This is the second of two posts here looking at Brexit through a democratic, rather than a political lens. In the previous post, I argued that the ‘cliff edge’ exit that is inevitable when leaving the EU is not sustainable for the EU, and that the UK would be doing everyone a favour by challenging it.
The word “crisis” is over-used in British politics, but we are undoubtedly in one now. We have a Prime Minister who is trying to force through a version of Brexit that almost nobody wants.
As David Allen Green has pointed out, this is probably the only version possible, given the PM’s red lines and the decision to trigger Article 50 in the spring of 2017. The logistics, the parliamentary arithmetic, and the timetable could barely be less favourable.
On the other hand, Teresa May’s authority, and her standing in the eyes of the public have been enhanced by the way she is handling the Brexit endgame.
While ‘the deal’ may not be a cause for national celebration, outside of the increasingly marginalised ERG circles, polling shows that her apparent determination in seeking the best-available arrangements under the circumstances is playing well with voters.
There are few options left and there seems to be little public appetite for any change of leadership at this point. For Remainers, holding another referendum now would cause as many problems as it solves.
It would be a poisonous exercise that would leave the country more divided than ever, offering a menu of cliff-edge Brexit or a years of national humiliation and rancour.
For Leavers, sailing into a sub-optimal deal which offers the prospect of medium term economic stagnation and political deadlock combined with a slightly different humiliation can barely be more attractive.
There is a way out of this mess that would allow the UK to emerge well from the current crisis, while transforming the terms on which it can leave the EU (if that’s where this proposal leads).
It will involve a few acknowledgements of past mistakes and some fairly aggressive political framing from the PM, but there is nothing here that is likely to be difficult. It is an eight (or nine) point plan.
The priority for all of this must be to heal the divisions and avoiding years (decades?) of stagnation. Making this a higher short-term focus than the question of our EU status is an important part of the spin that launches all of this.
Here’s what I believe Mrs May needs to do now;
- Admit attempting to leave the EU by referendum was crazy in the first place. It was inexcusable to decide to scrap the entirety of the UK’s trading / foreign / diplomatic / economic policies without any idea what the Plan B was, and to do so using a single 50%+1 binary vote will be something we will look back on with disbelief. The social divisions it has caused were very easy to predict — referendums of these kind make “the greatest unhappiness for the greatest number” an actual policy goal. This now needs to be acknowledged and articulated widely, and Teresa May could reasonably claim to have learned this lesson he hard way.
- Go to the EU and make the case for reforms that would make it possible to leave the EU without ‘cliff edge’ being the only option. It is a very fair criticism of the EU, and fixing this problem (see part one of this post) is actually something that is strongly in the EU’s interests. The UK would be doing the EU a favour by pressing for this and seeing it through. It should be possible to redesign he Article 50 process in a way that member states could clearly see what options are open to them on leaving. The EU has done a lot of the work that would be needed for such a redesign in the last couple of years — it would be a shame to waste it!
- Ask the EU to revoke the current Article 50 and accept the UK as a member whose status is one in which “we believe the EU needs it’s leaving mechanism to be reviewed, and once it has done so, we intend to have a participative deliberation to the highest democratic standards on the UK’s relationship with the EU which may result in the UK leaving.” We are told that the EU desperately doesn’t want the UK to leave — this would seem to be a reasonable concession to seek.
- Be clear with the public that British politicians have screwed up badly at each turn (let’s not forget that Remainers who nodded the original referendum through who bear a lot of responsibility here). Also be clear that there is a huge priority to address the causes of the social divisions that have been created by all of this. A period of orchestrated vilification aimed at David Cameron and George Osborne would be particularly appropriate at this point, and would surely come easily from Mrs May.
- The political spin that would be need at this point would be aimed at raise the public hackles on both sides towards the bad actors who have placed the UK in such a terrible situation. The “Bad Boys of Brexit”, the glib, discredited parliamentary brexiteers, the hedge fund shock-doctrinsts, and so on. This long-running dishonesty of some newspapers on this subject would also need to be challenged. The EU, with its Article 50 cliff-edge must also be challenged critically at this point. This needs to start now.
- Establish an extensive and well-resourced Citizens Jury exercise in each of the UK’s nations and regions. Make sure that these commissions can summon prominent Leaver and Remainer figures and compel them to give evidence, along with those bad actors. A Chilcot for Brexit, but done by the public.
- Follow it with a royal commission that takes the findings of the regional consultations and also invites the EU to present evidence on the outlines of deals that could be available — a menu of options.
- Present the findings to a (hopefully chastened) Parliament for a decision once points three and seven (above) have been completed satisfactorily. This would give parliament the option to leave the EU or remain within it.
- If the idea of doing this by referendum hasn’t been totally discredited by this point, then I suppose we could have one at the end of this process, though if you have to, you’ve probably not done 1–8 properly.
The biggest mistakes Remainers have made over the past few years has been their refusal to focus their criticism on the decision to do this by referendum, and then to claim that only Leave voters were unqualified to participate directly in such a decision. In reality, Remain voters were no better qualified to decide about our EU membership than Leavers were.
This proposal rectifies this mistake and it could transform the past couple of years into a positive — if painful — experience for the UK and our democracy.