On Saturday I marched, along with more than a million others (and what seemed to be a few hundred dogs), in support of a people’s vote on the UK’s impending exit from the EU. The estimate of the number of marchers feels right to me. I was one of the million who marched against the Iraq War in 2003, and the People’s Vote march seemed bigger. Setting off from Marble Arch at the appointed time, it took me, my two teenage children and my daughter’s friend four hours to get to Parliament Square. For most of the route it was less of a march than a shuffle to advance a few inches every couple of minutes or so. The speeches long over, thousands behind us were still making their way to parliament at well after five o’clock.
Despite the political crisis—a crisis that threatens our freedoms, our economy, our futures, and our political culture—it was a joyous, high-spirited, and hopeful occasion. Wit and intelligence abounded in the signs and placards carried by marchers; creativity and fun ran through the different expressions of outrage; there were drummers, guitarists, and mobile discos; many came in costume, and dogs were draped in signs and flags; and the occasion was characterized by an idea that we should all embrace: protest and partying are not mutually incompatible. It is possible to call out a government and a system for its appalling ineptitude, while at the same time dancing and having fun. It is worth comparing this with the joyless, aggressive and thuggish antics of the EDL, James Goddard and his “yellow jackets”, and almost anything associated with Tommy Robinson. The different forms of protest present different visions of the UK’s future: on the one side there is humour, dancing, diversity, creativity, hope, and jokes; on the other there is aggression, intimidation, exclusion, nastiness, anger, and death threats. I know which of the two offers a brighter political future.
Protests are vital checks on a slide to authoritarianism. Authoritarian governments—and Theresa May’s government aspires to be such—thrive on keeping their citizens to armchairs, light entertainment or shopping. Political participation is at best an inconvenience, at worst an existential threat to such governments. Our politics has been dominated by Brexit for the past three years, yet for much of that time citizens have been reduced to powerless, passive spectators of a chaos and crisis that deepens by the day. We are not asked what we think; rather, we are told—usually with reference to the referendum vote on an impossibly general question, to which little more than a quarter of the entire population gave an answer that has subsequently been divined as “the will of the people”—what we think. We are often reminded that the 2016 referendum was the largest democratic exercise in British history—even if the lies (on both sides) and criminal funding and electoral practices of the Leave campaign significantly devalue its democratic worth; but it is as if at every step of the way since June 2016, the referendum result becomes the reason why any further public engagement in the issue is out of the question.
Theresa May might have begun her premiership by initiating a national conversation to ascertain an approach to and form of Brexit that would work across the social, political and cultural divides. The referendum revealed that, by a narrow margin, a majority of voters wished to leave the EU, but it told us nothing beyond that. The deeper reasons behind the vote, and the voters’ visions, hopes and fears of a post-Brexit future were unclear. A robust, informed, transparent and open process would have advanced patiently and carefully by engaging with and listening to public views on all sides, and it would have used that preliminary stage as a guide to the subsequent and highly complex task of honouring the referendum result. It might even have been an opportunity to reinvigorate our political culture by devising processes and mechanisms that engage citizens, foster debate, and seek consensus, and by moving towards greater government openness and transparency.
This opportunity was squandered by May. Rather than starting a conversation and trying to build bridges, she gave her “citizens of nowhere” speech. Rather than learning more about the reasons behind the referendum result, she came up with her red lines, with little transparent consultation, and informed more by her own anti-immigration obsessions and her wish to appease the hard right of her party than by informed, evidence-based analysis. Rather than welcome input from across the political landscape, she worked with a disturbing determination to restrict debate, to oppose any attempts at giving the electorate’s representatives in parliament a meaningful role, and to limit the release of information. Her approach to Brexit has been characterized by evasiveness, dishonesty (the many promises that turn out to be anything but), and dour opposition to scrutiny, debate and normal democratic practices. Fortunately, her astonishing ineptitude and incompetence (her lack of agility, flexibility, imagination, charm and charisma; the absence of a coherent plan A or anything resembling a plan B; her constant tactical and strategic mistakes; and her hopeless general election campaign) have saved us from what might have been the most anti-democratic and authoritarian government in modern British history. Seen in that light, we should be thankful that we have been blessed merely with the most incompetent government in modern history.
Many of Theresa May’s failings came together in her statement to the nation last Wednesday. It was graceless and devoid of anything new. It was a tactical disaster: attacking the very constituency (Members of Parliament) that she needed to persuade was incomprehensibly stupid. And it demonstrated her demagogic, authoritarian instincts: casting the Brexit crisis in terms of parliament versus “the people”, and presenting herself as “on the side” of the people, she revealed her ongoing delusion that she divines what the people think and that she is in some mystical sense one of us. It was a speech more befitting of a dictator than of a prime minister in a representative democracy. Irresponsible, reckless and dangerous—had May forgotten that the issue of Brexit has resulted in the murder of one MP and intimidation and death threats directed at countless others, or did she not care?—we are fortunate that its crassness and stupidity became immediately obvious to almost everyone.
It is unsurprising that in the days since May’s statement millions, both online and on the streets, have come out to tell her she is wrong in claiming to know what we think and to suppose that she is on our side. And, perhaps, more than her delusions and her authoritarian tendencies, it is her inability to listen to and engage with others—outside the hard-right extremists in her own party, that is—that amounts to her greatest failing. Hence, the importance of petitions and protest: the march, as well as the online petition to revoke Article 50, are opportunities to engage and be heard. If we are to reinvigorate our politics and to involve everyone in working out our future, then we need these opportunities. If the political system does not provide them, then the people will eventually do so themselves. A less incompetent prime minister might have enabled better ways of listening to and engaging with the public—and what a political legacy that would have been. Theresa May failed to do so, which is one reason why her legacy looks set to be the most dismal in modern British history.
Although the march was anti-Brexit, and it is reasonable to assume that almost every marcher was a Remainer, it is worth considering the core issue of process that lay at the heart of the event, and which is as relevant to die-hard Leavers as it is to Remainers. The march was calling for a people’s vote. That those of us who marched are Remainers who believe that Brexit is, and will be, a tragic, humiliating national disaster is irrelevant. In a democracy, it is natural to call for votes on matters of national and constitutional importance—and Brexit is, without doubt, the single most important matter of my lifetime; what is strange is for purported democrats to fiercely oppose a democratic vote. Few Remainers are under the illusion that a further popular vote would be a guaranteed win for Remain. Indeed, there is a good chance that Brexiters will triumph in any such referendum. All that remains, hopefully, to be seen. But for now we should focus on the question of process and how that will help us find our way out of the current crisis. The case should be made that central to process of Brexit is a confirmatory vote by the public.
It is now almost three years since the EU referendum. Weight should be attached to that result, but this weight must surely diminish over time. Demographics change: people die, and new voters come of age. Around 600,000 Britons die each year, and 700,000 reach voting age; thus, nearly two million voters in 2016 are no longer with us, and approximately two million have joined the electoral register. There has to come a point at which more weight is attached to voters who are alive than to those who are deceased. With each passing day, the “will of the people” shifts a little more towards the “will of the people RIP”.
Many of those who are still with us may wish to exercise their fundamental democratic right to change their minds. What any of us thought on one day in June 2016 is not set in stone. There are many reasons why people may subsequently come to revise, and in some cases to reverse, their decisions. The most obvious are that circumstances change and that more information comes to light. Back in 2016, the debate over EU membership was somewhat embryonic. The issue had never been an overriding preoccupation of the British electorate (the economy, health, education, and crime were usually far more pressing issues in the minds of voters), and it was evident that most people’s understanding of the issues was limited. Thanks to the referendum result, Brexit has dominated politics for the past three years, and we are all a lot more informed about what EU membership means, about single markets and customs unions, about trade agreements and regulations, about goods and services, about tariffs, about the WTO, about car manufacturing, and about the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Irish history and politics.
Furthermore, in witnessing the day-to-day difficulties and complexities of implementing Brexit, we are more familiar with the practicalities of Brexit. Leaving the EU is not, as it was in 2016, simply an idea that could be achieved in one of several vague ways; it has become a concrete policy that is being worked out, occasionally successfully but more often painfully, in all its difficult detail. It would not be surprising if many voters would now revise their view in light of this—and this applies to both sides, since some have clearly reconsidered their previous support for Remain in light of their perception of the EU’s negotiating tactics.
These are compelling reasons for a second referendum. But in addition to them, there is the matter of ensuring a robust, democratically legitimate process—and one that enables a way out of the current crisis. There should be no rerun of the first referendum. Rather, voters should be asked to choose between a form of exiting the EU agreed in parliament and remaining in the EU. The nature of the former is open to debate: it might be a no deal, or Common Market 2.0, or a Norway option, or May’s deal, or something else. But it needs to be concrete, clear and achievable (either it needs to have been agreed with the EU, or it stands a realistic chance of securing that agreement). Then it needs to be put to the test. A withdrawal that fails to command a majority among the electorate surely deserves to be rejected. On the other hand, a withdrawal that passes the test is one that has survived a rigorous democratic exercise.
It is never clear why Brexiters, some of whom spent decades campaigning for a referendum, would resist a confirmatory vote—unless, that is, they know that any form of Brexit that takes detailed shape would be vastly unpopular. None of them, it appears, believes that their own version of Brexit would be supported by a majority of voters. If Theresa May really believes that she has understood the will of the people, then she should not be afraid of putting her deal before the public. One way out of the impasse would be for parliament to approve her deal on condition that it be put to a confirmatory referendum. As an opponent of her deal, I would be satisfied with this outcome; but do the proponents of her deal fear that a confirmatory vote would kill it off for good?
A confirmatory vote has, therefore, two advantages. First, it offers a way out of the crisis. Potentially, it increases the likelihood of majority support in parliament, since many who have doubts about any particular approach may nevertheless support it if they know it will be subject to the further test of a popular vote. Second, it ensures that whatever form of Brexit is agreed by parliament acquires greater legitimacy. A confirmatory vote would involve a wide public debate, detailed scrutiny of the proposed withdrawal, and a referendum. But, whereas in 2016 nobody knew what Leave meant, in a second referendum it would be clear precisely what a vote for Leave means. If it succeeds in passing the popular test, then we can hardly complain about Brexit on democratic grounds. But without a confirmatory vote, Brexit becomes something that is imposed on the public without consultation and against its will. If Brexit turns out badly, then the architects of such a Brexit will rightly be held fully accountable—and it will be reasonable to maintain that any such Brexit lacked legitimacy, with all the unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences that follow from any illegitimate policy.
Imagine if Theresa May somehow managed to get her withdrawal agreement “across the line”, sneaking a tiny minority in parliament thanks to arm-twisting, pork-barrel politics, shady backroom deals, and dubious tactical manoeuvres. What would be the democratic legitimacy of her deal? Surely we should aspire to more than getting a widely unpopular deal “across the line” by any means necessary; we should be aspiring for a withdrawal that commands widespread support, or at least acceptance, in parliament, and then majority support among an informed electorate who have had an opportunity to study, debate, and question the withdrawal agreement.
Theresa May is happy to be populist and appeal to the public when it suits her, such as when she called a general election and put herself at the heart of it, or when she toured the country trying to sell her deal to the public, even though it was MPs she primarily needed to persuade, or when she gave her disastrously misjudged statement to the nation last week. Last December, she was briefly keen to subject her deal to a public television debate—a perfect encapsulation of her tendency to favour persuading and hectoring others to agree with her, but to refuse listening to them or subjecting her position to a meaningful verdict.
Evidently, she has little confidence that her deal would pass the popular test; this is one of the reasons why she resists a referendum. Nevertheless, her main stated argument against a referendum is that it would be divisive. Aside from the fact that the UK is already obviously divided, it is not clear how imposing a vastly unpopular withdrawal agreement on the country would somehow bring people together—except, perhaps, by uniting them in angry opposition to the politicians who imposed the policy. Conjuring up the threat of increased populism and violence, as some opponents of a second referendum have done, is not only irresponsible, it is also manifestly cowardly and spineless in the face of those extremist minorities who advocate violent action until they get what they want. Moreover, it is also illogical. Angry protest is far more likely to follow a process that denies people a debate and a vote, than one that consults them, engages with them, and invites their approval or rejection. It also treats the electorate as sophisticated grown-ups who understand that, in a democracy, outcomes can be accepted if they are transparent, fair and truly democratic. I have been disappointed more often than not by votes and elections over the years, but if the process has been fair then I can accept the outcome (which is not the same as saying that I agree with it—it remains my democratic right to continue arguing against a policy or government).
There are numerous problems with referendums, but only if they are badly conceived or abused (and David Cameron’s 2016 referendum was guilty of both). If they present a concrete policy, are clear on the alternatives on which the electorate is being asked to vote, are supported by a well-informed debate, and are conducted according to transparent, fair and enforced rules, then it is hard to find fault with them on democratic grounds. The accusation that the democratic step of holding a confirmatory vote would be undemocratic is patently absurd. Parliament, contrary to many characterizations of it (mostly by the government and the right-wing press), has performed rather well throughout the Brexit process: it has endeavoured to hold the government to account, to scrutinize and debate government policy and actions, and to resist being the rubber stamp that Theresa May would like it to be, and it has had partial success in all these areas, despite the implacable opposition of the government and the increasingly problematic logic of loyalty to the party machine. It would be a positive step if the many sensible parliamentarians managed to seize control of the Brexit process from the catastrophically inept, authoritarian and deluded government; and it would be an even more positive development if parliament embraced the idea of a confirmatory vote as a way out of the crisis and a means of ensuring a robust, legitimate and democratic resolution of the Brexit problem.