Introduction – breaking faith and riots
Theresa May has stood up in Parliament to insist that politicians would “break faith” (BBC News, 2018) with the public if they called for a People’s Vote. It’s a sort of dog whistle for the predictions that a People’s Vote followed by a Remain victory (should we be so lucky) would lead to public rioting, as if the whole country should be held to ransom by the whispered threat of civil unrest. It writes a narrative of political drama and public betrayal. So why, exactly, am I not following it?
The idea of public riots appears to be mentioned most loudly in news print and on radio; I haven’t heard anything of the sort mentioned by people I actually meet. But, this is almost certainly the result of my social circles, because I rarely meet someone who voted Leave (in fact, right now, I can only think of 2 people). But when the news and the radio talk of riots as a result of a public betrayed, whose view of Brexit is being betrayed?
Jeremy Hunt warned that if politicians “get out of step with where the public are on Brexit”, there may be “real social instability” (Hawker, 2018). He said this right before coming out in support of a Hard Brexit (Malnick, 2018). But, how are politicians to know what is in step with the public? They’ll have to commission a really large survey, or something.
Sky News reports that if Brexit is not delivered, or if the deal the UK leaves the EU on what appears to “somehow water the EU result down”, then there is a feeling that civil unrest and even civil war could break out (Clifford, 2018).
Essentially, it is the Hard Brexit faithful of the UK who will riot if they don’t get their way. This raises a really important question: is Remaining the only thing that will make the Hard Brexiters revolt? This is an important question, because if we believe the threats of civil unrest and wish to avoid them, it is a mistake to think that avoiding Remain will lead to success. Theresa May’s deal ― despite delivering of the result of the EU Referendum ― is also being stoked up as a betrayal, because it doesn’t leave enough of the institutions relating to the EU; a ‘Norway’ styled deal has also been shut down as a betrayal, because it keep free movement of people. The threat is actually very clear: anything except a Hard Brexit is being sold as a betrayal.
The Hard Brexit case for The People’s Vote
Is the UK Parliament, Government and House of Commons going to deliver a Hard Brexit? No. There are contingency plans for if a Hard Brexit happens because debates simply run out the clock (i.e. by accident) and these plans include mobilising the Army and stockpiling foods and medicines (The Week, 2018). This is, admittedly, contingency planning and all very sensible to have in place. But it does paint a clear picture of what a Hard Brexit will actually look like, and no Parliament could, in good conscience, permit that to happen.
What this means for the Hard Brexiters of Britain is that, if they want their Hard Brexit, they need a People’s Vote to deliver it. Parliament will not deliver it, only The People can.
The slightly facetious Hard Brexit case for The People’s Vote
I’m not writing this is wholly and sincere good faith; I don’t support a Hard Brexit. But I am writing it to point out that when Hard Brexiters claim that a People’s Vote would be a betrayal of democracy, that is a voice that hasn’t actually looked at the strategy for getting what it wants; The People’s Vote is the most likely way to deliver the Hard Brexit they want.
The People’s Vote is also exactly what leading voices for Brexit wanted: Jacob Rees Mogg, back in 2012, was very specific in calling for two votes, and the second vote would make “more sense” after the negotiations (Kentish, 2018); that sounds, very much, like what we are now calling The People’s Vote. But there are also less direct arguments for The People’s Vote, based on what other leading voices in the Brexit campaign have said: in 2002 David Davis 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” (Finnis, 2018). That is David Davis, former Brexit Secretary, advising against a Referendum that looks exactly like the EU Referendum. The simple fact that the UK Government has been negotiating is the evidence that we voted for something that was conceptually blank, and it’s all being filled in now.
Between them, these two quotes, from leading Brexit voices, make a very good case for the 2016 EU Referendum to be considered an instruction to look at various Brexit options, and once those options are clearly detailed (e.g. having a 585 page document laying the detail out), then vote on the specifics ― not just the “blank sheet of paper” the 2016 EU Referendum clearly was.
Will The People’s Vote include ‘Hard Brexit’
All that said, there is no guarantee that ‘Hard Brexit’ would be on the ballot in The People’s Vote; the Hard Brexit case for The People’s Vote does have risks associated with it.
Parliament has to agree what goes on the ballot, and as discussed above, Hard Brexit is a risk and putting it on the ballot may well be a dereliction of duty because it cannot be allowed to win. The problems with Hard Brexit are more than just people not liking it, and more than the fact that life saving drugs that people need to manage their chronic conditions (epilepsy, diabetes) might not make it onto UK shores in sufficient volume, and it’s more than Just in Time delivery being hit, affecting manufacturing and the delivery of foods and drugs with a short shelf life (including chemotherapy); Hard Brexit may actually be illegal. If Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, and the Republic remains part of the EU (which will happen), then all of the trade deals and freedom of good and services and people across that border stop; the international treaty ― ‘The Good Friday Agreement’ ― to which the UK is a signatory, says that cannot be allowed to happen.
Hard Brexit may be illegal
The Good Friday Agreement
The Hard Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is an inevitable consequence of Hard Brexit: Hard Brexit; Hard Border. This is because the Republic will be part of the EU, along with all the protections the EU has against letting in products (without tariffs) and people (without visas) from 3rd Countries. The UK would be a 3rd Country. Despite being an inevitable consequence, it is also a violation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement ― an international peace treaty.
Promises to private business
The UK has had a strong economy with political stability over many years, and this has allowed the UK to make specific demands of companies as they have wanted to set up bases in the UK. Companies have been required to set up in more deprived parts of the country and to train the citizenry in that area; companies have been asked to invest in the UK as they set up. The agreement, therefore, has been that the UK would then do nothing to intentionally disrupt or upset those businesses’ operations.
The UK cannot avoid the fact that a Hard Brexit will significantly disrupt the operations of a number of businesses: if Just in Time delivery cannot be assured by a frictionless UK/EU border, then these companies will have to completely change their operation and invest in the storage of imported parts; imports and exports will cost money and time, as declarations have to be filled in and tax forms need to be completed.
These companies can, then, petition their home countries to take the UK to court for violation of these contracts. These don’t even have to be successful court cases to be problems. One of the things that Brexit has revealed is that Parliament has a limited bandwidth, and constant court cases alongside negotiating from zero new trade deals around the world may well be beyond the bandwidth of Parliament and Government.
This is a problem with Hard Brexit that I think is under-discussed: our political institutions don’t have the bandwidth to fix everything. The UK is already facing non-Brexit related issues: austerity, homelessness, underfunding of the NHS and mental health, in-work poverty, wealth inequality and low per capita productivity (to name but a few). Coupled with a lack of trust in Civil Servants, adding Hard Brexit (any Brexit, really; but Hard Brexit as the pinnacle) to the list may simply be beyond our current systems.
The Remain case for the People’s Vote
A lot of the above can double as a Remain case for The People’s Vote: a guarantee for avoiding violations of international treaties, assured preservation of Just in Time delivery for manufacturing parts and essential medicines, Hard Brexit being so unpalatable for the country’s social and political stability. Even the simple fact there is a valid Hard Brexit case for The People’s Vote reveals the vapid dishonesty of trying to rebrand The People’s Vote as ‘the losers referendum’ (LBC, 2018) or a betrayal of democracy. But there is a Remain case to be made as well.
It’s not ‘another referendum’ or ‘the second referendum’
Dispelling myths is my preferred gear, and this myth is an important one: The People’s Vote is not re-running the 2016 EU Referendum and hoping for a different result. The 2016 EU Referendum had no defined ‘Leave’ option; it was David Davis’ dreaded ‘blank sheet of paper’. In fact, there were at least 5 options (Oliver, 2014) being seriously considered (although their names have changed). Each one bled into the next, and UK citizens were encouraged to think of Brexit unconstrained by political realities.
‘Leave’, as per the 2016 EU Referendum, was whatever a disgruntled, disenfranchised, optimistic or adventurous voter wanted it to be, and every view had a politician offering credibility. Now, ‘Leave’ has real details and two clear options: The May Deal and Hard Brexit. This is completely different.
No support for The May Deal
The May Deal is Brexit. It achieves an end to free movement of people, which is patently what a large percentage of Brexiters wanted (Deltapoll, 2018). It also looks a lot like the Soft Brexit analysts were saying Brexit would look like since before the campaigns, and it is even the Brexit you could figure out if you played through the economic impacts and interests. But it also has a backstop, which carves Northern Ireland off from the UK ― temporarily ― and economically runs Northern Ireland as an EU member state (unless something else can be figured out ― which it can’t). It also stays closely aligned with EU regulation and remains under the ultimate jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Brexiters can’t really support this. It does deliver Brexit ― which is to say that it is a valid interpretation of ‘Leave’, but it is very much against the spirit that has been whipped up.
Equally, Remainers can’t support The May Deal because it forfeits our special position inside the EU. Although the narrative that drove the Leave campaign was one of the UK having laws and bureaucracy thrust upon them against their Will, the fact is that the UK wrote, voted for and passed up opportunities to veto what we now think of as the EU’s ideas (Faull, Ludlow and Warlouzet, 2018; Bristol For Europe, 2018). The UK Parliament has always been sovereign, and the UK has always held a veto over the EU. The UK will lose that sovereignty over the EU under The May Deal. The UK has never had to submit to the EU, but it will under The May Deal.
My EU identity
I was born an EU citizen and have been an EU citizen ever since. To me, this is an ephemeral feeling that I belong to the liberal European culture. To others, it is more immediately real: to the UK national living and working in their spouse’ home country, there has not been a conflict between their British nationality and their EU citizenship ― until now; members of the military have fallen in love abroad and now find their UK citizenship is what makes their partners’ future uncertain.
It isn’t just UK business that has entwined deeply with the continent; countless UK citizens’ lives and relationships are a part of the EU project, and about to be torn asunder.
There is an important question raised in all this about the limitations of a democracy. Democracies can and should be limited: The US Constitution is a limit to democratic power. And the limit the UK has to worry about now is this: can a democracy allow a democratic decision to remove rights from its own citizens? That seems to be a violation of a liberal democracy; a violation of a parliamentary democracy, where each parliamentarian is meant to argue for the interests of their constituents; and it looks like a dereliction of duty to simply let it happen by default.
Britishness is the EU
When teaching ‘Britishness’ to an international cohort, I was quickly dealt a series of thought-provoking rebukes. The idea of teaching ‘Britishness’ is a pseudo-philosophical discussion around tolerance, respect, multiculturalism and culture, with a political and social anchor. We had to, for example, discuss why it was important for the UK to have protected classes and hate crime legislation.
But, the students I was teaching took umbrance with this: there is nothing uniquely British about tolerance, respect or cooperation. The EU project is built on these things, and the students from the EU were acutely aware of this (in 2013/14). Our conversation moved on: we looked at how the values this syllabus has tried to keep for itself are actually written into EU Directives and Legislation.
Fisheries Policies and Common Agricultural Policy are written on a Hobbesian ‘veil of ignorance’ to use cooperation as a way to get around Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons.
Students from China and the former Soviet countries also made an inspiring contribution about the urgency of liberal government and international cooperation.
Remaining is better than any described Brexit plan
Brexit is like a religion in many ways, including the outright espousal of demands for faith that it has encouraged: calls to simply believe that unspecified technology can make a border in Ireland that is both frictionless and enforces trade agreements and visas is a paradoxical nonsense, a square that we are being demanded to recognise as a circle; if people just believed in Britain, then Britain would suddenly have an economy impressive enough to make trade deals on par with the deals it already enjoys within the EU. Brexit has also make calls for the UK to commit acts of self-sacrifice while simultaneously saying the UK will be better off, the kind of paradox normally reserved for monotheism; it somehow demands the UK will be better off after a Hard Brexit while also stating it will take no less than 50 years for the UK to recover. I’ll be retired in 50 years (aged 79) and most Brexit voters will be long dead, never to see the “fruits” of their sacrifices.
But, like a religion, Brexit doesn’t just have its fundamentalists demanding belief in the unbelievable and the truth of the ridiculous or patently false. It also has its moderates, lesser forms of the disjointed thinking. And these people have made the mistake of putting pen to paper.
While nothing was written down, Brexit apologists could flit between either throng of a paradox while tacitly ignoring the other throng that contradicted them entirely: “Solving the Ireland border will be easy”, when talking with someone concerned with economic prosperity and peace in Ireland, but “we cannot be expected to solve the border before we are free!” when talking to anyone proposing a version of Brexit that has a backstop. But writing it down collapses the wave-function* ― it has to be a particle or a wave; the Irish backstop either has to be easy or an unacceptable barrier, it can no longer be both.
And this is how it is with Brexit: actually write it down and no one is happy with it. No version of Brexit is actually better than Remaining, and any written down version of Brexit immediately divides the ‘Leave’ vote. ‘Leave’ is a broad church, so when it comes to a policy decision, it is a divided Church.
*if you’re a ‘Copenhagen-interpretation-of-quantum-mechanics’ kind of a person.
There isn’t a Brexit option with a majority
On LBC (a talk radio station in the UK) you can listen to ‘Leave’ voters call in to make two incompatible complaints about the idea of The People’s Vote: you can’t squash all ‘Leave’ voters into one option; you can’t split ‘Leave’ voters across two options. These Leavers are worried that if The People’s Vote is between Remain and The May Deal, there are Brexiters who would vote ‘Remain’ as they have already been sold the idea that The May Deal is worse than Remaining. Equally, between Remain and No Deal, a lot of the Leave camp is confident that No Deal doesn’t have the support either, and people who wanted a Soft Brexit ― if they turn up to vote at all ― will vote Remain.
Implicitly, this is the admission that no one Brexit option has a majority behind it, but only one Brexit option can happen. It’s an admission that any specific Brexit would fail The People’s Vote. It’s unavoidably the confession that Remain would have won the 2016 EU Referendum, if at least two option (‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Brexit) ― but more like five (‘Canada’, ‘Norway’, Schengen, ‘Single Market Membership’ and ‘Hard Brexit’) ― completely different options weren’t all masquerading under the same name.
For the protection of democracy
Outside of both Remain and Hard Brexit camps, there is a non-partisan case for a second referendum. And that case is based around the assertion that the 2016 EU Referendum itself was an affront to democracy. If that premise can be defended, then the 2016 EU Referendum doesn’t given anyone a mandate to anyone for anything. The best that can be salvaged is that it highlighted in interest that we have now spent 30 months looking into, but before any action can happen, there needs to be a referendum that isn’t an affront to democracy.
Many hidden options
Already alluded to in this post, the ill-defined amorphous idea of Brexit is a significant problem. From a rhetorical or campaign point of view, the ‘anything could be Brexit’ approach to definitions was a real strength: Brexit meant both staying in the Single Market and Leaving it; Brexit didn’t mean putting an end to Freedom of Movement, except to the people that it did meant that to; no one was talking about Hard Brexit, unless they were talking to someone who might want that; the UK would set up free trade with other countries, unless it wanted to be a moral beacon to the world and use tariffs to go on a post-colonial moralising crusade; the UK isn’t going to enter a free market race to the bottom with America, unless that’s what you want. All of this, with all its contradictions, was just given one option.
This is why there is such a problem now. The people who all thought they were on the same Brexit boat now see that their actual faction is vanishingly small.
By consolidating the completely different views under the same piece of rhetoric, they rigged the referendum.
Misleading, mistaken, misunderstood and outright wrong
During the campaigns, complete fictions popped up for the British electorate to celebrate, fear or be comforted by: “A free-trade deal with the EU will be ‘the easiest thing in human history’”; “Turkey is going to join the EU and millions of people will flock to the UK”; “Brexit does not mean the UK will leave the single market”.
The Remain side also made noises about breaking up the union, which people are calling a lie (although ― need I remind you of the Northern Ireland border problem or Nicola Sturgeon). But, for balance, let’s say its true that both sides lied equally. That’s worse: the idea that one side lied taints democracy; the idea that both sides lied a lot completely corrupts it.
We need to challenge the lies to protect democracy.
We simply know more now
There’s an extent to which I do hesitate to accuse politicians and campaigners of dishonesty. There is a genuine sense in which Brexit is unprecedented, and some people may have just let their optimism get away from them and accidentally talk about all their hopes as possibilities and facts. This is reckless and politicians should make sure they are better informed instead of shooting from the hip. But it’s human and it can be a real sincere mistake.
But the electorate simply knows more now. People who only listened to the campaigns were under-informed. But now the electorate have seen the movement in the GBP (£1 = 1.11€ at time of writing; at the end of 2015, £1 = 1.42€). Companies are looking at moving out of the UK. The promise of funding the NHS isn’t going to come from some Brexit dividend. Trade-deals are not easy to negotiate.
It has been a 30 month learning curve for a lot of people, and all of that is for nothing if the UK electorate isn’t allowed to change its mind.
Put simply, if the 2016 EU Referendum had been a binding Referendum, instead of an advisory one, the result would be invalid, given spending irregularity. There are some small spending issues that people have been fined for on both sides, but it is demonstrably worse on the Leave side. But, worse than that, is Aaron Banks and his donation from unknown sources. It’s not just a refusal to declare there the money is from, it is outright lying about where the money is from.
A democratic vote that was won by violating Electoral Commission law is not a democratic decision that should be taken seriously.
Both Remainers and Hard Brexiters have vested interests in The People’s Vote: Parliament itself is gridlocked and the most likely way for either to achieve its way is by breaking the gridlock with The People’s Vote. Short of this, The May Deal is inevitable. In fact, The May Deal has been approximately the only deal on the table since before the campaigns.
It is more of a gamble for the Hard Brexiters, because there is a significant chance that Parliament will reject motions to include Hard Brexit on a ballot because of how reckless it is. The other gamble for Hard Brexit ― well, both sides really ― the possibility of losing.
However, both of these risks are inherent risks in British democracy. Parliamentarians are allowed to act maternal/fraternal to a population and protect it from its worst impulses or the things the electorate cannot be expected to understand at large. That’s not patronising: politics is their job, we have other jobs; they’re not great at our jobs, so leave them to theirs. And it wouldn’t be a democracy if there was no risk of losing.
The real risk to Hard Brexit in The People’s Vote is either squashing or splitting the vote. However, that’s a symptom of the 2016 EU Referendum having been constructed badly, to the advantage of ‘Leave’ by mopping up disparate and incompatible options all under the same tick box. It would, therefore, be respecting democracy to run The People’s Vote, not over turning it.
Democracy is worth getting right.
Clifford, M. (2018) Sky Views: Will there be civil war if Brexit isn’t delivered? Available from: https://news.sky.com/story/sky-views-will-there-be-civil-war-if-brexit-isnt-delivered-10716408 [Accessed 17 December 2018].
Faull, J., Ludlow, P. and Warlouzet, L. (2018) British influence in Brussels had been far greater than recognised. Available from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2018/07/09/british-influence-in-brussels-had-been-far-greater-than-recognised/ [Accessed 30 December 2018].
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Hawker, L. (2018) BREXIT WARNING: Hunt fears France-style ‘yellow vest’ RIOTS in UK if Brexit not delivered. Available from: https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1059371/brexit-news-jeremy-hunt-yellow-vest-french-protests-macron-may [Accessed 17 December 2018].
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Malnick, E. (2018) Jeremy Hunt: UK will ‘flourish and prosper’ if it walks away from the EU without a deal [online]. The Daily Telegraph 15 December. . Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/12/15/jeremy-hunt-uk-will-flourish-prosper-walks-away-eu-without-deal/ [Accessed 17 December 2018].
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