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How to betray the 2016 referendum
11 May, 2018

We have to blow the doors off

Brexiters’ claims that Remainers would betray the referendum result are out of date. Leavers are the real betrayers. London4Europe Committee Member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.

Method I: Don’t do Brexit

The wish amongst many Remainers that the 2016 referendum should just be set aside would indeed have been a betrayal of the largest popular vote for decades (as I have argued in a series of posts on this site). Some Remainers thought that David Cameron’s 24 June 2016 speech should have gone like this:

“Gosh, that was a lot of fun, wasn’t it? I’m really glad that so many of you joined in. (Didn’t see much of Theresa, though, now I come to think about it.) It was fascinating to see what Boris thought he should say in order to be the next Prime Minister. I have listened to all your advice, thank you. We will of course stay in the EU because that is the right thing to do. Voters’ views are obviously irrelevant – especially when most of you get the answer wrong. But it was nice of you to take the time to vote. And I hope that you enjoyed it more than deciding who should stay in the Big Brother house. Now let’s talk about my domestic policy agenda of increasing opportunities for all.”    

You can look at David Cameron’s actual 24 June 2016 resignation speech here.

Even now Theresa May has fans who think she is a political genius who is lining things up so that she is going to turn around one day and say: “tell you what, Brexit is a load of rubbish, let’s just bin the whole idea.”.

Thankfully, the Remain movement has gone forward to a new agreed strategy: the common pursuit of a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain: the People’s Vote; you can sign up here.

Method II: Do Brexit

Leavers have been betraying the referendum ever since they woke up shocked on 24 June 2016. Many thought: you were only supposed to blow the doors off. Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times sees that as a metaphor for Brexit.

Their main betrayal took the form of seeking to impose their own vision as the one true meaning of the referendum result. Theresa May has only ever wanted to do two things in politics: quit the European Convention on Human Rights and end immigration. The certainty that she could not get quitting the ECHR though Parliament has put that project on hold. But her red lines flow from her wish to end freedom of movement. Boris and the Brexit elite want a deregulatory paradise. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour Leave want socialism in one state, something outside the European social democratic mainstream.

The Government should have managed the Brexit process better. Start with two recognitions. First, that Leave had no plan. Or at least no agreed plan. They had 100 different plans, remember Michael Gove arguing for the Albanian model? That multitude of plans was worse: every Leave voter could tell themselves that the plan they favoured, which no doubt someone had supported, was the real plan.

Second, the government should have recognised how narrow the margin of victory was. That did not mean that Remain should have had a veto. That is not how votes work. But it should have led to a recognition that Leave voters would not alone create a majority for any one Brexit plan. That a consensus solution would need the support of some in both camps.

Then the government should have led a discussion of options, informed by thorough analysis. It should have set out a process where Parliament would debate the options and present the public with a choice: go with this plan, or Remain in the EU.

Fundamentally, however, one should tackle questions in the right order. Identify problems first, then work out the options for tackling them. Brexit is a solution in search of a problem that it might solve. So the Government should have worked out what the real problems were that people faced. The EU, never a salient issue in British consciousness, would hardly have figured. A mature debate on immigration would have revealed more nuanced views and led some to abandon scapegoating.

Instead, as we all know, Theresa May unilaterally set red lines and claimed them as revealed truth. Brexiters treated Remainers as the enemies of the people. The Government insisted that the people – all the people - would have no chance to review their own decision in the light of material new information. The Opposition largely followed suit.

Bonus Chapter: how not to betray the 2016 referendum

There are two parts to respecting the 2016 referendum result: process and substance.

We should recognise that the Government is right to take Brexit forward. However, there should be a referendum on the terms. The same electorate as in 2016 should answer the next question in the series: now you know what Brexit means, what do you wish to do?

The second is that we must really really listen to the 2016 vote. It came in part from those who believed that they had not been heard for years. Americans call it a “can you hear me now?” vote. Germans say “wer nicht hört muss fühlen” – he who does not listen must [be made to] feel.

We need to offer Leave voters a bigger and better change than the one they voted for. We do have to blow the doors off.

 

 

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