A Final Say by the people is the only way to break Brexit paralysis

25th March 2019

What has been missing from this entire crisis is a clear, agreed-upon process. That process includes a People’s Vote/Final Say, but that needs to be the next step, not the end point.

We are in the midst of a national crisis. Parliament has been set an impossible task of squaring the inevitable economic self-mutilation and geopolitical irrelevance that will likely characterise the post-Brexit UK, with the circle-shaped democratic will of the people. (A people whom, it has to be said, have been left behind by global economic forces, indebted by poor policy choices, punished by austerity, sidelined politically [I refer to the 2011 Alternative Vote], slurred as racists, and disengaged from a slowly integrating EU. Addressing each of those are all necessary battles — but for another day).

At hand is the paralysis in our parliamentary democracy. A product of our unwritten constitution — instead relying on Acts of Parliament, court rulings and convention — our national governance and decision-making system is meant to be an example of genius British eccentricity where common sense and the middle ground prevails with no need for formal arrangements. We could almost sort it over a pint.

But whatever illusions we had of ourselves as an island of stoic pragmatists has been shattered by reactionary populism and afactual bluster. Our careerist political representatives have spent the last 3 years making tactical political decisions optimised for keeping them in, or putting them in, power — no matter how much a Pyrrhic victory that may ultimately end up being. It has been party over country, and personal ambition over both for the Conservatives and Labour. Meanwhile, the EU has been steadfast, unified and — worst of all — entirely reasonable in indulging our nonsense.

So what’s the solution? The petition to withdraw Article 50 and cancel Brexit, which now stands at 5.3 million signatories, is an entirely understandable act of desperation aimed at a Government that is only selectively listening to “the people”. But actually doing so unilaterally would probably be undemocratic in spirit. Even though the 2016 Referendum was not legally binding, too much has happened since to simply dismiss it a week before the original deadline. Some say we would just deal with the consequences after, but ugly populism is not far away and too many people such as Jo Cox MP have already paid the price. We’ve already opened Pandora’s Box, we can’t close it so abruptly.

The solution, therefore, has to be to return to the electorate.

We were asked in 2016 the “what”. Now that the pathways through which Brexit can be implemented are known and better understood, we need to have a say on the “how”, and indeed if we still want to go ahead. This is the point on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire at which Chris Tarrant/Jeremy Clarkson asks “is that your final answer?”

There are several other good reasons for putting this back to the electorate:

  • The Referendum Act of 2015 enshrined in law that the UK was to hold a Referendum on European Union membership. It did not compel the Government to implement that result. It was only Conservative Party policy and one of their (many) electoral promises to implement the result. But political manifesto promises have been broken — by this Government and others. The commitment to implement the non-binding 2016 Referendum result is selective and arbitrary.
  • Brexiteers will want democratic legitimacy for their vision. What kind of Brexit is it really if the Vote Leave campaign struggles over the finish line with half the country feeling the process has been created to justify the advisory Referendum’s result? Possibly triggering independence campaigns in Scotland and Northern Ireland in the process? Delivering a Brexit where we — despite our diametrically opposed views on the outcome — can at least agree on a common and fair process to implement its result, should be in the interests of Brexiteers.
  • Giving the British public a Final Say is in the spirit of sovereignty that both Brexiteers and Remainers want and respect.

However, simply voting on the outcome once again is not the answer. The country needs a clear, legally-bound process to execute the will of the people — whatever that may be.

The solution is a 4-step process.

  1. Request from the EU a 6 month extension to the Article 50 deadline. A long extension is likely to be agreed to if the Government can outline the rest of this process. This will require the UK to participate in EU elections in late May which is unhelpful (both to the UK and the EU) but we are where we are.
  2. A People’s Vote/Final Say held within the next 3 months using a preferential voting method for the three options of the Negotiated Deal, No Deal or Remain. Other options exist (customs union, Norway-style deal etc) but none of these have been agreed to with the EU — they remain only pipedreams in the talking points of politicians who seem to want to have their cake and eat it. The three options stated are the only ones that the UK has full autonomy to implement.
  3. The sitting Government must be legally compelled to implement the outcome of that result — whatever it may be — by the end of the 6 month extension period. If No Deal or the Negotiated Deal are selected, then the Government can get on with planning to achieve that. If Remain is voted for, then Article 50 should be revoked.
  4. This in turn should automatically trigger a General Election by the end of 2019. Having either rejected or adopted Brexit, the electorate needs a new Government with a fresh mandate to continue the implementation of the result. If either of the Brexit options are chosen then a new Government can get on with delivering the Brexiteer vision of a plucky and enterprising UK. If the Remain option is chosen then there will necessarily be some period of rehabilitation of our economy and reputation as the prodigal son returns to the EU.

If Remain is chosen, as I hope it is, there needs to be some process for national reconciliation. We probably can’t return to how it used to be. It is clear that a 16-word question has exposed deep fault lines in our country, one which no major party right now is geared to dealing with in a plausible manner. We also need to continue the conversation on Europe and what it means to be in the EU. It is untenable that European politics in the UK is seen as a kind of second division game, where we attain 35% voter turnout to send MEPs we’ve scarcely heard of to a Brussels that we malign for our problems. If we Remain, it is clear that a new compact is needed between the British public and their representatives both in Westminster and Brussels.

Ultimately, Brexit is a question of structural national importance to the UK’s future success. It is too important to arbitrarily, and irreversibly, commit the country to a course of action based on a single advisory vote between two binary outcomes, without knowing how to get there. Now that we have better information on the pathways and consequences of Brexit, we need a process that begins with a People’s Vote/Final Say to solve this for us.

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