With the date for Brexit delayed – for how long we do not know – Parliament now has the chance to take control. The possibility of a second referendum will come alive again, and again, for how long we cannot tell. Is it as good or as bad an idea as the partisans on either side say?
Winston Churchill might well have concluded that, like democracy, it is the worst idea that anyone has come up with – apart from all the other Brexit proposals that have been tried from time to time. This would include Mrs May’s draft European Treaty, which may or may not return to the House next week.
Why is a referendum a bad idea? Our fellow citizens were asked to take a view on the UK’s EU membership. They considered the arguments and listened to the campaigners, and they answered the question posed - Leave or Remain? Most of them said they would like to leave. How can it be logical, two to three years on, to ask them the same question, or a variation on the question, again?
The answer cannot be that their verdict was wrong. It must not be a condescending rebuke, suggesting that they were not politically literate enough to give the correct reply. It also cannot be said that the UK is a parliamentary democracy where we never decide these things by the precarious route of a popular plebiscite - a route which we have adopted on devolution for Scotland and Wales (a couple of times), on proportional representation, and way back into the 1970s on the renegotiated terms of our membership of the (then) EEC.
There have to be stronger arguments. Here is a modest attempt to sketch out why a referendum might be not only desirable but necessary. Some of these arguments will irritate and annoy honourable people who care about democracy and citizenship as much as the writer. But please bear with me:
1. Brexit has simply turned out to be much more difficult than anyone anticipated when the nation spoke on 23 June 2016. The campaigners did not have a clear idea of what their blueprint was: some said the UK would stay in the Single Market, others that we would seek total trading independence. The clever masterminds of each of the two Leave campaigns forbade Leave spokespersons spelling out what sort of Brexit they favoured. All’s fair in love, war, and referendums.
2. How is Brexit more difficult than people thought ? Mainly because the British economy is far more deeply intertwined with the EU economy – and through trade agreements with all the countries with which it is connected – than we realised, amounting to more than 80% of our international trade. Project Fear was hopeless, exaggerated and manipulative. But we know now have more real information on the implications of our decisions. It is recognised, even by Brexiteers, that Brexit means lower growth in the short to medium term, and that translates into lower living standards, loss of jobs, and withdrawal of investment by growing numbers of non-EU investors, notably the Japanese.
3. The botched Brexit negotiation has not arisen from a betrayal of Brexit voters by the Remainer-ish ruling elite in Westminster. Mrs May has tried, sincerely and inexhaustibly, to do justice to the referendum result in a way that would be legally, economically and politically responsible. She has taken big risks in the service of that mission. And she has failed. We can argue about her negotiating strategy. But she tried and she failed.
4. No alternative Brexit blueprint has surfaced from any of those who argued so forcefully for Leave in 2016. Michael Gove and Liam Fox have done their best from that corner to make Mrs May’s proposal fly. David Davis, Boris Johnson and others have joined that effort, but did not have the patience to stay the course. David Davis voted, honourably, for her proposal yesterday. No Labour Party group, no personal cabal around the discreet Brexiteer Jeremy Corbyn, no serious think-tank or pressure group has come up with a serious blueprint for what sort of Brexit they think would best serve the British people.
5. So we are told there is ‘no-deal’. No-deal is not a policy. It is a failed negotiating gambit, revealed as Jeremy Corbyn correctly defined it as a paper tiger. Despite all the appearance of ‘no-deal’ preparation in Whitehall and around the country, it was a charade. It was not going to happen. Everyone was going through the motions. And there is no country in the world, even North Korea, that does no deals – indeed, the government had concluded a few, if a pitifully small number, before Parliament voted against no-deal this week.
What is to be done? It could be that, on reflection, the House of Commons thinks a Canada-type free trade arrangement would be more true to what the British people voted for in 2016. That would take years, not months, to negotiate. It could be that a Norway-type/EFTA relationship would make more sense – but is that what either Leavers or Remainers voted on in 2016? And is there a majority in the House of Commons for that, a ‘softer’ form of Brexit leaving Britain in anything but ‘control’ of its destiny?
The House of Commons needs to return the decision to its client, the people. The House voted ahead of June 2016 to put the question to the people, since David Cameron thought it was necessary to go above the heads of the political class to resolve his problems in the Conservative Party. But the political class has failed to deliver on that prospectus.
Will a second referendum provide a better prospectus? This article will not take a view on what the question should be or what the best outcome would be. The answer could again be Leave, suggesting the electorate would be happy to take the risks associated with a harder Brexit than Mrs May was seeking.
But the principle that a democracy should be able to think its way out of this morass is a good one. It might involve public information campaigns run by objective authorities, rather than the shameful attempt last time to provide ‘government’ information that claimed to be impartial. It might involve citizens’ juries or assemblies that take the debate away from our hollowed out and inadequate political parties. And politicians might take a more thoughtful and responsible approach this time, eschewing the idea that there are really very simple answers to these complex questions..
Friends, neighbours and distant admirers of the UK marvel at our newly-acquired capacity for economic and political self-destruction. They always looked to Britain for something better. A second referendum, conducted in a spirit of humility, learning from our recent experiences and enhanced by a more informed public debate than last time, could show us the way through. Whatever the outcome.
Michael Maclay is Chairman of Montrose Associates. He has been a diplomat and journalist and was also Special Adviser to former CGE President Rt Hon Lord Hurd of Westwell.