“You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.” That cry is often heard in playgrounds when the losing side attempts, by springing some outrageous change in the rules on its opponents, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The call for another EU referendum is of just this character. It amounts to a flagrant attempt to change the rules in the middle of the game.
To desperate Remainers, who see no other way of reversing the result of the previous referendum, an “affirmative vote”, as they have taken to calling it, seems an acceptable dodge. They have convinced themselves that leaving the EU will be so disastrous it justifies tearing up the terms and conditions under which the 2016 referendum was held.
Leave voters do not see things in this light. They were promised by Parliament that the result of the last referendum would be binding.
To tear up that promise looks monstrously unfair. If another referendum were to be held, then in saloon bars across the land, the crookedness of the political class would stand confirmed.
It follows that the Remainers would most likely fail to get the result for which they hope, and would instead elevate Nigel Farage to a yet more influential position than that to which they have already propelled him.
So even in their own terms, another referendum would be a dreadfully bad idea.
But this question ought not to be discussed simply in terms of the expected outcome. In our parliamentary democracy, the referendum is in most circumstances an alien device, which inflicts damage even on those who think they have most to gain from it.
The question of these islands’ relationship with the European continent has for many centuries been impossible to place in some settled sphere beyond debate, for two vital principles conflict with each other.
One is the principle of self-government. As long ago as 1533, Henry VIII got Parliament to declare: “This realm of England is an empire.” From that monarch’s break with Rome developed our tradition of parliamentary sovereignty, with which subordination to a new supranational authority run from Brussels is incompatible.
But British foreign policy has long contained, as a guiding principle, the doctrine that we cannot allow any one power to dominate the continent of Europe. Vast sacrifices of blood and treasure, reinforced by alliances with powers whose interests are compatible with ours, have been made to avoid that outcome.
Viewed in this light, withdrawal from the EU seems a perilous venture, and one which cannot be the final word on the matter. Our relations with Europe will continue to require constant negotiation.
In an essay on Margaret Thatcher’s European policy for Half In, Half Out (a volume edited by Andrew Adonis and reviewed here on ConservativeHome), Charles Powell remarks on the contradiction between her commitment to free markets and the European Community’s interventionism; her commitment to the special relationship with the United States, and Washington’s commitment to European unity; and “more fundamental still…the basic philosophical divide between intergovernmentalists and integrationists”.
Powell goes on:
“None of these strategic dilemmas were resolved during Margaret Thatcher’s three terms as Prime Minister or subsequently, nor could they be, as they represented irreconcilable contradictions. They could only be managed. There were, however, significant victories for British interests along the way.”
How much of this difficult but necessary argument was heard during the 2016 referendum campaign? None whatever, so far as I can recall. We were instead treated to a childish exchange of threats and insults, with each side taking refuge in mendacious simplifications, while refusing to admit that the other side’s case held the slightest merit.
So a referendum is an extremely bad way to conduct the argument about Europe. It ought to be held in Parliament.
Readers may retort that Parliament is making a mess of it, and that just now is true. But parliamentarians ought not to be allowed to wriggle out of their obligations by passing the subject back to the people.
They are there to hold the argument themselves. If they are unable to do so, and the Government of the day cannot present proposals which command a parliamentary majority, there will have to be a general election, in order to choose new MPs.
Conservative parliamentarians are anxious to avoid an election. That being so, they had better work out how to deliver Brexit.