Politicians have had more than two years to create Brexit. Now it’s time to let the people speak.
Brexit is a catastrophic mistake for both the UK and for the other member states of the EU that has been driven by forces and agendas within the UK that are difficult to decipher. If we must have Brexit, then the draft withdrawal agreement might be the best of a bad lot.
However, no one can say for certain that the draft represents what was voted for in the referendum. Now, it needs a fresh mandate from the people.
Post-Brexit analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Fund of voting patterns has made it obvious that there were many reasons why people voted to leave that had little to do with Britain’s membership of the EU per se. The Brexit campaign was a travesty where information was pitched in a way that suited campaign objectives. Tim Shipman’s excellent ‘All Out War’ details in painful detail the utter disregard for voters and especially for those more vulnerable members of society displayed by groups on both sides who had only one goal: to win.
Any manipulation of facts seemed to be fair game, so long as it served the overall campaign objective. In this regard, both main Parties have much to answer for because of their constant struggle for power and their sheer lack of clarity. The book paints a picture of politicians, lobbyists and well-monied campaign groups plotting to find new and better ways to outfox opponents. There is little evidence of any particular concern for the ordinary person, except perhaps, as campaign fodder.
The Brexit referendum is an example of what the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution refers to as a referendum used by Government for an ad-hoc purpose that is now made horribly manifest. At all turns, the campaign was run with little regard for real facts, instead playing on easily promoted negative images of migrants and of Europe itself. There was also the rehtoric of ploughing imaginary money into our cash-strapped NHS in a scramble for votes.
The current batch of rejections and bluster does little to facilitate discussion or further understanding of the draft agreement and, worryingly, suggests that little has changed amongst politicos. Instead, the narrative is as negative as it was for the campaign.
Does this mean that a second referendum on the actual draft withdrawal agreement should not be held? The Prime Minister has insisted that to do so would be a betrayal of the people who voted. One can well understand why a prime minister would not wish to re-hash the issue in a referendum for a second time, particularly one as divisive as this.
Certainly, if it were managed in the same way as the first Brexit referendum, it would likely prove very destructive and dominated just as it was by powerful lobbying groups with dubious information. Helpfully, though, this time around the Institute for Government has published ‘explainers’ of the deal that go a long way to making the terms of the draft agreement accessible to people. And of course, people can read it for themselves.
The Select Committee on the Constitution in November 2009 began an inquiry into the role of referendums in the UK.
The committee heard from a number of experts in the field and there were some differing views on the overall scope and benefits of referendums that the committee had to take into account in its deliberations. There are some interesting observations in the committee’s recommendations.
It is worth highlighting that the drawback highlighted by the committee has to do with how referendums are used, which is different from saying that they are problematic in themselves. Crucially, the committee further observes that: "Notwithstanding our view that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums, we acknowledge arguments that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues."
It is difficult to imagine a more fundamental issue than Brexit.
The issue of a second vote on withdrawal from the EU is a question now worth considering.
Certainly, it is not something that should simply be dismissed as it has been by the Prime Minister. The real issue is whether it is possible to properly manage a referendum so that people get accurate and verifiable information this time around. Interestingly, It was reported by BBC news that Jeremy Corbyn did not support a second referendum but that it is an option for the future. That this is all the leader of the main opposition party can offer people is quite lamentable.
Currently, the DUP in Northern Ireland are steadfastly opposed to the draft withdrawal agreement, despite it being clear that most business leaders in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK now support it.
Other so-called Brexiteers primarily in England - and some even in Government - dislike the draft agreement almost as much as the DUP, and are even threatening to force a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister. It is unlikely that their arguments will be abandoned, even if the agreement is put to parliament.
In his piece for BBC news, Ben Wright argues that there is - and has been - unrest in both the Tories and in Labour over Europe. There is no reason to suppose that this unrest will cease, even after a vote in Parliament, to say nothing of the real risk of defeat that the Prime Minister faces.
There is broad agreement that a defeat would lead to a chaotic exit, no doubt blamed on European intransigence, thus further straining relationships between Britain and Europe and within the UK itself.
Mrs May is to be applauded for resolutely sticking to assurances given regarding the complete avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland. In this regard, she is arguably the best defender in the UK government for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in Northern Ireland - at least for now.
Wright suggests that Mrs May might draw on the tactic used by Prime Minister Ted Heath when Parliament voted to join the then EEC. He allowed a free vote, thus facilitating the opportunity for Labour Party MP’s to support the government. He won by a considerable majority. This strategy may or may not work for the Prime Minister now.
But, what if, in an act of ultimate democracy, the Prime Minister were to find a way to put the question to the people. After all she herself said only days ago, there were three possible outcomes: leaving the EU with the withdrawal agreement, a no-deal crash out and no Brexit at all.
There is no excuse for taking the view that the people do not have a role in deciding something that will so profoundly impact them.
For more than two years, politicians have worked on Brexit. It’s time for them to stop talking and actually allow those they represent have their say. The draft agreement, as we have seen above, can be explained factually and neutrally to people and it should be. Voters should be asked what they now think about a Brexit that is, at long last, written on paper.
Ultimately, the three possible outcomes identified by the Prime Minister look like the basis for a People’s Vote to me.