In his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, Douglas Adams once imagined a political system in which anyone genuinely interested in wielding power would be automatically disqualified from holding the highest office. A similar thing now pertains in relation to Brexit. The last people we should be listening to now are those who speak on this issue with great certainty, for they are only able to do so either by ignoring the complexities of Brexit or by ignoring the views of a substantial part of our country (or indeed by doing both).
The challenge we face now with Brexit is not simply with the options available to us, but with our debate about these. The options themselves have been clear for a long while and all involve trade-offs and short-comings which their strongest advocates usually fail honestly to acknowledge. Beyond this, though, public debate has become increasingly entrenched in ways that make a constructive choice between them near impossible.
On the Leave side, nuance is torn up in claims that the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit did so with a single mind on what this would then entail. This claim does not bear five minutes’ contact with footage from the endless TV debate programmes that took place in the run up to the 2016 vote in which audience members repeatedly said that they struggled to know how to vote because the future implications of their choice were so unclear.
Equally, on the Remain side, there is too much comfort taken in the idea that the 2016 referendum result can easily be discounted or over-turned – for example, if Brexit voters really can be persuaded that they were duped and didn’t know what they were voting for. Or indeed that voters in left behind communities across the UK will be reassured by promises of future help from politicians who are perceived by those voters to be taking away the one clear thing that they have just asked for.
A thought experiment might be helpful for liberal and left-leaning Remainers in relation to this. Imagine another referendum, such as that to repeal the 8th amendment in the Irish constitution which placed strong restrictions on access to abortions. Imagine winning that by a small majority (say 51.9%), and then being told in the wake of this that the result couldn’t be implemented after all because of its legal and political complexities which you, as a voter, hadn’t appreciated at the time. Or that people should be given the chance of another referendum to overturn this vote because politicians couldn’t agree on how to enact it. The outcome to this would not be a recipe for a harmonious, long-term political settlement.
Too often those who speak with great clarity for Leave or Remain do so in ways that suggest Brexit can somehow be resolved by ignoring the views of half of those who voted in the 2016 referendum. Aside from the spurious notion that the 52% who voted for Brexit represent a Borg-like hive mind, it is untenable to imagine that once the decision to leave the EU has been taken politically that the 16.1 million people who voted Remain should not be able to have any say on what Britain’s long-term post-EU membership future should look like. Similarly it is equally unrealistic, with the current state of our debate, to imagine that even if a second referendum were held and a Remain option won (say with a 51.9% majority) that this could be done without considerable damage to our collective life. To write substantial groups out of the script for our national future in this way is achieved – as we have increasingly seen – by marking them variously off as stupid, insane, traitors, or smug liberal Remoaners, and therein lies the road to deep and abiding culture wars that will poison our politics.
None of the Brexit options now available to us will be palatable with the current state of our discussion of them. In this toxic environment we are faced with the bind of merely choosing between different kinds of political and economic harm, with the prospect afterwards of deep and long-lasting grievances towards those held responsible for them. We will not move beyond this bind simply through a People’s Vote or a Citizen’s Jury (which effectively become means for politicians merely to pass the poisonous choice on to other people), but by entering a far more honest debate about Brexit and our national future.
For example, will the vision of sovereignty offered by Leave campaigners make a real difference to voters’ lives or whether it is a fleeting moment of perfection that exists only until it has to be negotiated away again through our new trade deals? Will those who voted Leave genuinely feel more empowered through the process of UK trade talks with the United States than they do with UK negotiations within the EU? Is any form of economic self-harm palatable right now for a country nearly broken by the policy of austerity, and where we urgently need to address the rising costs of health and social care?
Equally, even if there are compelling economic and strategic reasons for remaining in the EU, how do we resolve the feelings of democratic disempowerment that people feel in relation to a major trans-national body which inevitably tends towards technocracy? How can we constructively respond to the continued search for a post-imperial identity and place for Britain in ways that deal realistically with the historical sense of a divide between our country and continental Europe?
It is unfortunate that a referendum on the final Brexit options available – which should have been part of any sensible original plan for this political process – has descended into a new proxy war between Leave and Remain campaigners. If the quality of our debate improves – and we give more space to voices that are tentative and nuanced rather than those who are clear, superficial and polarising – then a second referendum might be the best way forward. Or perhaps another compromise will become clearer. Until we recognise however that our problem lies fundamentally not with politicians, the EU, fanatical Leavers or treacherous Remainers, but the state of our democratic debate about these issues, our national future looks bleak.