ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on why now is the moment to fight for a People’s Vote.
Two years. That is half an Olympiad. The time needed to take the winning bid and turn it into foundations built, stadia emerging, infrastructure growing, ready to stage the greatest show on earth. Sticking with sport, two years was sufficient time for my team, Burnley FC, to go from the Championship to the Premier League to qualification for the Europa League. Great things can happen in two years.
Two years is long enough to ‘meet the right person’, fall in love, start a family. In fact, get on with it quickly enough, and you could be conceiving your third child by the time the two years are up.
Aged two, most children can walk, after a fashion; they can jump, with both feet leaving and landing on the ground together; climb the stairs while holding a railing; feed themselves, if messily; stack ten blocks in the shape of a tower; have a comprehensible vocabulary of around 50 words; identify a limited number of objects from pictures; they are starting to make meaningful marks with pens and pencils, even colour things in.
For most undergraduates, two years will take you two-thirds of the way to your degree. At the other end of life, two years can, for all too many, cover the onset of serious illness and the descent to death. For the average UK citizen, two years represents more than 3% of our adult life. So much can happen, for good or bad, in that time.
So, as we approach the second anniversary of the June 23 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, it seems a good time to take stock and ask the question: what exactly has been achieved in these two years since the vote?
Well, we have a new word, Brexit, which has rapidly gained near-universal, global awareness, and redefined us as a country. As brand recognition projects go, it has been remarkable.
We have a new prime minister, Theresa May, who famously (if not universally so) told us that ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, and who even more famously, and hubristically, called a general election to win a mandate for her definition of that meaning, namely leading the UK out of the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice.
As a result of said hubris, and the relative failure which followed, she succeeded in cementing as unassailable the most left-wing and Eurosceptic Labour leader in history, and both have led their parties, amid varying degrees of disquiet among MPs and members, towards Brexit come what may. Whether because of, or despite, their stance on Brexit, both are struggling to win widespread admiration for their leadership, or their ability to be prime minister. Both parties, like the country, remain divided.
On the economic front, we have gone from being the fastest growing G7 economy to the slowest. Doubtless Brexit is not the only factor, but it is a big one, and though the pound stabilised after the immediate considerable fall in value after the referendum, the net fall has been real, as has the impact on import costs, inflation and living standards. Bank of England governor Mark Carney has suggested the average household is already £900 worse off because of Brexit, even before we have left. This is dismissed by the Brextremists, notably Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith, as little more than a continuation of David Cameron’s Project Fear tactics which were rejected in the referendum.
This is something else that has happened in the past two years (perhaps unsurprising given we are now in the era of populism and Donald Trump) – a degeneration in the public debate, where anything other than full-throated support for the most extreme form of Brexit is met with messenger-shooting and whataboutery, rather than engagement on issues. Judges who seek to uphold the law are enemies of the people. MPs and peers who seek to speak truth unto power are saboteurs. Businesses who dare to spell out what is happening to their firms are traitors.
The loudest shouters have tended to hold sway on those parts of the media normally trusted to seek after objective truth and sadly the BBC’s reputation has taken a considerable hit, and the figures for its flagship Today programme a considerable fall, on account of their largely unquestioning, supine stance on Brexit and their coverage of it as a done deal, rather than an ongoing debate about a journey to an as yet unclear destination. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Rees-Mogg has replaced Nigel Farage as the BBC’s go-to voice on all things Brexit, and become a household name, all adding to the sense of Britain projecting a very odd image to the world.
Farage, meanwhile, has started to backtrack on the claims he made about the sunlit uplands that lay beyond a vote for Leave. ‘I never promised it would be a huge success,’ he said recently. Come again? David Davis is backtracking too. The Brexit Secretary promised a deal delivering ‘the exact same benefits’ as membership of the single market, the biggest of its kind in the world, and the customs union. This, he now tells us, was an aspiration, not a promise. Little wonder that he fought so hard to shield from public view government impact assessment papers which confirm what we ‘Project Fear’ people warned all along – that there is no deal open to us better than the one we have and that under all the options being considered we will be poorer. And now we learn, if the Sunday Times is right in its reporting, that in ‘no deal’ scenario planning carried out by Davis’ department, the UK would face shortages of food, fuel and medicine within a fortnight of leaving. Other reports have warned of billions of pounds being lost to the Exchequer as a result of delays to key HM Revenue and Customs projects caused by Brexit.
‘Project Fear,’ screamed Duncan Smith, the Quiet Man roaring ever more loudly as the fantasies and the unicorns are exposed. ‘Project Fear on speed’, echoed Rees-Mogg.
As I write this, I am in Belfast visiting a few old peace process negotiating stamping grounds for an Irish television documentary. My God, we got a lot done in those first two years up to and through the Good Friday Agreement. We took some very difficult questions and tried to find answers that could command widespread support: decommissioning; early release of prisoners; a new police force; new political relationships and institutions. None of them easy. All of them fraught. And none of them adequately solved by saying ‘we’ll work it out somehow’ as deadlines loomed.
Brexit gave May’s government one very big question regarding Northern Ireland: how to maintain the frictionless border, such an important part of the Good Friday Agreement and vital to the relative peace and prosperity which have followed, when the two parts of Ireland become separate political and economic entities, and the Irish border the UK’s only land border with the EU? Two years on, they are still in ‘we’ll work it out somehow’ mode. Do you know what? I don’t think they will. ‘Technology,’ they say. Go on then, show it to us. ‘A buffer zone’ suddenly comes onto the agenda, suggesting once more these people are making this all up as they go along. And, remember, if we do leave with no deal, under the World Trade Organisation rules we would have to accept, then we would have to have a hard border and all the risks to the peace process that entails. Project Fact, not Project Fear. Project Reality, not Project Fantasy.
One by one, the fantasies have fallen away… Our special relationship with the US would insulate us against any downside from leaving Europe. Well, how does that look two years on, with America First and Britain way down the list of Trump’s priorities, and high up his tariff target list? We would be able to strike trade deals before leaving, so that the gap left by departure from the single market would be filled quickly and ‘easily’ (Liam Fox’s word.) Fox has become one of the world’s most travelled men, and the deals he can show for his air miles come to… nil. ‘Virtually nil,’ – was Boris Johnson’s assessment of the financial cost of leaving. Forty billion pounds later…
As for Johnson’s promises on the extra spending for the NHS that Brexit would deliver; they were not promises, they were lies. The money is not coming, not now, not ever, and it is a scandal that these days he never gets challenged about it.
The NHS is struggling, and one of the reasons is Brexit – the smaller economy means less money for public services; the staffing crisis has been hit hard by EU nationals leaving and others deciding not to apply. Oh, and we are losing important EU institutions which were based here.
All they have left, these liars and charlatans who won for Leave is the ‘will of the people’. That is it. The country voted for it, so get on with it. Or, as the Quiet Man belched, ‘live with it, or find somewhere else to live’.
Well, no thank you very much. This is our country and those of us who have no intention of seeing it become poorer, weaker and less respected in the world intend to keep trying to take back control of its destiny.
You won the vote on June 23 2016, Mr Duncan-Smith, Mr Rees-Mogg, Mr Johnson, Mr Gove, Mr Farage, Mr Banks. But you have been losing the argument ever since. The Brexit you promised is not on offer. The claims you made for it are not materialising. The lies you told for it are being exposed.
And precisely because so much has happened that shouldn’t have, and so much has not happened when you said it would, it is time to test the will of the people again. If you are all so confident, what earthly reason can there be not to put it to the test of a People’s Vote on the final deal? Democracy is a process, not a day.
It didn’t end on June 23 2016. How can it be undemocratic to let the people have a say on the final deal, once we know what that deal actually means for our futures?
Democracy is not just about voting. It is about big decisions being tested in the public and parliamentary furnace of debate. And what is anti-democratic is to try to stop and stifle that process out of a fear – justified – that opinion is shifting, fast, against the delusions, fantasies and unicorns.
With the leadership of both main parties currently opposed to a People’s Vote, we are going to have to fight for it. Not bow down to the fatalism the government and the Brextremist media are seeking to cultivate. Show we are still here, and will not be going away any time soon. So don’t get angry. Get active.
June 23, 2016, we voted to Leave the EU. June 23, 2018, march for the People’s Vote on the final deal.
And help bring the country back together around an agenda focused on the things people really care about – jobs and living standards, health and education, crime, transport and housing – which are being pushed to one side, neglected, because of the government’s determination to deliver something it knows will do the country harm, and no longer even tries to pretend otherwise.