Brexit is a miscarriage of electoral justice: why shouldn’t we appeal?
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
The referendum result was clear but not well-founded. If it was a court case it would be considered an unsafe conviction
That's it then, is it? Acquiesce. Knuckle down. Suck it up and get on with it. The message from some (former) Remainers seems to be that it is time to make the best of a bad job. We know that leaving the EU is going to be horribly complicated, fraught and damaging to our country's interests. Nonetheless, 52% of the people who chose to vote have spoken. We have to jettison our former views, smile, and wave.
No. Or, to quote Mrs Thatcher, 'No, no, no!'. This is not a done deal - far from it. Scepticism is an appropriate response. Even if it drives some Brexiteers crazy we have to keep this fight going.
They've got a new name for us, by the way: 'Ultra Remainers'. We're an unreasonable lot, apparently. Sour. Negative. We just can't move on. Why can't we get over it, accept the referendum result and start working towards making Brexit a success? Surely that would be the patriotic thing to do?
Such are the urgings from triumphant Brexiteers. They want to move on. They want us to stop talking about the referendum, because they don't want any more scrutiny of the arguments the Leave side made in the weeks running up to June 23 last year.
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It's almost become a commonplace to note how tense and irritable some Brexiteers are. Maybe they still don't quite believe that Brexit will happen. But maybe something else is nagging away at them, too: the suppressed, not even fully acknowledged recognition that something bad happened in June last year, something harmful, something profoundly dishonest.
The referendum campaign was not just 'one of those things' we should gloss over and forget about. It was not simply 'clever politics'. It is not something that can be meekly accepted. The result was clear. But it was not a well-founded result. It was based on bogus claims and misleading or falsified evidence. If this had been a court case we would regard the outcome as an unsafe conviction. There has been a miscarriage of electoral justice. That is bad for democracy, and bad for all of us.
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This is not to reject all the claims of the Leave side. There was a case for voting for Brexit. The EU is hardly flawless. It is struggling to maintain its legitimacy and relevance. It may, possibly, be dying (although I doubt it). Pro-Europeans had failed over a number of years to make a persuasive case for our continued, enthusiastic involvement in the EU. There were certainly grounds for trying to suggest that Britain might be 'better off out'.
The problem is that these were not the arguments which held sway last year. George Osborne was right when he said that 'the spirit of Nigel Farage has taken over the Leave campaign'. Yes, this was the culmination of two decades of bad-mouthing and denigration of the European project.
But worse than that, it also represented a lethal upsurge in deceit and xenophobia. There will be no £350m a week extra for the NHS. Turkey is not about to join the EU any time soon (or perhaps ever). And no-one – especially not in those parts of the country that voted heavily for Leave – is about to take back control of anything. Of course people were free to protest and send a message, and that message must be heard. But this protest was fuelled by a package of lies. However legitimate the complaints, they will not now be met by effective action. The BBC's Nick Robinson was right to tweet last week that the government has now officially binned all the central claims made by the Leave campaign.
This matters. Cynical voters may expect politicians to be slippery and misleading. They do not expect to be offered an utterly false prospectus. Our body politic has been poisoned in this process. And the poison is still coursing through the system.
I think the more thoughtful Brexiteers realise this. But the hustle is still on. Watching Alastair Campbell leave a hapless Nigel Farage floundering on a television show sofa the other day reminded me of an idea first suggested by Simon Kuper in the Financial Times: that the champions of Brexit were like dodgy salesmen who had set up a stall peddling fake Rolexes. But when you try and take the phoney watch back to the stall the next day you find that they have already – what's the phrase? – moved on.
We should not let the dodgy Brexit salesmen (and women) move on. We must continue to hold them to account. Every day brings new evidence of how difficult Brexit will be, and what a miserable mistake it is. There will be dozens more Gibraltars over the next couple of years. Take back control?! Lose all control, more like.
I can't 'move on' from this any more than I would move on from having witnessed a crime or other wrong-doing. It's as simple and as fundamental as that. It says in the Bible: 'Be sure your sin will find you out'. As the harm inherent to Brexit becomes clear, the truth about the Leave campaign will become clear too. All Remainers, whether ultra or medium strength, will have to be ready to point this out, with force. It is not too late, nor unpatriotic, to question this process and in due course offer British voters a chance to think again.
That's for the future. For now we need to recognise, and declare, that something terrible happened in this country last summer. It cannot stand. It mustn't. It won't.
Stefan Stern is a regular contributor to The Guardian and a former FT columnist
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