Rupert Myers is a barrister and writer.
Can it be any surprise that Sky have set up a TV news channel that doesn’t talk about Brexit? Whether you are an ardent Leaver, or a beret-sporting Remainer, there aren’t many people who can honestly claim not to be sick of an argument that has stolen precious years from a public debate that should be focused on much more pressing domestic concerns.
The discourse has been bled dry of nuance or fresh-thinking, the tribes are hunkered down in trenches from which they lob the same old predictable shells: John Bercow is a villain or a saint, the deal is salvation or ruin, and the value of our independence is either incalculable or a waste of time and money. What these tribes demand of each other is honesty and clear thinking, but they too rarely apply it to themselves. Is there a way through? One far side demands “clean Brexit” while the other cries for a second referendum, but there is every chance that both of those positions are wrong.
It brings me little pleasure to admit that there is no mandate for a second referendum. Remainers complain that the last referendum was not conducted in good faith, and they are not alone in that: from stolen data, dark money, and overspending to a myriad of falsehoods, it could not be described as democracy’s finest hour, but the misdeeds of some of the principal actors do not invalidate the experience of every man and woman who put on their shoes and went to the polling station.
Opponents have failed to persuade the millions who voted for Brexit that they were hoodwinked, and with good reason. There simply isn’t the evidence to support the idea that the referendum was won by – say – the £350m claim. The evidence shows that voters for Brexit felt alienated by a direction of travel that saw unchecked migration coincide with the stagnation of living standards. Brexiters who felt ignored were attracted to the narrative of empowerment represented by “sovereignty”. Remainers still attack the methods of the old referendum, while failing to accept that there is no queue of Brexit voters lining up to castigate the Leave campaign for misleading them. There are only hordes of increasingly impatient people who asked for something to be done, and cannot see why it is taking quite so long.
It is a favourite complaint of prominent Remainers to point out that the majority of votes cast in the last general election were for parties that explicitly rejected the notion of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. There is, they say, no mandate for crashing out of the EU without a deal. What they fail to acknowledge is that there are now two mandates for leaving the European Union – the referendum and the last general election – but absolutely no mandate for a second referendum. Remainers might want a second referendum – certainly I have yet to encounter many Brexiters who want one – but while the public has never asked for one, it has backed leaving the EU. Parliament would be running a monumental risk to try and impose a second referendum on the British public without a mandate won at the ballot box.
While there are valid arguments to say that the British people had no firm idea what Brexit would result in, they certainly didn’t expect to be asked again. The public was told explicitly that their decision would be implemented. Whatever you think of that, a second referendum forced through without a general election first would in effect be the political elite telling the public that their first answer wasn’t good enough, and that they should rethink their decision, as forced through by a parliament that steadfastly refuses to implement what the public has twice voted for. Anyone who worries about the validity of the first referendum, or the lack of a mandate for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit should stop and take a serious pause before gleefully embracing a second referendum this side of a general election. The hubris that lost Remainers the first referendum is the same flaw that sees too many of them demand a second one right now.
For Conservatives and those in the political middle ground, even those most sympathetic to remain, the prospect of five years of a Corbyn/McDonnell government, accompanied by the division and acrimony brought by a second referendum that may do nothing to actually resolve matters, should be enough to deter most people from welcoming the prospect of Labour winning a general election and putting their deal to the public. If you think that the debate is uncivilised and ill-tempered now, just wait to see what it will be like if we are forced to argue the merits of leaving the European Union all over again while our Prime Minister stays neutral in his regular interviews with Press TV and Russia Today.
For the ultra-Brexiters disappointed with the deal, there is a similarly hard truth to accept: the referendum result was close, and it wasn’t won by campaigns arguing that we crash out without a deal. There is no mandate for the imaginary “clean” Brexit, and the Remainers are right about that. If we want to avoid our politics becoming stuck in the vicious and predictable trenches in which it is currently hunkered, the next few years must reflect the closeness of the referendum result and the need to unify the country.
The sharpness, the meanness of the last few years has seen the import into British politics of some of the worst traits of American politics: it too often seems like each side feels entitled not just to their own opinions, but also to their own set of facts. For us to get back to constructive, civilised, dare I say it British political debate, there must be compromise. Ten years ago the Brexiters would have cut their left hands off for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, and in victory they should display not just magnanimity but good sense: something between total Brexit and no Brexit accords with the outcome of the referendum, and demanding more than a compromise might well see the pendulum swing back the other way.
Perhaps the only unifying outcome open to the UK now is to be dissatisfied with a Brexit that disappoints both sides. In all honesty, there were never that many rampant Europhiles who praised the merits of the European Union while we were in it, and while we might all end up feeling even more unhappy on our own as we did as part of the EU, could it really be worse than extending and entrenching our current divisions? Just as Remainers play up what a disaster Brexit will be (and who knows, given the Government won’t give us a tTeasury impact assessment, which doesn’t seem like a very good sign), so Brexiters shouldn’t be overly distressed by something that falls short of total and utter victory. Is it time for both sides to give a little? Not out of impatience or frustration, but in recognition that neither side holds all the answers, and neither team has all the best arguments?