Trenches & Monsters — two more arguments against triggering Article 50

What follows is the text of a letter sent today to my member of Parliament, Fabian Hamilton MP (Lab), edited slightly for web presentation.

Dear Mr Hamilton,

I write to you as a resident of Leeds for 15 years, who moved into your constituency a little over a year ago, regarding the forthcoming debate and vote in Parliament on Article 50. I know that you campaigned for Remain before the referendum, but am not aware of your current thinking on these matters.

For various reasons, I view the mandate conferred by June’s referendum as tainted and imperfect. Specifically:

  1. The numerous, disgraceful, and well-documented falsehoods perpetuated by Vote Leave during the campaign;
  2. The disenfranchising of 16–17 year olds, various EU residents in UK, and UK residents in EU;
  3. The narrow eventual majority of voters (52%), small proportion of the franchise (37%), and small proportion of the population (26%) voting Leave, figures a long way below the type of qualified majority which is usual for major constitutional change in advanced democracies.

I will not dwell on these points in this letter, as they have been well-rehearsed elsewhere, for example in letters you have received from Professor AC Grayling. But that is no reflection on their importance. If you share my opinion on these points, you may already be minded to vote against the triggering of Article 50. But even if you do not, I will offer two further arguments as to why — in my view — you should, and why with a clear conscience you can, oppose Article 50. Both regard developments since the referendum. As Keynes may have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” I will discuss two ways in which the facts have changed.

Firstly, is there is unambiguously no mandate for the Hard Brexit that the Prime Minister recently announced she will pursue. Single Market membership was not on the ballot paper in June, and exiting the EU does not require exiting the Single Market (the existence of Norway establishes this beyond all argument). What has changed since June is that the government has deliberately hitched together two decisions, which are logically and politically separate, to prevent you from voting for any Brexit without simultaneously voting for Hard Brexit.

As an analogy, imagine a group of stranded holidaymakers in a cottage in the Dales. They hold a vote on whether to leave the house the next morning, or stay and await rescue. They vote to leave. That night, one of their party digs a deep trench outside the front door. Over breakfast, she insists that the decision to leave must be honoured, which in practice means hurling themselves into her pit (an outcome she desires, for reasons we need not discuss). Are they obliged to do so? And if they choose, after all, to remain indoors, whose fault is that the previous agreement has been broken?

I ask you to resist the government’s strong-arm tactics. If your preference is to approve the triggering of Article 50 on condition that the UK retains Single Market membership, and if you are not afforded that option by the government, then your vote against Article 50 it is a simple a consequence of this unreasonable governmental behaviour.

For my second argument, we return to the cottage. Suppose again that the group votes one evening that they will leave the next day. But when they wake up, they see a terrifying monster prowling around the garden. Given their previous decision to leave, are they democratically compelled to go out and face it? Or should they reconsider their plan in the light of this unforeseen and unwelcome development?

The referendum was held during the US presidency of Barack Obama. But Brexit would take place during that of, well, a terrifying monster. Some argue that Trump’s positive attitude to Brexit should encourage us to believe the UK will get a good and speedy deal from the US. Even by today’s dismal standards, that is a staggeringly irresponsible argument. Trump is, among other things, an avowed protectionist who will put “America First”, vows to “Buy American, Hire American”, and threatens trade war with China. There could be no more dangerous time to leave the EU.

Donald Trump is no minor detail, or confected excuse for ignoring an advisory referendum. He represents a historic and global political sea-change. Is it sensible to plough on regardless with plans made in the pre-Trump era? No. We must pause, and reconsider the new world in which we now, unfortunately, live. (As an aside, I strongly believe that, had the referendum been held during Trump’s Presidency, Remain would have won comfortably. I encourage you to perform the same thought-experiment.)

If Brexit was risky before, it is recklessly dangerous now. The UK’s international standing, already injured by the referendum result, will be further damaged as we split the European bloc at a crucial moment, and abase ourselves before Trump. Leaving the EU will mean, sooner or later, a new trade deal with the USA. You can be certain that this deal will comprise a list of horrors to anyone on the political left/centre.

For these reasons, and others, I urge you to oppose the triggering of Article 50, at least subject to a second vote at the end of the negotiation (either in Parliament or in a Referendum) which offers Remaining in the EU as an option.

I offer one final thought. If, having considered all the arguments, you are still undecided how to proceed, then the default option must surely be to act in what you believe to be the national interest. I further suggest that this clearly means opposing Article 50.

Yours faithfully,

[Dr Richard Elwes]