The route ahead for Britain is absolutely clear, argues philosopher AC GRAYLING, the Remainer-in-Chief, in his latest diatribe against the scandal of Brexit
There is now an unstoppable, unanswerable and imperative case for a referendum on the facts of Brexit. Despite the best efforts of the UK government to conceal the damaging economic consequences that would follow a Brexit, together with other grave problems such as Ireland, Gibraltar, and the risk to the integrity of the UK itself, it is now obvious that, in comparison to the benefits of continued EU membership, Brexit is an unfolding disaster of major proportions.
If a majority of the country wish to go ahead with Brexit in full understanding of the consequences, they should confirm their view. If people have been strengthened in their Remain convictions, or have changed from a Leave stance because of all that has been learned and seen since June 2016, they have a right to say so and must have an opportunity to say so. There are no arguments against a second referendum: none. The only motive anyone could have for refusing to hold one – and the only people who are against it are the Brexiters – is very well-grounded fear of getting the wrong answer from their point of view.
Let us remember that there have been two major occasions when considered, mature and informed reflection on the June 2016 referendum should have occurred.
The first was immediately after the referendum itself. Parliament should have assembled and debated as follows: ‘This was an advisory referendum. It was expressly announced to be advisory, consultative, non-binding; the minister who introduced the Bill for the referendum said so explicitly on the floor of the House of Commons on 16 June, 2015; the record is in Hansard. So shall we take the ‘advice’ of the advisory referendum’s outcome?
‘Well, what was that outcome? Recall that we restricted the franchise for the referendum, leaving out three significant groups much affected by the referendum: 16-17-year-olds, citizens of other EU countries who bring up their families and pay their taxes here, and our own citizens who have been living abroad for a time. And recall that the referendum result was this: 37% of that restricted franchise voted to leave the EU. Is a bit more than one third of a restricted electorate enough to mandate taking the UK out of the EU? The actual votes cast on the day were 51.9% for Leave. Suppose that had been the percentage of the total restricted electorate: would even that be enough to trigger such a major constitutional change?
‘Moreover we need to ask some questions about the 37% of the restricted electorate who voted Leave. Compare them to the other 63% of the electorate who either voted Remain or who were indifferent enough regarding the status quo not to vote; both these groups had a clear idea of their position, because we have been in the EU for decades. So let us look at the motivations of the 37%, and the information they were given. First, were they all of one mind? Were all those votes genuinely ‘let us Leave’ votes, or were some of them, and perhaps quite a few, protest votes about austerity, neglect by Westminster, and other such issues? Second, were the Leave voters given accurate, reliable information on which to base their vote? Were they offered a plan, a roadmap, impact studies, assessments of consequences, reliable and deliverable promises about what they would gain from quitting the EU? Was there any interference in the campaigning for the referendum by outside parties? Was there truth, clarity, full disclosure?’
Yes: these were the questions that a mature, thoughtful and intelligent Parliament would have examined in detail, and the conclusion they reached about whether to take the advice of 37% of that restricted electorate would have been based on good grounds. Instead there was a completely thoughtless rush to the absurd claim that ‘the people have spoken’ (‘the people’ being 26% of the population) with no examination, no deliberation, no enquiry and assessment. This, when you think about it, is shocking, and clear proof that our political order is dysfunctional. Moreover the unseemly haste of the Brexiters to exploit the result in the most Machiavellian way suggests only one thing: it cloaks what is to all intents and purposes a coup against the UK and its real interests, in the interests of a claque with their own self-serving agenda. Alas! – it is two such claques, one on the far-right and one on the far-left, each wishing to trash the UK so that it can effect a recycling operation on the rubble tailored to its own dream about how things should be.
The second opportunity for an intelligent reflection on whether to go for Brexit was the general election of 2017. Theresa May called the election to get a mandate for Brexit. She said this explicitly and repeatedly. That was an acknowledgment that there was no mandate, and she wanted one. Result: she lost her majority. Now, by any standard that is a rejection of a request for a mandate. Her request for a mandate was denied. This is a doubling-down on ‘no mandate’ for Brexit, right? So why on earth is the Brexit process continuing? Why is a government that lost a general election still trying to take the country out of the EU? This is intolerable, and reinforces that view that we are being subjected to a coup.
And here is the most astounding fact of all. Parliament is the sovereign body in the state: not the government, but Parliament. Parliament alone has the authority to decide what is to be done. It has never once debated or voted on the proposition ‘that the UK should leave the EU’. It has been deliberately and systematically bypassed at every opportunity so that this explicit proposition should not be debated and voted upon.
When the Notification Bill was passed in March 2017, what was debated and voted upon was a proposition ‘to authorise the Prime Minister to inform the EU of a decision to leave the EU’. But where is that decision itself? David Davis said: the decision was implied by the referendum outcome. Well, we have seen that no such thing was implied by the referendum outcome, which gave no mandate for Brexit; and that it was explicitly denied in the general election that followed. But constitutional change cannot be made by implied or assumed decisions: the Supreme Court in the Gina Miller case heard that a decision to leave the EU had to be taken by Parliament in express terms, clearly and explicitly stated. This has never happened. Repeat: this has never happened.
Recall that there was no reason even to hold a referendum on EU membership in the first place; it was merely David Cameron’s attempt to shut up the right wing of his party to stop the vicious internal squabbling it perennially causes. In light of the farrago that has been the Brexit debacle from beginning to end, and in light of all that has become obvious in the period since June 2016, a proper referendum – properly run, with a proper franchise, a clear commitment to what will follow the result – should be held with this choice: ‘Remain in the EU’ or ‘Leave the EU’.
This is the only way to settle the issue. There is no alternative. It has to happen; it must happen. If a majority vote to Leave, that will be the end of the matter: there can be no arguing with the outcome of an informed and properly run vote. The same will apply the other way round.
This must happen. It will be criminally irresponsible for it to be denied. Every elder statesman in our country, and the overwhelming majority of informed opinion, is clamouring that Brexit is a terrible mistake. If we are to go ahead and make this mistake, let us be completely sure that it is what ‘the people’ truly want, and that they know what the consequences will be. If in those circumstances they want Brexit, it must happen. I for one will abide by the result.
Or perhaps we will save ourselves from the worst danger to befall our country since Dunkirk. What possible justification can there be for denying us a chance of that, if it is a chance that the people of the UK have right and reason to be offered?
Professor AC Grayling is a philosopher and Master of New College of the Humanities