Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor and senior research fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. He has also written extensively on conservatism and the Conservative Party.
We are in a bit of a mess. It’s what comes of trying to carry out a major piece of constitutional surgery with a blunt knife in double quick time.
The reason for the Brexit fiasco is the referendum, in which the mendacious Project Fear competed with mendacious claims advertised on buses. Mendacity certainly won, but mendacity lost too – so the poor campaign isn’t the problem. Rather, it is because a referendum is no way to make complex decisions.
As I argued here last year, we cannot claim that the referendum provided a mandate for anything. The decision to leave was pretty clear, but fatally provided no mechanism for telling us what leaving meant, nor by whom the decision was to be implemented. The end was willed without the means.
The most galling of the many galling statements made during and after the campaign was a slogan of Nigel Farage’s: “This is democracy!” as if direct democracy is democracy and Parliamentary, or representative, democracy isn’t. Amen to Jonathan Clark’s recent thoughtful piece on this site, calling for more attention to the constitution, But only two cheers for his conclusion that “the present challenge is to accommodate that new arrival in the political arena, the referendum, and to turn it into a clearly specified, moderate, and constructive institution, as it is in Switzerland”.
It works in Switzerland because the Swiss have honed its use, painfully, over two centuries; as a lethal alien import it dropped a bomb on British politics. Had the 2014 referendum gone the other way, the crisis would have come earlier, with a disorderly breakup of the United Kingdom. We avoided that, fortunately, only for David Cameron to persuade himself that these referendum things are a doddle. And now we are where we are.
So the biggest imperative is to avoid a second referendum, absurdly dubbed the ‘People’s Vote’ (who took part in 201: badgers?). Months of Government time would be taken up with both sides trying to craft the question to make sure they would win, and if the 2016 decision were reversed, it is hard to exaggerate the bad blood that would be created. After all, the first one went so well.
Parliament is the place for decisions to be made and implemented, and general elections are the sources of mandates, telling us not only the ‘what’, but also the ‘how’ and the ‘by whom’. Elections confer legitimacy; referendums do not. That is not to say that the latter don’t produce great moral authority, but if you think moral authority translates easily into legitimacy, tell me why we are where we are.
Hang on, we had a general election, didn’t we, in 2017? Why didn’t that help? Because the Prime Minister had no policy on Brexit (other than that it meant Brexit), and the opposition had less than that. We were only beginning to work out what is now known as ‘the deal’, so, as well as wasting time, pointlessly destroying the Government’s majority and elevating Jeremy Corbyn’s status from ‘clown’ to ‘dangerous’, it failed to provide the mandate necessary. It couldn’t tell us ‘how’, and it didn’t even tell us ‘by whom’.
Thanks to the wretched Nick Clegg’s wretched Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (please repeal it, someone), the next election, barring accidents, will be in 2022. Three and a half years – that is a decent period of time to work out the complexities of disentangling ourselves from an intricate set of arrangements that have built up over practically half a century (the choice in the farcical referendum of 1975 was far simpler). Can we get from here to there? The recent decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union that the UK can unilaterally halt Brexit is, paradoxically, the way forward. We should – but only temporarily.
The outcome of pressing the pause button would be two or three years in which each party could work out exactly what its interpretation of Brexit was. For the Conservatives, the mechanism for this would be simple. May’s term of office has been an unqualified disaster (I was very supportive at the beginning, but really …). Let’s have the Parliamentary vote on the deal asap; presumably it will be voted down, and she should then resign. A vigorous leadership contest, not carried out in the shadow of impending Brexit, would set the direction for the serious thinking that still has not been done.
The second advantage of pressing the pause button would be that it would force Labour to come off the fence and say what it wants. May has absolutely failed to flush Labour out. At some point, the Corbyn leadership must be made to decide whether to alienate its working class base, or its Momentum wing – not just carp from the sidelines and wave its meaningless tests about.
Then we would have the election, based on clear manifesto commitments. After the annus horribilis we have just been through, no-one can say that they don’t know where the difficulties and pressure points will be. Presumably the Tories would advocate a harder Brexit than Labour; Labour might go for a customs union sort of arrangement. Some parties would advocate scrapping Brexit altogether.
We would then have a result, and that result, unlike 2016 and 2017, would be definitive. That Government, whoever would form it, would have a mandate, and should therefore be the one to trigger Article 50 at a time of its choosing. Maybe no side would get a majority – but at least we, and the rest of the EU, would be dealing with known quantities and the extent of consensus and dispute would be known. Parliament would be on its mettle to work it out and deliver.
What did for us earlier, when, on the back of an insufficiently informative referendum, Article 50 was triggered way too soon, was the cry that Brexit delayed would be Brexit denied. Brexiteers need to curb their impatience; this needs to be done properly. Further delay is necessary because we have already gone off half-cocked.
Do I think this will happen? No – I realise it is pie in the sky. A second referendum looks more probable by the day. Like the Irish in 2008-9, we have to vote and vote again until we get it ‘right’. I can think of nothing worse.