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AC GRAYLING: ‘Now we know the facts we must get a People’s Vote’

The March for the People's Vote. Photo: PA Images. - Credit: PA Images

Two years on from the referendum, what do we now know about Brexit? Professor AC GRAYLING explores the facts and reveals what must happen to stop the UK crashing out of the EU.

Last Saturday, two years to the day after the EU referendum of 2016, more than 100,000 people marched in London demanding a People’s Vote on Brexit.

Every demonstration on Brexit has been bigger than the last, reflecting the growing opposition and concern in the country. The government has no plan, no roadmap, only worrying estimates of what even in the best case could happen. All we know for certain is that if a Brexit were to happen, it would seriously impair the economy – and that means impairing human lives and hopes – and it would take away rights and opportunities that we who have long lived as EU citizens have enjoyed.

When you put together the elements of the unfolding disaster that is Brexit, you gasp at the fact that the Brexiters in Westminster are still pushing it. What on earth can they be thinking other than about personal financial gain or political advantage, or both, that will accrue to them individually? Because when you put those elements together, you cannot believe that a rational country would be engaging in this madness.

Let’s consider these elements, noting that under each of these headings there is a cluster of subheadings of great seriousness: the economy, the state of politics, the risks to national security, Northern Ireland, the highly questionable nature of the 2016 referendum, the intentions of the leaders of Brexit, the damage to the social fabric, and the treatment of fellow EU citizens who live in and contribute to the UK.

The economy

Start with the fact that British Aerospace, Pfizer, Nissan, Honda, BMW and a number of major banks in the City of London, together with many other companies, have already begun making plans to leave the UK. Leaving or merely reducing their presence in the UK means hundreds of thousands of jobs lost. Each job represents an unemployed person on welfare, a family without a breadwinner, increased poverty, yet more resentment to add to the attrition of our social fabric caused by years of futile austerity. A blow to the economy of this magnitude means a big drop in tax revenues, which in turn means less for the NHS, for state education, for welfare provision, for protection of consumer and employee rights, for the environment, for infrastructure, and for security and defence.

Inward investment to the UK has dropped by a massive 90%. Japan has told the UK in clear language that as a major investor in the UK, it is angry about the betrayal of trust that underwrote their being so, and that a non-EU UK will not be a place for it to do business. It says out loud what most of the rest of the world already thinks.

Business is at last saying publicly what it has been saying privately to government ever since the referendum in 2016. Remember that business, for very good reasons, voted over 85% to stay in the EU. The highly sensitive, highly multiple supply chains, the constant traversing of many currently-frictionless borders of parts and goods, the thousands of freight movements every hour, are all at serious risk. Many medium and small businesses face failure as a consequence. Big multinationals have plenty of footholds in other economies, and will leave; it is British business’ lifeblood that will be strangled.

The City of London is a world financial centre and more than one in every £10 of UK GDP is earned by it. Already major financial services companies are relocating, Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin being the big winners. We are giving away huge quantities of wealth for a ridiculous ideological fantasy.

And let us remember where the UK was economically when it joined the EEC in the 1970s. It was a basket case. That was an era of strikes, three-day weeks, unburied dead, mountains of rubbish in the streets, the chancellor of the exchequer going cap-in-hand to the IMF to borrow money, huge inflation. The country was bankrupt, the economy in no shape to recover by itself. Where was the UK economically on June 23, 2016? It was fifth-largest in the world. Where is it now? Sliding rapidly, and forecast to be tenth. As an offshore isolated small island economy, tenth is optimistic.

Government and politics

The cracks and fissures in the two biggest political parties, Conservative and Labour, have come out into the open over the Withdrawal Bill. In Labour 90 MPs defied the party whip in the ‘meaningful vote’ matter. In the Conservatives 20 MPs threatened to do so, but were bought off, and as is usual in that party, ‘loyalty to party’ trumped the country’s interests and a feeble collapse of the ‘rebellion’ occurred. As has been well said, in the Conservative Party Europhiles always compromise for the sake of party unity, Eurosceptics never compromise. And therefore, so far, they always win.

But the mantra of party loyalty in the Conservatives is under severe strain. Party discipline is so rigid that when it breaks, and a break is imminent given the stakes, it will be fatal. Indeed the Conservative party is a Frankenstein monster stitched together from two completely different parties, and its internal warfare has held our country to ransom for decades. ‘Party unity’ is the one magic phrase that has stopped those stitches from bursting so far. But there is enough decency among some Tory MPs that the stench of putrescence from that unhealable wound will soon make them act: we saw the first glimmerings of that this month.

In Labour there is a choice of two probabilities. Note: probabilities, not mere possibilities. One is that the prospects are fairly good for the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour youth eventually to force some sense into the ideological heads of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Seumas Milne. If Corbyn has any sense of honesty, having promised his party that it would make the running in deciding policy matters, the fact that 80% of his party are anti-Brexit must eventually filter through. It is astonishing that it has not done this so far. He and his leadership group have an extremely simple option: they can promise a People’s Vote. They need change nothing else, just that. On that promise alone they could bring down the government, sweep it away at an election, and the people of the UK will have a chance to say what they think now that many more facts and realities are available to them.

The alternative probability is that the party will split. There are too many sensible Labour MPs for them to be held permanently to the suicidal route chosen by the leadership: suicidal for the party, because dissatisfaction with Corbyn’s doctrinaire and wooden pro-Brexit line is high; and suicidal for the country if Corbyn continues to support the Tory government in creating a Brexit disaster for the country.

The weakness and internal splits in the largest political parties reflect the parlous state of the country in general. But consider what it means for the behaviour of Parliament as putatively the sovereign institution of our country. Instead of being a place of rational discourse, of sober weighing of the risks and dangers posed by Brexit, it is a poisonous arena of party politics merely – and not of the usual kind, between one party and another, but in almost all cases it is internally politicking in each of the parties, fighting with themselves, struggling to preserve some semblance of unity and purpose, but in fact a profoundly unedifying spectacle of self-regardingness and failure to act in the national interest. It is a Parliament confronted with an array of ministers of such extraordinarily low quality and incompetence that in any other country, or in this one at any other time, they would have been swept into the garbage can of history long ago.

The failure of our parliamentary democracy means that it cannot and must not survive the debacle of Brexit. Just one reform alone would ensure this: reform of the voting system. But actually, more is needed. We have an uncodified, cobbled-together constitution which allows the political order to do more or less what it wants. That is why the last five referendums in the UK have all been run on a different basis, with different franchises and different – or no – threshold requirements. Referendums are never binding in the UK because of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, except of course when it is politically convenient for a government to regard them so – as in 2016. This is a nonsense that must not be permitted again. If there are to be referendums, they have to be extremely clearly formulated as to manner and outcome: and if they involve potential major constitutional change, they have to give a voice to everyone affected, and must ensure their absolutely clear consent as indicated by a threshold or supermajority requirement.

The referendum

This last point takes us to the fact that the EU referendum of 2016 is clearly void. The Electoral Commission has found the Leave campaign guilty of overspending. There are continued allegations of illegality, fraud, and foreign interference in the referendum. Proof would void the referendum in a country which genuinely cared about fairness and electoral propriety. So far, the government and opposition have ignored these considerations completely: not a single word has been said by either main party on the matter. Yet fraud, criminality, and foreign interference in an election or referendum is extremely serious. It is unconscionable that the referendum has not yet been declared officially void.


In a world of Trump, Putin, Chinese irredentism, the rise of populism and the risk of trade war, you would think that sensible governments would seek to nurture their alliances and share their resources to care for the well-being and prosperity of their own people and their neighbours. This is a time in history when all over the world groups of nations have been combining together to follow the model of the EU, seeking unity and cooperation to enhance the economy security that underwrites everything else, from health and education to defence against crime and terrorism.

The shameful spectacle of the UK trying to leave a club but still use its facilities – yes: note this, because this is exactly what the government is cackhandedly attempting – is reflected in the shock-horror response of the tabloid press to the EU saying that if the UK leaves, it cannot be part of the security arrangements. The tabloids depict this as the EU being nasty. No, it is the EU applying its rules (which the UK helped to draw up) fairly and consistently.

But if a Brexit were to happen it would make the UK more vulnerable to crime and terrorism, and more isolated in an unstable world. The myth of the ‘special relationship’ with the US is a joke of long standing, and efforts by Theresa May and others to play on it as a Get Out of Jail Free card are risible. No mature and sensible government with a grown-up view of the world would risk leaving a partnership with neighbours.

Security and economic flourishing go hand in hand. But the cooperation between security services, sharing of information, access to the technologies of security currently shared across the EU, are all vital. Brexit puts them all at risk – and therefore puts the UK at risk; and that means each one of us getting into a tube or a bus or an aeroplane.

Northern Ireland

It is shameful how little concern is expressed in the UK about the dire threat to the peace and security of the island of Ireland from Brexit. Properly understanding the problem of the border would make the hair stand up on your head.

Just a few days before writing these words I was in Ireland and in conversation with people who had first-hand experience of the border during the Troubles and during the peace process afterwards. I was told that there are people on both sides of the nationalist-loyalist divide there who would welcome a return to trouble. In this context, trouble means deaths. At the least it means a return of the insecurity, fear, exacerbated divisions and hatreds that the Good Friday Agreement and co-membership of the EU has done a huge amount to address. Brexit casually and crudely and culpably throws this up into the air. If troubles ensue, the blood that is shed will be on the hands of the Brexiters.

EU citizens in the UK

Another shameful aspect of the Brexit process is how it has, unspeakably, treated fellow EU citizens living in the UK. They came here to live and work, many have married Brits and have children here, they have contributed to the economy and to society – they have paid taxes here for years, and now are treated like strangers. The insecurity, anxiety and fear many of them have suffered as a result is harrowing. Under the generally ill-informed and emotion-driven umbrella term of ‘immigration’ – in the case of EU citizens it is not immigration but Freedom of Movement – it is overlooked how big an input into the wealth and skills in our economy, to say nothing of the cultural contributions too, comes from our fellow EU citizens.

Perhaps the most disgusting aspect of their treatment was to have been called by May ‘pawns’ in the negotiation. And the hypocrisy of government beggars description: all EU countries have powers to control ‘immigration,’ but in the interests of economic growth successive British government did not apply those controls. So our neighbours came, and contributed: and are now being ill-treated – it is a cheat and a disgrace.

Racism, xenophobia, a split society

One of the things for which David Cameron can never be forgiven, in so foolishly calling the 2016 referendum, is unleashing some of the worst features of our society. The word ‘xenophobia’ masks the associated degree of racism involved; the true numbers of people who live in the UK but were born outside it, and what they contribute, are so distorted by relentless tabloid hostility and whipping-up of toxic sentiment, that anyone and everyone of different accent or appearance can find himself or herself the subject of abuse.

This is another disgrace, that the tabloids and Brexiter attitudes should be licensing yobbish, boorish, vile behaviour by one human being to another. Brexit divided the country by class, age, region, education attainment and earning level; it has also divided it into nationalists and internationalists, into inward-looking, defensive and outward-looking, open psychological typologies, with all the implications of what these orientations mean. That is another part of the legacy of Cameron, who made a profoundly foolish choice, and has set his country by its ears.

Never forget

Do not forget the lies and frauds of the 2016 referendum. Do not forget what the Brexiters have said publicly – listen to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speeches, if you can bear it – namely, that they want a low-tax, deregulated offshore economy where rich people like him pay hardly any tax and where therefore there is not enough money for an NHS, education service, and all the rest of the things that a civilised community pools its resources to provide for itself as a community.

The terrible lie that the 2016 referendum was ‘the will of the people’ must be loudly and emphatically rejected – for it is a simple, objective, unanswerable fact that the Leave voters of 2106 were just a fraction over one quarter, 26%, of the population of the UK: not and never ‘the people’ by a very long stretch; and that fraction will now have reduced significantly. Never forget that Brexit is not and never has been about the UK, but about a small and selfish cabal who have been working to get us out of the EU for more than 40 years, and who took every opportunity to capitalise on the foolish mistake made by Cameron.

The EU

The EU has brought peace and prosperity to Europe. Yes, it is flawed, it has difficulties – because it is a large and ambitious work in progress, an imaginative project determined to rescue Europe from its woeful history of wars, destruction, division, fascism and communism, oppression, mass murder and welterings of death and misery.

It has succeeded in creating a continent of peace and progress, forward-looking and optimistic. The UK has been part of creating it; all the member states, the UK included, have made a nuisance of themselves at times, but it is an extraordinary fact that 28 governments have over time made Europe a rich and secure shared place. It is remarkable and praiseworthy. The best things about the culture, music, art, science, travel, cuisines, languages, landscapes and histories of our Europe are a marvel, and in the last five centuries they have transformed the world. This is our shared legacy. We British are part of it, and should remain so.

In the EU – a big bloc, a big economy, a big presence on the world stage – the UK is a big country with a big influence. Outside the EU the UK is a small island nation with a diminished and ever-diminishing presence in the world. It seems extraordinary to think that we lack the statesmen and women who understand the dynamic of history, which is towards cooperation and unity, and who would therefore want to be at the forefront of that process. The ministers in our current government, timid and talentless, want to be big frogs by making the puddle around them as small as possible.

Winston Churchill was a great and passionate pro-European, and were he here today would be a leader in the EU. We need another such as he to stand up and say: ‘Enough! Stop this Brexit madness! The destiny of our country lies in Europe, with Europe, helping to lead Europe, and thereby the world.’

What should happen now?

What should happen is that a prime minister worth his or her salt should appear on television and say: ‘It has been two years since the 2016 EU referendum. Parliament should have assembled to debate the outcome of that referendum, taking note that it was advisory, that the vote had been denied to several important groups of people with a very material stake in the outcome, that only 37% of the electorate voted Leave, and that there are serious questions about fraud, deception and criminality in that referendum.

‘Parliament should have acknowledged that this was nowhere near sufficient for leaving the EU, and instead should have instructed the government to look into the reasons why a third of the electorate voted Leave, and to address those reasons – almost certainly to do with the effects of austerity, a home-grown not EU mistake. Parliament should have instructed the government to take a lead on questions about the importance of EU membership, and the true nature and significance of immigration and Freedom of Movement.

‘But parliament did not do this. Instead both parliament and government acted like frightened rabbits, treating the referendum as if it were an overwhelming and unanswerable Leave majority, and without any plans, preparations, impact studies, roadmaps, thought or discussion, proceeded to trigger the process of leaving the EU, totally unprepared.

‘This was culpably negligent. And as every fact and circumstance has since shown, leaving the EU would be extremely bad for our country, would make every problem it has worse, and would be a severe loss to our young people and to fellow EU citizens.

‘Therefore I am going to notify our EU partners that we withdraw the Article 50 (2) notice.

‘The only way out of the mess we have made is to hold a People’s Vote on whether, now that we know so much more and have seen the impacts that even the prospect of leaving the EU is having, we wish to remain in the EU or to start again the process of leaving but in a more orderly and considered way over a longer period of time.

‘Everyone affected must have a vote. And because leaving would involve a massive constitutional change and a huge readjustment, it needs to be unquestionable that this has the genuine consent of our populace, and therefore there has to be a threshold requirement. The emerging norm for this is both a majority of the popular vote and a minimum of 40% of the total enfranchised electorate. This vote will be held in six weeks’ time; and six weeks after that there will be a general election.’

That is what should happen now. The nightmare could be over by the autumn.

Semi Brexit?

There are those who are arguing for a ‘soft Brexit’. Business says they want to be in the customs union and the single market. This would certainly solve some problems – frictionless borders for trade, the Northern Ireland problem. Others talk of the ‘Norwegian Option’ and variants which include a mix-and-match of these aspects.

But any relationship with the EU short of membership is next to pointless. It is a ‘rule-taker not rule-maker’ relationship, and that is merely absurd. And these ‘soft Brexit’ options leave important questions open, among them the extent of security cooperation, freedom of movement, scientific cooperation, education, and other reciprocal relationships. In any case the hard Brexiters whose personal interests are served only by hacking the UK off the EU with an axe are violently against any form of continuing relationship or semi-relationship; some have even said such a thing would be worse than retaining full membership. In this one respect they are at least right.


Since the referendum of 2016 we have learned a lot: we have learned that millions upon millions of us in the UK wish our country to remain part of the EU. We have learned a great deal about the EU: about its huge economic benefits to out country; about the overwhelming support for it among our young people, who value the opportunities it offers; about its power as a bloc against the very different and predatory other big players in the world, namely the US and China; and against the misrepresentations and distortions of Europhobe tabloids and self-serving politicians.

We have learned that it is more democratic than the UK itself, because it has a proportional voting system, a parliament to which the European Commission (a civil service smaller than most individual civil service departments in the UK) is answerable, and its governing body of the Council of Ministers made up of elected heads of European states.

Everything the EU has done for the last 40 years has been done with the participation, the agreement, very often the leadership, of the UK. We helped build it. We want to continue to build it. We are Europeans.

Brexit should be stopped. But at very least there must be a People’s Vote, a proper and informed chance for all those affected by this matter to have their say. And that word ‘must’ is the right word.

There is no other legitimate way forward.

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