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Farage is right
12 Jan, 2018

But only if it is a referendum on the terms

We should agree with Nigel Farage’s call for a referendum to shut Remainers up. If Leave won the referendum on the terms the UK would go on to Brexit. We must guard against a referendum now. And it is interesting to see who opposes him. London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg writes.

Farage’s call – right in his own terms

Well, I did not expect to write a headline like this on a blog post. But on 11 January Nigel Farage said he was close to backing a second EU referendum to end the "whinging and whining" of anti-Brexit campaigners.

He is quite right. If Leave won a referendum on the agreed terms – even by just one vote – it is hard to see on what basis Remainers could still campaign to stay in the EU. One would need to show a manifest irregularity in the referendum itself, or something would need to change dramatically and unforeseeably in the weeks after the referendum and before Brexit. We would still think Brexit was a bad idea. But the reality would be Game Over for the Remain movement.

We must show that we accept that point – because so many Leave campaigners complain that not the whole country is backing them. Farage’s method would work – if he wins.

We could of course campaign to re-enter the EU – but that would be pretty futile for a generation. Everyone would wish the argument to stop. Even Remain voters would wish to give Brexit a go if it actually happened. And the sense of national humiliation accompanying early re-entry would be too much.

We could campaign for the closest possible relationship with the EU. We should. That is politics as normal. But it would be from outside the EU.

The referendum not now but on the terms

We need to make sure that Farage’s proposal does not turn into a referendum now, which is perhaps what Arron Banks, co-founder of Vote Leave, wants when he supports Farage in order to obtain “a true Brexit”, not “a faux Brexit” which is presumably what he thinks Theresa May is delivering. The last thing we need is a re-run of 2016. At present, both main parties are still promising a have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit. We have already had a Brexit fantasy vote, a no-plan Brexit vote, an it-will-be-alright-we’re-British Brexit vote.

That was what was wrong with 2016. It is not the criticisms made by some Remainers that the franchise was defective or that the Scots voted Remain or that it was advisory and so should be set aside. Rather, what was wrong was that Leave had no plan. So 2016 provided a valid democratic mandate – but only to produce a plan. No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without a project review once there is a plan. That is why we need a referendum on the terms (Withdrawal Agreement, Transition Arrangements, Framework for Future Relations) – the honourable, democratic method of making sure that the people have the Final Say once we at last know what Brexit means.

UKIP disowns Farage

When Farage was still UKIP leader he did of course call for a second referendum – though that was in May 2016 when he thought he would lose. A 52:48 Remain victory would be “unfinished business”. He stopped believing that after the Leave victory. But now he could be said to have returned to his earlier views.

Not so UKIP, however. They have disowned Farage, calling a referendum on the terms undemocratic. I could just about buy that argument about a Parliamentary vote to overturn the referendum decision. But how can a vote by the electorate be undemocratic – when for the first time voters inclined towards Brexit would know what they were voting on?

After all, in 2012, when he still believed in civil liberties, David Davis called for a two-stage referendum (mandate and decision) albeit on the proposal to renegotiate our relationship with the EU. It is the same speech that has his famous line “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”. Nor are these thoughts recent innovations of his. In 2002, when he still believed in good government, he said “We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for.

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn reject a referendum

It is by their actions that you know them, not their words. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have said they would still vote Remain. But neither backs a referendum on the terms (the Government was quick to reject Farage’s call) – the democratic way to remain that is entirely within their gift.

So I think we should assume that they do wish to Leave the EU. It makes sense given their history. Jeremy Corbyn believes in socialism in one state – not the European model of social democracy that is readily available in the EU. Apart from her career, Theresa May has only ever been excited by two things in politics: full control of immigration; and leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. Both require Brexit.

Conclusion

We have an opportunity. We can agree with Farage that we would stop campaigning to prevent Brexit if Leave won a properly constituted and run referendum on the agreed terms of Brexit. That will win some Leavers to the idea: those who wish to heal the country, who do not wish to leave with a broken country, who are confident of their cause (which does not seem to include UKIP: a political party should be up for the fray – compare Labour’s response to Theresa May’s early election in 2017).

But Labour supporters must also recognise that Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely unhesitatingly for Brexit. If we are to have effective resistance to Brexit from the largest Opposition party either the overwhelmingly pro-Remain pro-referendum-on-the-terms Labour party members need to force their policy onto the leadership (Corbyn says he believes in party democracy…); or they need to change the leader; or they need to leave Labour and join an anti-Brexit party.