It was not meant to be like this. The 2016 Leave campaigns assured the British people that leaving the EU would let them ‘take back control.’ The reality 30 months on is that the country is, yet again, dependent on the EU to help it extract itself from the quagmire the Tory party, in attempting to solve its internal divisions, has pitched it into. It has been clear for many months that voters were grievously misled as to the economic consequences of Brexit and now we can add the threat Brexit poses to our political system with the morphing of broad based i.e. non-extremist, political parties into, populist, nationalistic divisive parties. The Brexit party is an obvious exemplar but the Tory party is moving strongly in the same direction as is the Labour party albeit to a lesser extent. In recent weeks the former has expelled and the latter deselected or forced out members holding centrist political views.
Further, contrary to the Leavers’ claim that Brexit would allow Parliament to ‘take back control’ this is not to be allowed if it threatens the interest of the Tory zealots. Did anyone in their wildest dreams imagine a British Prime Minister being found to have acted unlawfully in proroguing Parliament in order to stifle debate on an issue of enormous consequences for the country? Or a PM having obtained Parliamentary support for a second reading of his Withdrawal Bill refusing Parliament the opportunity for proper scrutiny? It is deceitful and shameless for Mr Johnson and his zealot supporters to argue that he is acting to protect the democratic will of the people. The 2016 referendum was, at best, a crude mockery of democracy. Democracy is more than just casting a vote. No plan, no clarity, just half-truths, if not downright lies, were fed to people by the Leave campaigns. Did anyone think they were voting to reduce workers’ rights and environmental protection? Did they foresee a customs border down the Irish Sea? Were they prepared to risk a return of the ‘troubles’? Did anyone believe they would ever witness a British PM denying Parliament its sovereign duty to scrutinize legislation?
A modern sophisticated democracy deserves more than populist soundbites and headlines. The very idea of Parliamentary representative democracy is too allow careful, uninterrupted and informed consideration of political issues and associated legislation. That there remains serious questions regarding the ‘democratic validity’ of the 2016 vote, is confirmed by the government justifying moving rapidly to a general election solely on the basis that the vote took place. Even Boris Johnson does not have the gall to repeat the arguments he mischievously advanced during the campaign. The refusal of the chancellor, Sajid Javid, to produce an economic impact assessment of Johnson’s deal on the grounds that it must be passed because it is good for our democracy shows just how twisted the government’s sense of its responsibilities has become.
Zealots aside, all moderate members of the government know that Brexit carries more risks for Britain than opportunities. But unlike the 21 deselected Tory MPs they have shortsightedly chosen Johnson’s undemocratic antics over their integrity. The real danger to the democratic health of the country is pressing on with Brexit regardless. If it ever comes to pass, in whatever form, the deception of gargantuan proportions on the British people will increasingly be revealed. Outside the EU Britain’s economic weaknesses – zero productivity growth, growing government debt as well as its persistently high current account deficit – will be scrutinized more carefully than is currently the case. Since the referendum the flow of inward international investment has reduced markedly – down by two-thirds – and growth has slowed leaving the UK teetering on the edge of recession. Fixing these weaknesses will require structural reforms that will not only take many years and are likely to punish the working class voters who believed that Brexit would improve their lot in life but also will be harder to achieve in the face of a much reduced inward flow of investment. Far from striving to negotiate an exit from the EU that limits a downward economic spiral and popular disappointment, the government is content to seek trading (and security) relationships that are considerably less favourable than they are today. As for ‘getting Brexit done,’ on leaving the EU the government will need first to negotiate its future relationship with the EU – a negotiation that is likely to take four years or more unless Johnson plans to crash out at the end of 2020 – and then embark on re-negotiating the 40 bilateral trade deals the EU has with some 70 countries. And all of this will have to be undertaken from the weaker position of being the one demanding a deal, and each deal will need to be designed not to conflict with whatever is agreed with the EU.
I remain convinced that the only way to resolve the costly and embarrassing mess of Brexit – to both the economy and Britain’s reputation – is to return to the people for a final vote. A general election in the current environment would in part be a pseudo referendum on Brexit but hardly a clear vote on the issue. Many voters would be voting according to their weighting of other issues such as, party allegiance, the NHS and/or like/dislike of party leaders. Another argument is that Brexit is a generational issue that will impact much more on the young and as it cannot easily be reversed is not an appropriate question for a five year (or less) Parliament. The evidence is mounting: people have become frustrated about the way Brexit is being managed and pessimistic about its effects. It is now a travesty to claim that Brexit is the ‘will of the people.’ Rather than ploughing on with a version of Brexit that was never offered in the referendum the only democratic option on the table is to consult the people on whether they want to go ahead with this plan.