Referendum 2.0

Last time on the blog I talked about why the much-vaunted ‘Article 50 Day’ would be the high-water mark for the Brexiteers. We’re now a few weeks on and I stand by that claim; the only way is down now for the Brexit crusaders. On ‘A50 Day’ the press had its predicted party and reported on much joy throughout the land as people everywhere threw of the rusty chains of European oppression, painted themselves in red, white and blue body-paint and yelling ‘Freeeeeedom’ while listening to something by Elgar. Much was made of the letter from Theresa May being delivered to Brussels while the Royal Navy geared up for the resumption of that long-postponed war with Spain. Mrs May did her usual trick of making a centre-ground, pro-European speech while simultaneously briefing about how the UK was going squeeze those nasty Europeans for everything they’ve got and, in effect, take the lightbulbs with it on the way out. 

Since then though cracks have started to appear in the Brexit dream. It’s rapidly becoming apparent that all those other European countries may, in fact, be more concerned with how any deal that’s done affects them, rather than just giving the UK everything it asks for. Already the Government has hinted that we may not, after all, be able to do away with freedom of movement straight off the bat and those pesky lawyers have pointed out that the UK will be legally bound to make good on its various treaty obligations – to the tune of ~£50 billion (that’s just under three-years’ worth of membership cost according to the Vote Leave bus figures before the referendum). To distract from these pesky facts attention was shifted to that most important of issues – what colour our passports should be. Oh yes. Two more years of this. 

Before I continue to my main topic (the second referendum), I think the whole passport thing (and the associated grumblings about the metric system) are worth commenting on. 

Increasingly it seems like the UK is going through a mid-life crisis. Those noisiest on the leave side, and the Brexiteers in the press, seem determined to take the country back to their rose-tinted view of what it was like when they were young. I’ll admit that I wasn’t alive in the 70s but, from everything you read about the decade, I don’t know why anybody would want to go back to it. I know you may be nostalgic for a blue passport but, wait just a second, there’s a whole lot of people out there who have known nothing other than the red one we have today. I know you may yearn to go back to a time when ‘Britain ruled the waves’ but, again, there’s an awful lot of us who see ourselves as British and European. The two are not mutually exclusive. Leaving the EU is a backwards enough step as it is – please let’s not make it any worse by using the process as a substitute for buying a sports car. 

There seems to be a general knee-jerk rebuke of the modern world going on in both our country and the United States but, at some point, we need to have to wake up to the reality of the world we now live in. We are now a small fish in a global economy and an open, internationalist, approach to policy is the only way to prosper in such a world. This is not ‘talking the country down’ but simply saying it as it is. The UK is 0.7% of the worlds’ population. Zero-point-seven percent. We should be doing everything we can to embrace other cultures, new technologies and the world in general but, instead, we are turning away from our closest neighbours. 

And going back to the imperial system? Seriously? I can only assume that this was a joke rather than possible policy but, as someone who works in the field of science and technology I can honestly say that’s one of the craziest suggestions I’ve ever heard. Which probably means we’ll do it. And wave a flag as we do. 

 

Anyway, back to the thought I was going to spend some time discussing: Why the Government may, in eighteen months time, be the ones calling for a new referendum on the European question. 

At first glance that may seem like a bit of a crazy suggestion. Why would the Brexiteers, having won the vote they’ve been fighting for since the dawn of time, risk it all on a second referendum? Well the short answer is they wouldn’t. No chance. 

But I’m not talking about the Brexiteers, I’m talking about Theresa May and the Conservative government. Come with me, if you will, on a brief thought experiment and try to picture what position the UK may find itself in in eighteen months’ time: 

Imagine a situation where the Government has been engaged in over a year of hard-graft political, trade and sovereignty negotiations. Over this time the UK has not got everything it wanted to get out of the discussions – far from it – and public enthusiasm for the whole Brexit idea has started to wane. The Government has been pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’ stance, which has alienated some of the more progressive ‘leavers’ and the UK economy has slowed as companies try and second guess what exactly is to come. The real-world implications of what Brexit will do to the UK economy have become clear and the deal that has been landed upon is what is generally being described as a ‘bad deal for Britain’. Coupled with this is the fact that political opposition to the process has been building, with pro-remain candidates and parties doing very well in local and by-elections.

The above situation would put Theresa May in what was essentially a no-win scenario. On one hand she could take the UK out of the EU on the terms of the ‘bad deal’, satisfying the right of her own party, but leaving the Conservative government solely to blame for the economic shocks of this deal in the 2020 General Election. In addition, she’d be faced with a second Scottish Independence referendum, which in those circumstances the SNP would likely win, and would be labelled as the Prime Minister who broke up the United Kingdom. 

If the deal were really that bad she could, of course, take the UK out of the EU without a deal at all but the political consequences would be the same, if not worse than, the above. The unthinkable alternative is that she decides that the deal isn’t good enough and endeavours to keep the UK within the EU. This would be political suicide as it would be seen as going against the ‘will of the people’ and would likely see her removed from her job by the right of the Conservative Party. 

So what can she do? Leave the EU with a bad deal and you lose. Leave the EU with no deal and you lose. Remain in the EU and you lose. Each of the three scenarios results in the Conservative Party being ‘blamed’ for something and paying for it in 2020*. The thing you have to remember here is that the number one consideration of all politicians is to remain in power. Everything else is secondary. Losing the 2020 election is, therefore, something that has to be avoided at all costs.

So what can she do? 

Answer: She can go to the country. Holding a referendum on the ‘bad deal’ versus ‘let’s just forget it all happened’ (Article 50 is revocable, remember?) effectively delegates the decision out of her hands and takes any blame away from her government. If the result of the referendum is the ‘bad deal’ then that is ‘the will of the people’ and she’s just doing what they say. If the result is ‘please forgive us, we want to stay in’ again, that is ‘the will of the people’. 

The great thing about this option is that it also resolves the Scottish question. Holding a UK-wide referendum on the deal could be a shrewd way to remove the argument for a second Scottish vote. Line 1 would be: “Everyone’s getting a vote on the proposed deal so why do you need a separate one on your own sovereignty – we can put off the independence question until after the next Holyrood elections**”. If the UK voted to stay in instead of take the ‘bad deal’ (which I think it would) then Line 2 would be: “The need for the second referendum has now gone. We’ll ask the question again in a generation’s time”. 

Theresa May absolves herself of all responsibility and saves the union at the same time! All by going to the county once again after the negotiations have been completed. 

Of course the alternative to all of this is that the Government manages to negotiate a completely spectacular deal that everyone loves and there’s no need for any of the pre-described fun and games. I personally wouldn’t bet on that outcome. 

There is one important point to take from all of this: The stickier the political situation is for the Government at the end of the negotiations the more likely it is that the Government will ask the country to decide. That is why it is so important that the argument against leaving not only persists but gets louder. The ‘Remain’ argument is clear and those arguing for it united. The ‘Leave’ camp will increasingly become fractured between those who want a ‘hard Brexit’ and those who want the type of Brexit that was promised in the referendum campaign. To state a well-worn phrase: democracy didn’t end on the 23rd June and the fight needs to continue. It is a long journey but, ultimately, one that I believe will eventually be successful. 

The next stop on this journey is the local elections on May 4th – so I hope you’re all going to vote!

 

Footnotes

*When considering the next General Election you need to remember not to just focus on the Labour / Conservative battle. Pretty much all serious political commentators think that the Labour party will do well to equal their 2015 election performance in 2020 if they keep their current leader. Any chance of a Labour majority government requires them to do significantly better than 2015 and to re-take Scotland. The thing to remember though is that the Conservatives picked up an awful lot of seats of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 and it is increasingly looking like they will lose a fair few of these back, especially in the South West and city centres. Through this mechanism the Conservative majority could quickly disappear. 

 

**I believe that if the second Scottish Independence vote is pushed back beyond the next Holyrood elections it will never happen. The SNP no longer have a majority in the Scottish Parliament as it is and a resurgent Conservative Party in Scotland, standing as unionists, will chip away a fair few of the SNP’s seats. Also, the desire for a second Independence referendum is not as strong as the SNP make out and standing on that platform – as they would be forced to do – could cost them votes. I believe the UK Government is well-aware of this and is purposefully trying to ensure that this is exactly what happens. 

 
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