How should a pro-European Brit react to Brexit? Resist or acquiesce?
Owen Smith has made much play of the notion of re-running the referendum after the proposed terms of Brexit become clear. But is it worth dying on the hill of resisting Brexit wholesale? Especially if this leaves the post-referendum power play in the hands of those negotiating for a potentially devastating ‘hard brexit’.
Between idealism and practicalities
The immediate aftermath of the Brexit result was emotionally scarring to pro-European Brits. It felt like a razor had torn its way across our very souls, leaving us exposed and raw. And we had good reason to feel this way. To a large degree some Brexiteers promoted a rather dishonest view of post-Brexit Britain. We have legitimate reason to feel that cynical populism led by empty platitudes and a plethora of lies strangled the rational discourse out of the referendum debates.
But we are where we are. The question is how to respond to the defeat – however it was come by.
Owen Smith argues we should focus our energies fighting for a repeat referendum, one which would endorse or censure the proposed terms of Brexit. But while this is intuitively appealing, for me it presents grave problems.
The first, and most obvious is its unconstitutional nature. Do we really wish to set the precedent that our sovereign parliaments decisions need public endorsement by populist referenda before they take legal force? If I learned anything from the EU referendum it was a contempt for government by referendum. Such votes invariably convolute the discourse, draw in separate political questions and mirky the waters. In short, referendums never settle anything definitively. One of the key aspects of a parliamentary democracy is that the decisions of parliament are sovereign. We risk undermining the nature of our parliamentary democracy if we start second guessing its decisions through polarising and scarring populist referendum battles.
More generally, does anyone seriously believe that there is the necessary political will to seek to hold a re-run EU referendum? It’s doubtful. The people have spoken, they won’t take kindly to being asked to speak again…
Besides, fighting for a repeat referendum on the question of Brexit risks leaving the immediate aftermath in the hands of those advocating ‘hard brexit’. I don’t know about you, but leaving the field of negotiations to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart isn’t my idea of sensible.
‘Hard brexit’ means losing our financial centres passporting rights. It means losing access to the single market. In short, it is a recipe for serious economic instability and pain for the immediate to middling future. We cannot let that happen.
So where does this leave our focus? As painful as it is to admit, it leaves us having to accept that Brexit is the new reality. Our focus must be on influencing brexit negotiations with an eye to easing the scale of the cut-off. We need to be present in brexit negotiations to fight for retention of passporting rights; so critical to London and Edinburgh as financial centres of excellence. We need to fight to ensure we retain single-market access, so our car manufacturing sector does not up-sticks and relocate onto the continent.
We suffered a disastrous and painful defeat with Brexit. But to abandon the negotiating field to die on the unhelpful and unlikely hill of seeking a re-run isn’t going to help us. It is time to try and make Brexit work. Seek to engineer a ‘soft brexit’, not a ‘hard brexit’. For in-between those two terms lies a myriad of painful economic, social and constitutional differences.