David Babbs is executive director at 38 Degrees.
The Government doesn’t have a plan for Brexit yet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Waffle”. That was one of the insults hurled at David Davis last week, when he updated Parliament on the Government’s plans for Brexit. Critics, including some Conservatives, complained about a lack of substance. But, whilst Anna Soubry isn’t alone in feeling that “‘Brexit means Brexit’ has surely passed its shelf life, it’s time for some detail”, it wouldn’t have been good for Britain if Davis had tried to come up with a polished plan for Brexit on his own.
Decisions about how Brexit works will affect all of us for decades to come. Designing the best way forward is in all of our interests. But it’s hard to imagine that the best way to do this would be for a few government ministers to have hunkered down over the summer to cobble something together. That may have generated better headlines last week, but it’d have been unlikely to have generated a plan which would serve us best in the years ahead.
A majority of voters, and nearly half of 38 Degrees members, voted for the UK to leave the European Union. For many who voted Leave, their vote reflected a high level of distrust in politicians and the establishment. Davis would have been very unwise indeed to interpret such a vote as a blank cheque for politicians like him to take all subsequent decisions behind closed doors.
When I helped launch 38 Degrees, seven years ago, one of our founding assumptions was that democracy works better when more people get involved. Big decisions like what kind of Brexit will work best for the UK are far too important to leave to politicians. It looks like the public agrees with us about this. Opinion polling, paid for by 38 Degrees members, found that only one in four voters felt confidence in the Government’s ability to lead Brexit successfully.
So, whilst some may ridicule Davis for saying he wants “to build a national consensus” about Brexit, I think that’s an important aim. I also don’t think it’s unrealistic. Common ground can be found between leavers and remainers, if we are willing to look for it. Now, he needs to prove he’s committed to finding that consensus, by setting out how he’s going to enable the public to feed in their views.
38 Degrees members were as divided on the referendum as everyone else. But, despite this split, they’ve been working together to crowdsource a Brexit plan, since June. We’ve found that the public has a strong desire to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. Unlike many politicians and commentators, they’re less interested in waiting for the Government to fail, than in making Brexit work. For example, this is how Jake, a 38 Degrees member from Yorkshire, put it: “Following our vote to leave Europe, whether people voted to remain or leave is irrelevant. The die is cast, and we need to make the best of it we can.”
To date, over 250,000 people have taken part in the 38 Degrees “DIY Brexit” consultation. They’ve joined conference calls, co-edited google docs, and, between them, answered over eight million survey questions. Leavers and remainers from all walks of life have been sharing their views, and helping to draw up a set of principles and priorities for how they think Brexit should work, covering key areas such as the NHS, the economy, trade, immigration, rights, and the environment.
Even in an area as contentious as immigration, it’s been possible to have a sensible conversation, and to identify shared priorities for what any new immigration system should look like. We’ve agreed that any new measures to manage immigration should be accompanied by measures to tackle unscrupulous employment practices, which have taken advantage of immigrants, and created tensions among local workers. There’s significant consensus that Britain should welcome new arrivals with skills to contribute to our economy — those who will work in public services, like the NHS, should be welcomed — and that we should take our fair share of refugees. I was joined on one conference call by a refugee living in Manchester, a crofter from the Shetlands, a builder who’d seen his income drop since the accession of new EU states, and a Brit studying in Spain. They all had different perspectives, but we had a thoughtful conversation, and found a lot of common ground.
The 38 Degrees version of a Brexit plan isn’t finished, and it would be hypocritical for us to claim it was the perfect product. We need to take our time, and bring in a range of different voices. It will evolve further, as 38 Degrees members get feedback from their neighbours, their local MPs, experts on the left and right, and, hopefully, ministers like Davis.
Developing a “national consensus” on how Brexit should work won’t be easy. The questions are complicated. Some of the divisions between leavers and remainers run deep. The political pressure to rush to conclusions will be fierce. MPs of all stripes will need to get out of their entrenched positions, and start discussing with their constituents how Brexit could work. And Davis will need to set out how the public can, more formally, feed into his government’s thinking.
But Brexit will work best if the Government accepts that the referendum result must be the start of a genuine conversation with the public — not voters’ first and last chance to have a say. If politicians are willing to get out of their bunker and let the public into the discussion, it can be done.