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We need to stand on the centre ground
26 Sep, 2019
No matter how big the frustrations

 

London4Europe Committee Member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes that we must not adopt policies or take actions that are outside our values. He argues that a referendum is the only right way to resolve Brexit, not a revocation after a general election; that demonstrations should not seek to influence the judiciary by public pressure; and that civil disobedience - even if non-violent - should be right off any agenda.

 

If we adopt behaviour that we deprecate in our opponents and rivals then they have won. Moreover, we will have been defeated by our own hands.

I do understand the frustrations that many people feel with the way things are being handled. But we have to ensure that our own behaviour is always in line with our values.

 

Liberal Democrat Party Conference Resolution

I therefore view with real concern the Liberal Democrat Party conference resolution calling for the immediate revocation of the Article 50 notice if the party forms a majority government after a pre-Brexit general election. It means that yet another institution has been radicalised by Brexit.

Sure: it is unlikely that the resolution would have a practical effect. I don't think that many are betting the house on the next election producing the first Liberal majority government since 1906. The policy for the more likely event that Liberal Democrat votes are needed by a minority government is still to back a referendum and to campaign for Remain in it. The party are also continuing to press for a referendum as the opportunity arises before a general election is called.

But even as a piece of tiresome gesture politics or electoral positioning it is damaging to the Remain cause and the country.

We all know why a general election cannot resolve Brexit: the vagaries of first past the post; voters are choosing a government in a package deal, not addressing a single policy. Few of us would regard a Johnson general election win as sufficient mandate for a No-Deal Brexit without a further referendum.

David Cameron won the 2015 election with 11m votes, 37%. Even if the Liberal Democrat vote in the election exceeded the Leave vote in the referendum (17.4m, 52%) one could not say that it was all for Remain. In the referendum, 30% of 2015 Liberal Democrat voters marked their ballot for leave. In the latest YouGov poll (September 2019), over 10% of those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2017 would vote for Brexit and 7% of those intending to vote Liberal Democrat would vote for Brexit with a deal. Who knows what in the package of Liberal Democrat election policies will have attracted voters. 

There is no prospect that Leave voters would accept revocation as a result of a general election (only 17% would see it as legitimate - YouGov snap poll). They would not feel that they had been given a fair hearing. It is a core tenet of democracy that the majority have to conduct themselves in such a way that the losers are willing to go along with majority rule. 

Leavers failed to behave in that way after 2016. In spite of having won the referendum without a plan they insisted that everyone was obliged to go along with whatever plan was later cooked up. They rejected possible compromises like Norway/ EEA. They were unable to agree amongst themselves what Brexit meant but have moved to ever more extreme forms of Brexit. 

Revocation without a prior referendum would be a way of defeating Leave voters. It would not bring the Brexit chaos to a universally much-desired stop: since Leavers would not accept the action it would just add more rancour to our divisions. Revocation without a referendum would not be a step towards healing the country. That has to begin by using a fair method to decide whether we stay in the EU and persuading millions of Leave voters to back Remain.

No-one has yet put forward even a sketch of a plan for carrying out revocation without a referendum safely in a way that both obtains Leavers' consent and conforms to the terms of the European Court of Justice judgment

Sure, Leavers have for three years been mocking the party as the "Liberal UnDemocrats" for proposing a referendum (eh? another vote by the people is undemocratic?). And it is surprisingly hard to respond to a bad argument without making bad counter-arguments. But one must take a step back and make again the case from core values.

 

The independence of the judiciary

We were all horrified by the Daily Mail headline "Enemies of the People" and even more by the failure of the government to stand up for the judiciary. We were appalled when Kwasi Karteng MP, Minister at the Business Department, reported a public belief that judges were biassed without defending the judiciary. For me one of the most shocking incidents in the whole Brexit saga was Michael Gove saying that he would look at what the "No to No-Deal" law said before deciding whether to obey it.

It is a cardinal principle of a democratic state that "Be ye never so high the law is above you". For that to work, judges have to operate free from pressure. In the words of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand "Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus" - Let justice be done, though the world perish. Judges need to confine themselves to the legal arguments presented in the courthouse, to the laws and the precedent cases.

A demonstration outside the Supreme Court is also an attempt to influence the judiciary by means other than legal arguments and is improper. It does not matter that the tone is polite. It is still about pressure, not law.

Those who wish to demonstrate in support of the rule of law should choose the right target. They should stand outside the offices of the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Business Minister and call on the occupants to commit themselves to follow the law and the judges' rulings.

 

Civil disobedience

As Brexit and Boris Johnson have torn at the fabric of the constitution - prorogation being only the most egregious case - so responses have hardened. I see increasingly in social media calls from Remainers for civil disobedience. People take as their example Extinction Rebellion or the protestors in Hong Kong. To be sure these calls are usually qualified by "non-violent". But people are talking about something different from marches, rallies and demonstrations - the normal public democratic means of showing support for a position and trying to build up a base.

We cannot claim to occupy the centre ground if we act as extremists, even if non-violently. We cannot say that our values are international co-operation if we disrupt people's lives. We cannot claim to uphold an international legal order if we are willing to contemplate breaking the law.

 

Conclusion

We need to stick to the centre ground. If we abandon it, we lose the moral basis for our case. The ends do not justify the means.  To use a somewhat heightened metaphor, we are trying to prevent a civil war, not to win one.

 

 

The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe.