The Referendum Case

Manuel Cortes suggested recently on Labour List (24th September) that the Florence speech by Theresa May “kicked her own Brexit ball into the long grass” , and that “we now know that nothing will change until at least 2021…(with) ….the possibility of a transition deal extended well beyond this date” because “businesses will demand certainty before making investment decisions”.

But business needs a quicker resolution, uncertainty being the one thing business always hates, and the Brexiteers thecmselves will oppose a drawn out process. The Daily Telegraph has already said allowing Brexit to fester till the run up to an election in 2022 is folly. Three and a half years of the current government paralysis is a no-brainer. Brexiteers are preparing for a cliff edge exit after the negotiation period and the Brexit hard line Wetherspoon pub chain freebie publication Autumn edition has a cod debate on whether Britain will suffer from a no deal exit – softening up their 2 million readers.

May’s move seeking a transitional period will sharpen the knives aimed at her back. May and Hammond fear Brexit and want a two year ‘transition’ so they do not have to spend three years after March 29 2019 defending a disaster. Brexiteers want out in March 2019 presumably to call a General Election on the basis of needing a mandate for a post EU Britain. May cannot call another election, but a new Tory leadership could if they secured Brexit in March 2019. At the time of writing – end September 2017 – this is only 18 months away.

For Labour, the prospect of transition is a poisoned chalice. Corbyn has said transition should take as long as it needs to – post 2022 perhaps? The fudge this represents will fester inside the Party. Worse, given the appeal of Leave to many Labour supporters, it leaves the field open to Farage to launch his Patriotic Alliance on a ‘defend Brexit’ basis. Thus Manuel’s central belief that “nothing will change until at least 2021″ is dubious. but his conclusion that a referendum on the final deal or continuing in the EU is a”way out of the bind we find ourselves in” is justified. Paralysis in government can only be broken by a Remain result in a referendum.

But this would have to happen before the March 31st 2019 deadline for ending the Article 50 negotiations. Only a viable strategy for a Third Referendum (the first was in 1975 and must be brought back into focus*) is able to set a Remain agenda. The question is what strategy can be followed in this 18 month period? And this is where the case for a referendum takes centre stage.

The Third Referendum

The Remain agenda is still dominated either by the hope of a soft (ie transitional) Brexit as May is now arguing, for – or the belief that parliament is still able to go back on Article 50. There is no strong campaign for the Third Referendum. The four current Remain organisations were able to organise a big demo in London as on September 9th but as yet show no willingness to address what a Third Referendum would have to do. The rejection of the Lib Dem proposal for a referendum by the House of Lords indicated that opposition is strong. The forthcoming Oxford LSE survey on public attitudes is likely to confirm than public opinion thinks that arguing for a re run is undemocratic and indeed that Remain is a lost cause. However a more recent opinion poll showed at 52-48% in favour of REMAIN, so all is not lost, though the margin is too small to be decisive.

The immediate issue is to embrace the idea of the Third EU referendum through accepting that referenda are here to stay and why. The first was advisory and in 1975 Labour kept parliamentary sovereignty. However the Coalition 2011 Alternative Vote referendum and subsequent referenda – notably the Scots Independence referendum – established they were binding, though crucially no referendum is ever final. A ‘once in a lifetime choice’ is nonsense as the SNP showed by demanding a second independence referendum after the EU vote. Theresa May denied the vote, but did not deny it was a legitimate demand, just premature. Referenda are part of the furniture, but without being properly worked through as a country like Switzerland has done.

As referenda are now established, the case for a third referendum on the EU has to be set out. Firstly, there is no way that any referenda can be taken as final, and the right to call for another is always present.. In 1975 the two thirds majority established a consensus, but when this broke down – within the Tory Right – no one doubted that the anti-Europeans had the right to demand a further referendum. Today, the Brexiteers refuse to accept that the call for a future vote is legitimate, calling it undemocratic.

But the second key point is that the narrow majority – and a minority of those entitled to vote – and the risks to the country justify a third vote. The risk factor is crucial. No country has the right to destroy its future. In the House of Lords debate, which voted against a Lib Dem motion for a rerun referendum, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued that even if severe damage was in prospect, a referendum had to be rejected. He said (Hansard March 7th) “It will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic, it is unwise. Even if the circumstances change – even if they change drastically – a dangerous and overcomplicated process is the result of a referendum”. Maybe the referendum process is a bad way to discuss complicated issues, but we are stuck with that method, and there is nothing undemocratic about calling for a vote. Indeed the bitterness can only grow if the future is not put to a further vote. The Archbishop wrote in the Daily Mail for a post Brexit reconciliation process. No hope of that if a disaster is unfolding.

Thirdly, the argument that even a drastically worsening situation would not justify a vote is illogical nonsense. The first duty of a parliament is to safeguard the national interest. That is now devolved to a referendum. And how can having a vote be undemocratic? That the Lords voted against a vote at some point in the future shows the second house has failed in its historic role as the Watchdog of the Constitution.

The refusal to agree to a third referendum on the Deal undermines one of the fundamentals of any Referendum, which is to secure the legitimacy of a policy by allowing all those who will be affected by it to have a vote on the outcome. Manuel Cortes underline this aspect by pointing out that the narrow majority for triggering Article 50 was due to the votes of the old – and many of these will have died. The Grim Reaper will take more as we move towards March 29th 2019. I am not sure about his maths- he claims 2.5m will have died by his end date of 2021 and 2.5m will have become eligible to vote – but his point that “allowing the dead to dictate our future is utterly ridiculous” is valid. Those who have reached 18 when the decision has to be made must be allowed to vote. They will face 50 years or more with the consequences. Those who have little time to live must not stand on a vote taken in 2016. I am nearly 71, and will campaign for the rights of the young.

It is a situation fraught with danger, and a generation war added to the current bitterness is the last thing anyone should want. As the Dementia Society have argued in a different context, Baby Boomers and Millenials should stand together. But that is the ideal. What cannot happen is that the Baby Boomers, who have lived through a period of peace and prosperity, should put this at risk. The minimum required to avoid deepening bitterness and division is to put the Brexit negotiations to the vote before a decision is made on membership of the EU. The case for a third referendum is overwhelming and I welcome Manuel Cortes statement on these issues.

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