We’re looking backwards, when we need to be looking forwards.
The post-Brexit choice are currently presented is as Option A, and Option B. Are you backing the 52%, or the 48%? What is needed is an approach that addresses the needs and desires of the 100%, or at least tries to.
Option A is an extreme Tory Brexit, an attempt to conjure up the world of pre-1972 before Britain joined the EEC. Option B is to try to go back to before June 2016 and pretend that the referendum hasn’t happened. These two choices are the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary British politics.
Neither option will do anything to heal the wounds of the most divisive political event in living memory. Neither option actually addresses some of the underlying issues, both foreign and domestic, that have brought us to this point. It is necessary to steer a course between these two bad choices – but how?
Let’s start with what isn’t feasible.
False hope #01: Getting a really good deal from the EU
The idea that the EU will give the UK a preferential deal on the terms of leaving, or that the Prime Minister and her team will be able to screw a great deal out of Brussels is pure fantasy. Even if it weren’t for the fact that the May government is one of the most incompetent in recent times – an achievement given we’re just leaving the Cameron era – the UK has nothing in the way of bargaining chips. May has allowed non-UK EU citizens living on these shores to be treated as such for many months, presumably thinking this would provide some sort of leverage over proceedings. The realisation appears to have come of how callous and counter-productive such a tactic would be, and so the thinly veiled threat has, for now, been more thickly veiled. The letter which May wrote informing the EU of the intention to leave suggested that non-cooperation on security maters might follow from being on the receiving end of rough treatment. This cack-handed attempt at brinkmanship has already been undermined by the tabloids who have got all fired up on ship-issue rum and thoughts of Gibraltar.
The only ‘deal’ on the table is that we’re packing our bags and handing in our keys. Keeping the best bits of our relationship with Europe, whilst concurrently leaving the EU and giving up obligations like paying bills, is an impossibility. The status quo is dead, and there isn’t at rose-tinted version of it we can now inhabit. Or, put another way, anyone who says we’ll get a great deal from the Brexit negotiations is either a liar or an idiot.
False hope #02: Staying in the EU anyway
On the other hand we are definitely leaving the EU within 2 years. Triggering Article 50 confirms as much. Even if the legality of revoking that action were to be made clear, the political momentum is behind Brexit, and would take a generation to turn around, not 24 months. The desire to turn the clock back is a very understandable one – but it is as unfeasible as the desires expressed at the other end of the argument. While the relevant acts of parliament could be repealed and some Euro leaders persuaded, that would do nothing to erase the shared national memory of the referendum result. Genuine political moments are rare, but June 23rd 2016 is unquestionably one. Politics is concerned with choices in response to the prevailing realties of life, not a willing denial of them.
One possible variation is the idea of a referendum on the terms of the eventual deal: a so-called ‘ratification referendum’. Consulting and involving the people on what the future relationship with our continental neighbours will be is an excellent idea. Another referendum would be a blunt-instrument way to do that. However, it would yield one of two results. Most likely, the Tory-negotiated deal would be rubber-stamped by the British public. That’s because the second option – of rejecting the deal – would mean either:
- effectively nullifying the result of the first referendum, or
- that the government would have to go back to the negotiating table and the whole thing would drag on, or
- that the country would crash out on WTO terms.
None of these are happy scenarios.
The other way of consulting the British public would be to use the traditional method of debates in parliament, except it is partly the utter, and largely justified, contempt that people feel for Westminster politics that got us here in the first place.
So, why not seize this political moment to demand to be consulted, and bring about a new political reality that enshrines much of what people liked about the EU, while healing some of the wounds that caused people to vote Leave in the first place. Sounds too good to be true? Well here goes.
5 reasons we need a constitutional convention to draw up a Post-Brexit Blueprint
1 Northern Ireland
Most important and serious is the issue of Ireland. The Northern Irish border is the only land border between the EU and the UK. The free movement of people across that border represents the most striking illustration of how open, trusting communication between nations, especially those previously at war, is the best possible medicine. The peace process, one of the few genuine advances in the last 30 years of British politics, is in real jeopardy as a direct result of the great uncertainty brought about by the referendum result. The issue of Ireland was given almost no space at all in the run-up to the vote, and it is no surprise at all that the vote to remain in the EU was backed by 56% of the population. What to do about this very real problem needs to be the first priority of the Brexit process. It will not be straightforward and will involve dialogue between all parties concerned.
2 Scotland & devolution generally
Another national issue thrown up by Brexit is the question of Scottish independence. It is common sense that Scotland should be allowed to at least ask the question of if it should be separate from the rest of the UK. Scotland voted to remain by the huge margin of 24%. Forcing a country into radical constitutional change against its clearly expressed will is not politically viable.
Looking ahead to a possible future referendum reveals the problems that would lie ahead. Scottish Nationalists want their country to be a self-governing nation, but might end up cursing what they gained if they won a vote. Severing ties with their nearest neighbour, trading partner and currency area would be as tough a gig as Brexit will be for the whole of UK. Doubtless, Scotland would pull through eventually, but in addition to that there is the prospect of having to negotiate entry into a potentially much weaker EU.
Alternatively, if a future independence referendum went the same way as the last one, then it would have the effect of giving the Tory Brexit plans a Scottish seal of approval – whether that were the intention or not. Furthermore, the SNP might end up politically damaged as a result, which would mean even less opposition to Tory rule in the UK for even longer. If a vote to keep the union ended up strengthening the SNP that would probably yield the same result, by splitting the non-Tory vote across the county, given Labour’s past squeamishness about doing business with the SNP.
What to do then? A better way than going for independence, surely, would be for the UK to go down the route of proper federalism. Scotland would gain powers, government from Holyrood could largely run the affairs of the country while maintaining formal political and economic ties with the rest of the UK. The Northern Irish assembly could get the same treatment, potentially helping the situation there, and Wales too could get more formal powers and raised status. Finally, England would get a separate parliament, which logically should be based out of London which could help heal the North/South divide, and shift the centre of economic gravity away from the South East.
In the post-Brexit world there are no panaceas, but a move towards federalism is as close as it gets.
3 Our relationship with Europe
The UK is geographically in Europe and always will be. Geopolitics being what it is, that has permanent political and economic consequences for the UK. In short, we need a relationship with Europe. What that will be is very unclear, and is not best left to a the bunch of flag-waving ideologues currently back-seat driving the Tory party. The EU referendum didn’t specify what kind of Brexit was on the table – so now the die is cast specific options need to be put to the people at some point. As Angela Merkel pointed out, this can only happen after the divorce part of Brexit has been put through, which will easily occupy all the negotiating time available over the next two years.
At the appropriate time though, a properly convened constitutional convention could sort this question out, whilst also looking at the idea of federalism discussed earlier.
4 Our laws, rights and freedoms
Before we get to that point though, there is the issue of what to do about the laws of the land that are about to get sucked into the Brexit black hole. Much legislation on fairly routine, though important, areas of life are imported directly from the EU. (It’s worth remembering this isn’t a conspiracy, but something the country signed up to and had a democratic say in.) Once EU law ceases to apply something will need to replace it. Environmental regulation and employment law needs to be there, even if only so people know the rules of the game.
It’s the Tories who are holding the Brexit ball, and are in control of parliament, despite Theresa May’s wafer-thin, inherited majority and lack of personal mandate. Our centralised, winner-take-all system – the Westminster model – has gifted the Conservatives a once-in-a-century chance to re-write the social contract. Given May’s authoritarian instincts, the weakness of her leadership in the face of her own party’s extremists and the complete lack of effective political opposition, this re-jigging is not going to be pretty.
The government, and May in particular, needs a direct mandate for these changes and there should be a general election at the very least. The scale of the coming changes requires something rather bolder though: that same constitutional convention with a mandate to explore what a proper 21st century European country should look like.
5 Electoral reform
One positive point to come out of the referendum vote was that it did at last engage people. They came to the ballot box, because they knew their vote would have a direct impact. Some form of proportional representation needs to be put in place for elections to our political bodies to hold the attention of those whom they seek to represent. People are not stupid, and they know First Past the Post is a carve-up. Any new parliament or assembly set up in recent years – like London mayoralty – uses PR, because the alternative would be indefensible. So why is it good enough for the Westminster parliament? Only because it suits the Tories and, until recently, suited Labour too.
Whilst we’re changing the voting system, why not shift the voting age as well? 16-18 year olds are just as capable of making choices as 18-19 year olds and will be affected for longer by those choices, which is especially relevant given the decision to leave the EU. There’s also ample evidence that having early and frequent votes makes people much more likely to keep voting later in life.
A post-Brexit blueprint should be drawn up by a properly convened and legitimate constitutional convention.