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The Brexit nightmare could be over within five years

Participants who took part in the March for Europe in London. Photograph: PA. - Credit: DPA/PA Images

AC GRAYLING established himself as a leading thinker of the Remain campaign. He argues that the cause is not lost and that it is well worth continuing the fight.

Will the UK – or the countries of the British Isles, if the UK separates into its currently constituent parts – rejoin the European Union? The answer is an emphatic yes. The real questions are how and when?

I address the how question below, for there is indeed a way, and one that brings rejoining far closer than most people dare to believe, thus answering when also.

To the when question by itself, without the how to be described, there are alternative answers. If Scotland secedes from the United Kingdom it will rejoin the EU quickly. If we do nothing in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (or in a still united UK) but let time and events take their course, it will be a decade or more before rejoining becomes an active possibility. But if we work at rejoining, in ways to be discussed in the how part of this article, it could be as soon as the immediate aftermath of the next election. And the next election is four years away, not five; few sitting governments take the risk of waiting until the last minute for an election, but try to have it at a moment most propitious for themselves, which they typically try to arrange in the fourth year of a parliament.

I do not say ‘we could rejoin the EU in the immediate aftermath of the next election’ because I think that Labour or other opposition political parties will, if left to themselves, have so reorganised and rebooted that they will beat the Conservatives and that they will do so on a Rejoin platform. Nor do I think a new party is the answer; the current constitutional arrangements rule that out.

So neither scenario is very likely – if the opposition parties are left to themselves. For, left to themselves, the opposition parties are too likely to persist in the bad political habits that have led us to the situation we are now in: tribalism, adversarialism, the winner-takes-all parliamentary mentality of the toxic British type.

But if the opposition parties are not left to themselves, the desired scenario – namely, beating the Conservatives at the next election and seeing a reform and Rejoin agenda implemented – can indeed happen. For it to happen it will need the work I set out below.

But before getting to that explanation, we need to note and thereafter bear in mind the following facts – for facts they are: hard facts, and they are what makes rejoining the EU inevitable.

In the general election of December 2019 the number of people who voted for parties supporting Remain or at least a second referendum numbered 16.5 million. The combined figure for the Conservative Party, the Brexit Party and UKIP totalled 14.7 million.

This suggests a split of 53% Remain/ second referendum as against 47% pro-Brexit, but I suspect that the figure likely 55% or more versus 45% or less because of the Corbyn factor: that is, a number of people decided that Brexit is the lesser evil in comparison to a Corbyn-led government. Doorstep experience by canvassers and post-election enquiry bears this out.

Add to these numbers the fact that the majority for Remain increases dramatically as one goes down the age scale. Demographics alone are a powerful pro-EU factor, and therefore the current pro-EU majority in the country is set to continue increasing.

The turnout in the 2019 election was 67.3%, which on the foregoing numbers means that more than 70% of the total British electorate did not vote for the Conservatives. Because of the dramatically distorting effect of the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system the Conservative Party nevertheless ‘won’ a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons, having been in a minority of 41 in the previous parliament.

The Conservatives gained an extra 330,000 voters in 2019 as against their 2017 total. Yet in 2017 the result was a hung parliament, while in 2019 this modest number of extra voters delivered an 80-seat majority to the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats gained an extra 1.3 million votes, yet ended up with one fewer seat. Note this: a third of a million extra votes got the Conservatives an 80-seat majority, while 1.3 million extra votes got the Liberal Democrats one fewer seat.

So, on 43.6% of total votes cast the Conservatives won 54.7% of the seats in the House of Commons. This is the freak action of FPTP. It screams at us that reform of our electoral system is urgent. Until now the two ‘main’ parties – meaning, those favoured by the system – have not wished to abandon it because small swings can give them big majorities.

It can do what it likes, using the whipping system and political careerism to ensure that MPs stay loyal, making them little more than lobby fodder for the government to get its agenda through. Only when a government does not have a majority in the House of Commons, as in the period 2017-19, does parliamentary democracy begin to be effective.

Add up all these considerations and you see that the FPTP electoral system is extremely, indeed dangerously, undemocratic, giving a distorted and disproportionate reflection of voter sentiment and wishes, and delivering overweaning power to a government with a majority of seats though a minority of support – and therefore enacting policies not desired by the majority. Brexit is itself a classic case in point.

Electoral reform is unlikely to come from either of the two ‘main’ parties. If it did, and an election were held on a proportional system of representation (PR), Brexit would be stopped and Rejoin would happen in an instant.

But although there is an intimate connection between electoral (indeed constitutional) reform and rejoining the EU, there is no hope that rejoining will be achieved by first achieving electoral reform. Instead we need another and better route for both.

One final point to note: January 31, 2020, is not ‘Brexit Day’. It is the date on which the transition to Brexit begins. If Johnson agrees with the EU negotiating position that the UK should be as closely aligned as possible with the EU to make trade relations fair, the alignment being subject to European Court of Justice determinations on observance of the rules, he can get his deal before the end of 2020, and that deal will be: ‘as if in the EU but with no say’.

No doubt the ERG and Farage and his Brexit Party will be very unpleased by that. If no deal is reached and the UK crashes out into the WTO desert, the impact on the UK economy will be drastic. All those fears (“fear-mongerings” as Brexiters call them) about empty supermarkets, endless queues of lorries at Dover full of rotting food, disrupted production because of supply chain breakdowns, and the like, will be back with a vengeance.

So: now to the question of how.

With a majority of 80 for the Johnson government, parliament is dead. It is a zombie parliament, overwhelmed by Johnson-Cummings lobby fodder.

The opposition parties are powerless; the interests of the majority of people in the country are unrepresented there. A Conservative large-majority parliament is not going to act in the interests of the country but only of itself and, without doubt, its financial backers. The parliament’s debates will achieve nothing because the will of the government will override all.

Parliament is now an expensive charade. There are some excellent people in it, who will speak out, oppose, defy and argue from principle and with knowledge; but they will have scarcely any effect on what happens.

Therefore we need an alternative. We need citizens’ assemblies to form all round the country, to debate and critique what the government is doing, to articulate the interests and will of the people, to invite local MPs to be questioned, grilled and held to account, to pass resolutions, to listen to local people and to discuss with them, to disseminate facts against the tsunami of falsehood and distortion pouring from social media and the tabloid press; in short, to become the vehicles of genuine democracy.

Grassroots Remain groups around the country need to be one of the active voices in citizens assemblies, keeping the EU membership case alive and powerful. Johnson wants the word ‘Brexit’ to be dropped from public and political discourse in order to give the impression that it is over, rather than just in fact beginning.

The word was an effective tool for the Brexiters; it must now become an albatross around their necks, vigorously used by Remainers/Rejoiners as they campaign.

The Conservative FPTP ‘win’ does not make the rightful demand for a final say on any deal or no-deal, go away. A campaign for a final say, a people’s vote or referendum, must continue and grow. It is our right, and a democratic imperative in our precarious circumstances.

The principal motivation for citizens’ assemblies is the lack of democratic legitimacy of this parliament because of the electoral system. The parliament that has emerged from the 2019 general election is even more obviously and dramatically unrepresentative than parliaments usually are.

Citizens assemblies are now therefore necessary. Consider the significance of debates, of issues raised and ideas put forward, by citizens all round the country. Think of citizens’ assemblies requiring local MPs to attend and be quizzed – not merely in their ‘surgeries’ seeing a few dozen people, but having to answer to an assembly of local people. This does not happen anywhere near enough; MPs might do a few hustings meetings at election time, in which they rehearse their party manifesto and make vague promises; but the ‘town hall’ type of meeting in which politicians are held to account by local people needs to become a regular and incisive means for democracy at the grass-roots level to express itself and gain traction. And this will revive the local press, to report and inform the citizenry in the area of their assembly.

Imagine the effect this could have, the benefits of citizens’ assemblies being set up by citizens themselves around the country. Imagine the assemblies providing opposition to government moves to weaken our democracy, prevent the courts providing remedies for government misconduct, politicising the civil service, and engineering the economy to serve the interests of the rich: which we know is their agenda, because they only think of the kind of economy that favours the wealthy, not the kind of society that is for everyone.

Imagine a continuing and vociferous demand for any deal to be put to the people for final say acceptance or rejection. Imagine MPs being regularly held to account by local people.

And imagine what all this provides the basis for – namely, a major opportunity to persuade, even force, opposition parties to form a united front for the next election – not a coalition or a new party, but a one-off national-interest united endeavour to oust the Conservatives and achieve an agenda for electoral reform and for another say on EU membership. A united front of the parties, properly organised by everyone from the grassroots level to party leaderships, would win the next election on a commitment to put that reforming and democratic agenda into effect.

Johnson and Cummings would never listen to citizens’ assemblies. They will use their usual strategy of misleading on social and tabloid media to discredit them. But in fact this would play directly into the hands of the citizens’ assembly movement.

How could opposition parties ignore the demands and pressure of citizens’ assemblies? They will be a crucial part of the base for the parties’ own support. Moreover, the continued insistence on a final say provides the opposition parties with a reason to cooperate and to benefit from the fact that such an option has ever-growing majority support in the country (remember demographics!), a factor that no intelligent opposition politician could overlook even if he or she did not care about the principles at stake.

The chief purposes of a citizens’ assembly movement, therefore, are these: First, to provide a democratic forum now that parliament is a zombie institution, a mere façade for the Johnson-Cummings Downing Street; second, to continue campaigning for a final say on EU membership, which is our right and a clear and obvious democratic imperative; third, to urge a united front of opposition parties to combine properly for the next election on an agenda to reform the electoral system and hold another referendum on EU membership.

This, then, is the how. And it really could work. All the energy, commitment and dedication in the Remain movement around the country is still there, and its numbers are swelling: we must use that energy and desire, and take the awful circumstances of these last three years to get a grip on our national destiny and remake ourselves for the 21st century as a great European state.

The Brexit nightmare could be over in five years.

A footnote: The Remain cause came very close to succeeding in November 2019 – very, very close. The opposition parties made a fatal error in agreeing to a general election. They could have forced a government of national unity and held a referendum on EU membership, to get that question completely out of the way so that the country could reboot.

Johnson would have been foiled, and probably would have been the shortest serving-ever Conservative leader. The project of a national unity government was foiled by the toxin of personal and political antipathies, vanities and ambitions: no-one would accept Corbyn as temporary leader, and Corbyn would not step aside to let someone acceptable to all sides lead a temporary unity administration, thus alas putting himself before the interests of the country.

In agreeing to an election both Labour and the Liberal Democrats knew that in our absurd system a few hundred thousand changed votes could give the Conservatives an outright majority of dozens of seats – but they thought that the same weird arithmetic might just about favour them too, and they risked the entire country’s future on that gamble.

Corbyn continued to put personal ambition before the national interest, once it was clear how unpopular he was on the doorstep, by not stepping aside. He was a lead weight round the party’s neck, with policies on Europe that he and fellow Lexiters thought would retain Lexit support in the party, whereas the result was that they alienated both Remainers (the vast majority of the party) and Lexiters (a minority).

Many of us voted Labour (tactically) with gritted teeth. Because of the dithering and equivocal policy – the result of Corbyn and his group being Lexiters at odds with the bulk of the party – Labour never made a passionate, clear, explanatory case to their base about how Brexit would hurt them most.

That was a failure of moral and political leadership, a betrayal of the interests of the very people for whom the party is meant to stand. That should be a determining factor in the choice of a new leadership team.

A citizens’ assembly movement – a movement of the people, not of the parties – could, among its other benefits, induce a change in the political culture and the constitutional arrangements of our country, factors which have failed us disastrously and are no longer acceptable.

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