to slide into the third question, which is largely about politics. But I would point out at this stage that not only does that referendum result have no legal status whatsoever, but also that any democratic regime in the world which has referendums as a central mechanism for making major decisions, particularly Switzerland, would likely have stricken that result down as unconstitutional a long time ago.
If you think referendums should form a part of decision-making, then it is incumbent on you to prevent them from being quite so open to abuse as they currently are. The UK is very, very bad at holding referendums: we don’t have a legal framework to do so other than one that was sketched out in 2000 to deal with, at the time, a series of abandoned referendums for regional assemblies. We haven’t significantly updated referendum law since them, despite the debacle of the 2010 AV referendum providing us with a very salutary warning as to what might happen in a higher stakes national ballot.
It is perhaps Cameron’s greatest failing, having decided to hold that cursed referendum in 2016, to imagine that the unfair practices done in his name in 2010 would be done against him in 2016 – despite knowing that a number of the same people were involved in both campaigns. Not only did he not take that into account, but he doubled down, unjustly excluding 16 and 17 year olds and even EU citizens from the debate, for no reason other than to hand the leave campaign an unfair advantage by excluding the people with some of the greatest stakes in the result from being able to take part.
In short, if you are going to make this claim that the 2016 result should be binding, you need to at least be able to make the case that it was held democratically. In that regard, I fear, you would be on a very sticky wicket.
Finally, as in all things, we are left with the argument that this policy is divisive, and that we should be healing divisions between remainers and leavers, not deepen them. And this argument certainly has some superficial merit: the country is indeed deeply divided.
I guess my counter to that is that I’m not at all convinced that a compromise exists that can heal those divisions, and that the best approach would be to adopt the position that will at least end this ongoing festering wound. Revoking article 50, for all its risks, would at least give British politics a chance to breathe, and to start a dialogue about something, anything, other than Brexit – a great many of which would help heal those rifts. Keeping the debate going by contrast will only ensure those divisions continue.
From where we are now, I can’t see a compromise that will keep most people relatively happy. There certainly was a window of opportunity. In the summer of 2016, like a lot of people, I worked on the assumption that we were going to end up with the softest of soft Brexits and that, by 2019, would effectively have a trading arrangement akin to Norway. The result was close enough that no-one could reasonably argue that there was a strong mandate for a “hard” Brexit in which the UK went it entirely alone. Better yet, from monitoring the debate, both Vote Leave and Leave.EU had consistently argued that claims that we would drop out of the EU without a deal were “Project Fear” and specifically cited Norway as a model example.
To be clear, it wasn’t an option that I exactly relished: the Norway model is essentially the Leave position made manifest. We’d have to pay billions to the EU and have very little say in return – certainly no more votes in the European Parliament or Council of Ministers. But hey, there was a mandate, and I guess we have to listen to the will of the people. What’s more, only a few absolute headbangers were calling for a harder Brexit and surely Theresa May wasn’t going to listen to them?
How wrong I was. The subsequent conduct of the May administration appeared to work on the basis that the referendum had been a thumping victory for leave and not the narrow one that it was in reality. And as they did so, so did leave opinion harden. One of the greatest acts of gaslighting of the last few years has been to attempt to argue that the subsequent debacle has been because of remainers refusing to compromise and secretly undermining the talks, rather than leavers. Theresa May made a deliberate decision to put them in the driving seat and leave everyone else out in the cold.
So we ended up with a deal that didn’t please anyone and a leave contingency even more determined to leave at all costs, and this crazed government we have now. I didn’t do anything to create this situation and neither did Jo Swinson. The response by politicians on the leave side following Jo Cox’s murder by an extremist was not to pause for thought but to double down on the rhetoric about “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” – and indeed we now have a government that has shut down parliamentary scrutiny, legally due to our shoddy constitution, or otherwise.
To be clear: this is not the situation we were in in 2016 where there was legitimate hurt on both sides that needed to be addressed. We’re in a situation where one side of that divide has been radicalised, and the other side has been repelled as a result. I’ve criticised the idea of centrism in the past, arguing that politicians shouldn’t be aiming for the moving target of the middle way because they are then entirely subject to the whims of their opponents, but it increasingly feels that trying to find a middle way here isn’t merely fudge but appeasement.
You don’t deradicalise a significant body people by trying to meet them halfway. Not only are people like Stephen Kinnock’s attempts to exhume the withdrawal agreement doomed to fail; if they had been successful they would be lumped in as filthy traitors just as much as the rest of us. Equally baffling is this idea that a Labour negotiated withdrawal agreement would somehow satisfy anyone, least of all the Brexiteers.
And so we return to the topic of a second referendum. For years, despite my misgivings of referendums, I thought this was the least worst option. I could see how revocation would be simpler, and it would certainly be my dream option, but I couldn’t see how it could be a politically acceptable solution to anyone other than a small cadre of remainers. I supported attempts to bring Labour on board and finally get off the fence by supporting this position; if they had done so a year ago we would likely have had the referendum by now.
But the question of what options you put in the referendum has become increasingly hard to answer. Six months ago, if Parliament had supported such a proposal, it was still just about possible to hold a referendum on remain versus Theresa May’s deal; I can’t see how that could be seen as anything other than a stitch up now. You could put crashing out of the EU with no deal at all as an option, but while people might relish the fight, it is surely not a responsible option any respectable political party could consider – it would be putting people’s lives up for debate in a public poll.
The other option is for the leave option to be a new withdrawal agreement. This is roughly what Labour seems to be tearing itself apart over now. The problem is, it’s an incredibly silly policy. Do you argue for remain and put forward a withdrawal deal that you don’t believe in? Do you say you’re going to support the withdrawal deal that you negotiate, and thus alienate your remain supporters? Or do you stay scrupulously neutral, as if that could possibly mean anything? Labour has got itself into such a mess that it might actually be for the best for them to have a formal position to remain, but give Jeremy Corbyn a free rein to negotiate the best deal he can come up with and campaign for it in the subsequent referendum in a personal capacity. That I can say that in all seriousness shows quite how hard to sustain the referendum position currently is. What looks likely is that Labour will end up committing itself to a policy almost identical to the one that David Cameron campaigned on in the 2015 general election; and look how well that turned out.
I can still see a referendum still happening as a compromise between the Lib Dems and Labour. Paradoxically, if the Lib Dems kept its position of supporting a referendum, the lack of pressure would probably make it harder to achieve. We’ve now reached a point where Labour feels it has ownership of the policy – helped by the Lib Dems vacating that space – and that will make it harder for the likes of Len McCluskey et al to persuade Corbyn to go back on it if they found themselves in government (I would be amazed if McCluskey didn’t still have a go though).
Ultimately, this muddle only strengthens my case that no position exists any longer that both leave and remain supporters can live with, and the fact that Labour is even considering an attempt at such a byzantine approach says more about the lamentable state it is currently in than anything else.
No Brexit policy is going to heal divisions; it is thus up to political parties to base their policy on what is best for the country, not try to ameliorate people with fudge. The Lib Dems have thus adopted the most responsible, straightforward and open position.
Ultimately, Brexit has only highlighted the deep divide in the UK; it didn’t cause it. If we’re going to ease that rift, we have to start looking at the deep inequality and alienation that was exploited in that poll. I’d have liked to have heard more emphasis on this coming out of Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth last week, and I have heard equally little from Labour conference in Brighton this week (scrapping posh schools, however desirable, won’t cut it). If pro-Europeans are ultimately going to win the peace, they need to start offering a vision of EU-membership from which the entire country reaps dividends, not just London and the major population centres. I don’t think offering a bit more hope would go down too badly in the election, either.