“Ladies and gentlemen, the people have spoken, instructing us that their will has changed…”
Perhaps, in the months to come, a representative of the People’s Vote campaign will stand on a stage and speak something akin to the words above, declaring a victory for Remain – or perhaps there will be no stage to speak from. To quote Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dominic Cummings, we live in a “multiverse of different branches of histories.” As of yet, we don’t know if our reality is the one in which a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal will take place.
Regardless, our timeline is the one in which the question of EU membership, with its broader ponderings of internationalism and Britain’s place in the world, will be asked for many years to come. The People’s Vote campaign has successfully moved the second referendum possibility to the heart of political debate so much so that, if there is no vote, it will be thoroughly anticlimactic.
Never before have 700,000 people marched in favour of something which is not the policy of either main party. Never before has the key political debate centred on an issue with an ironclad deadline. The closest comparison would be the million-strong anti-Iraq War march which created political reverberations still being felt today. Corbyn, Sanders, Trump and so forth are still relatively new forces, all built off the back of the Iraq War’s consequences.
So, what if there’s no People’s Vote?
At least 700,000 voters will be furious, directing their anger at the Labour and Tory high command. With the Lib Dems’ consistent failure to seize the moment, a new political party may well take the spotlight. The People’s Vote campaign has the level of infrastructure one would expect in an actual election or referendum, with very deep pockets.
To think that all that will simply dissipate, the politicians and financiers returning to the seats from whence they came, is foolish, no matter what Chuka Umunna says. The past two years have been bad for the establishment parties, but the actual implementation of Brexit may be enough to push those disaffected MPs over the edge.
What would differentiate this split from the formation of the SDP is this would not be a Labour conflict alone. Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Heidi Allen, Justine Greening and Philip Lee are just some of the Tories backing a People’s Vote, alongside nearly every Lib Dem and Scottish Nationalist.
A political realignment would hit all the established parties equally and could represent the forces of hope, change and progress, emboldening the revolutionary tendencies of some MPs and reminding them of Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France. Remember, it was roughly this time a century ago that Labour emerged to break the Liberal-Tory hegemony. Has that time come again?
If so, the identities of the Labour and Conservative parties could move to the extremes. With all those pro-Europeans gone, the free-marketeers will seek to seize the Tory leadership, with Corbyn’s left-wing populism consolidating control of Labour. This is all assuming that the emotional and historical power of the two big parties won’t be enough to keep the coalition coalesced, however.
Electorally, first-past-the-post is not designed for so much competition. The Lib Dems would likely merge with any new liberal party, otherwise the hung parliaments of the 2010s will become normal – perhaps a probability even if they do merge. What’s more, a cross-party split would pick away at both Labour and Tory core voters. Therefore, a future British government may implement proportional representation across the nation.
Electoral systems may just be a fragment of how Brexit will impact democracy. Unlike the Iraq War, people voted for this and will now be realising that single-issue referendums are not the same as elections, where a dislike of the result can be registered at the ballot box every few years.
We cannot keep having EU referendums. It’s entirely possible, therefore, that representative democracy will embed itself deep in Britain, ruling out any referendum ever again. On the darker side, anti-democratic forces could fester on both left and right, pointing out how it was democracy which caused all this mess. The strongman may have his day in the UK.
The People’s Vote campaign is proof that Brexit won’t be truly ‘done’ for a very long time. If there is no vote, then its figureheads will keep campaigning for EU membership and internationalism. Britain’s national identity will remain non-existent, torn between the opposing forces of Leave and Remain, and David Cameron’s wish to end the tale of Britain and Europe will look even more naïve.
Whether our ‘branch of history’ is the one where the people vote or not, the story of Britain’s place in Europe, and indeed the world, is only just beginning.