It was. But because of the Leave campaign that doesn’t work
Leavers have a fair point. Before the vote, the electorate was told the vote would be “implemented”. But Leavers fought a campaign that could not be directly operationalised. So “implemented” cannot mean “Brexit”. That is why we need a referendum on the terms. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes.
Forget all the claims that Leave lied, or broke spending limits, or that the franchise was flawed, or whatever. The case for a second referendum is based on the lack of a unified Leave programme.
Perhaps when David Cameron, the Government, Parliament set up the referendum they expected the Brexiters to have a plan – after 40 years of campaigning. Perhaps they were as surprised as I was by the emptiness of the Leave campaign.
Let’s be clear about what voters were told about the status of their vote.
The Government Leaflet
Under the heading “A once in a generation decision”, the Government leaflet sent to households in April 2016 said “The referendum on Thursday, 23 June is your chance to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union. … This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.”
Several politicians, including Keir Starmer, Labour Brexit lead, have said that they campaigned with people on the basis that the June 2016 vote would settle the question.
Leavers consistently argue that 2016 has settled the question.
So how can we still argue for a second referendum?
The Leave Campaign
There was no single programme put forward by the Leave campaign. Different prominent Leave campaigners made different arguments about what Brexit was for and what it would mean.
Boris’ programme included that we would have our cake and eat it (that there was no trade-off needed between immigration control and membership of the single market).
No doubt every Leave voter knew what they wanted from Brexit. But none knew what they would get.
That is not just the questions of emphasis in how a winning party implements its manifesto after a general election. The different Brexits on offer were fundamentally contradictory.
Global Britain is quite different from protectionist Britain. Britain open to the world has nothing in common with Britain closing its doors to immigration. Hong Kong style deregulation is fundamentally opposed to Lexit designed to protect workers.
Brexit may mean Brexit; but not all Brexits are the same.
The Government has “implemented” what voters decided
Voters decided to Leave. But they did not decide what Leave meant.
The question on the ballot paper was: “Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU?”. Voters said “Leave”.
But that is not “End of” as some Leavers say. Rather, it is “Beginning of”. We need to figure out what Brexit means, what Brexit is for, which of the UK’s problems Brexit is meant to solve.
Regrettably, the Government under Theresa May did not launch a public debate on what the point of Brexit was. Nor did it launch a debate on options for conducting Brexit, which might at least have allowed a proxy debate on purpose. But it set out a number of red lines which certainly matched Theresa May’s preferences – and which will have found favour with some but not all Leave voters.
The May Government was re-elected – just - in 2017; the Labour Party manifesto promised a Brexit almost identical in substance to that promised by the Conservatives. The Government has pursued Brexit. It will fairly soon reach an agreement with the EU (or conclude that no-deal is the best answer). We will then know what Brexit is. We might be able to retrofit what it is for, what problem it is there to solve; but I am not holding out much hope for that.
So the Government will have fulfilled the mandate that came from 2016. Given that there was no plan, 2016 was a mandate to create a plan. The government will produce what it sees as the best available Brexit.
The Final Choice: Plan v Plan
No-one takes a decision based just on an idea. Always it needs to be worked up into a plan. Only with a plan do you know what a decision really is. Car means Car – but before you handed over your money you would wish to know whether you would be getting a Bentley or a Lada.
The same people as voted on Brexit-the-idea should vote on Brexit-the-plan. For the first time, people would know what the two options (the government’s best Brexit and Remain) actually meant. That would be an informed decision.
For sure, a different Government could have chosen a different Brexit. That would have led to a different choice. Realistically, for leaving on good terms there are only two broad options: Norway/ EEA/CU; or Canada/FTA with Northern Ireland backstop.
If we Remain, Leave campaigners would be free to argue that there should later be a referendum to choose between that and some other Brexit option. Tedious but OK: democracy would not stop with a Remain victory, though I think it unlikely that they will be able to work up a credible option, any more than they could in 2016.
Perhaps one could have three options on the ballot paper. Possible, but hard to make work and unnecessary since the Government will have fulfilled the 2016 mandate by developing the best available Brexit.
Yes, voters were told that their decision in 2016 would be implemented. But a decision to “leave the EU” without explaining why or how cannot be operationalised. It needs the Government to draw up a plan for Brexit first. That plan needs to be voted on.
The mistake from 2016 was not that we had a vote on an idea. The mistake was for Conservative and Labour politicians to treat that vote as committing us to implement whatever plan would later be drawn up.
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