The events of recent weeks prove that there is no broad agreement for any version of Brexit. In this post, Charles Turner argues that such major institutional changes require more than mere majorities, they need overwhelming consensus, which is currently nowhere to be found.
‘Stamina is not a policy’ one Tory MP is reported to have said to Theresa May before the confidence vote last Wednesday evening. Along with a refusal to see the writing on the wall after more than a third of her MPs voted against her, it does though seem to be acting as a substitute for one. The prime minister’s Brexit deal as it stands has no chance of being accepted by the House of Commons in January – many who voted for her in the confidence vote will vote against it – and whatever assurances she gains about the Irish backstop from her European tour are unlikely to get it passed. If she knows all this then it raises the prospect that she is playing for time and gambling on putting pressure on MPs to support it at the last minute, knowing that the alternative is leaving the EU with no deal. It is a high stakes strategy that points to the basic problem with Brexit itself, which is that there is no broad consensus for any version of it.
In the two and half years since the referendum, nothing has been done to build up such a consensus, or even to formulate concrete proposals about reform of particular sectors of the economy. May’s confrontation with the House of Commons liaison committee the other week, and her call for the people whose will is supposed already to be unified to ‘come together’, point this up perfectly.
It is often said that when major political or constitutional change is proposed in a polity with a longstanding and stable tradition, the burden of proof weighs more heavily on those who want the change than with those who don’t. That is why such change more often than not requires a two-thirds majority. The referendum of 2016 specified no such requirement, which does make the 52%-48% margin look decisive. When remain voters retort that it is nonetheless too close to be safe, leavers claim it was ‘the largest exercise in democracy the UK has ever seen’. Sometimes they recall, too, that MPs voted by six to one to hold the referendum in the first place, thereby hoping to lay an image of near unanimity about one thing over the top of an image of almost total division about a different thing. It’s a bit like arguing that Magnus Carlsen really thrashed Fabiano Caruana in the world chess championship recently because everyone at the International Chess Federation had agreed that the match itself should take place. Only he didn’t; the match was very close, going 12 games without a decisive result before it was settled by a tie-break.
As soon as the result was known in June 2016, leave campaigners should have acknowledged that the country was divided, and sought to reach out to remain voters. One way in which they could have done so was by offering some ideas about how the country might be transformed, and feeding them into a national all-party committee of politicians and experts, tasked with the job of coming up with a vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future. It could have sat for a fixed period of, say 3 years, after which Article 50 might then have been triggered and negotiations completed efficiently and speedily.
Agriculture could have been a starting point: the average age of farmers is way too high, and the one size fits all Common Agricultural Policy works poorly for the UK with its peculiar patterns of land ownership. The Brexiteers could have told us how they were going to modernize our agriculture outside the EU, how we might take inspiration from our neighbour The Netherlands, which manages – though inside the EU! – to be the world’s second-biggest food exporter by value after the US despite the fact that it is 270 times smaller than them, and more densely populated than us. Instead, the nearest we got was Owen Paterson banging the drum for GM crops and Andrea Leadsom saying ‘the uplands can do the butterflies’. Since then it has been all about our tiny fishing industry.
On trade, the Tory MP for Richmond Rishi Sunak has long been an advocate of turning places like Hull and Newcastle and Southampton into free ports connected to industrial development zones, something that, Mr. Corbyn take note, genuinely is made difficult by EU membership, yet his voice has been absent from mainstream media discussions. His proposals might be mad and they might involve tarmacking over the whole of the New Forest, but at least they are something, some vision of a very different and actually more modern Britain.
Instead, the leading voices for Brexit, those in what Barry Sheerman MP called ‘The European Research Group that does no research’, have offered nothing beyond a vague sense that if we merely alter the terms under which we trade with the rest of the world we will be more prosperous, or failing that, more free.
If May is still in post in the new year and her stalling tactics succeed, it will be a remarkable political coup, for it will mean that a sovereign parliament, with a flourishing system of party competition, has handed that sovereignty temporarily to the people but then, having failed to think about how to get it back, allowed itself to be ridden over roughshod by a non-military executive, one whose plan for post-Brexit Britain has no majority support in parliament.
It might be worse than that, for in the House of Commons last Monday, May told Anna Soubry that to have a peoples’ vote now would be a betrayal not of the 52% but of those of her fellow citizens who, in the referendum of 2016, had voted ‘for the first time in 40 years’. People who are disenfranchised or marginalized or poor or downtrodden, who don’t or can’t get out much, not even as far as the ballot box, deserve justice, support and a great deal more money, but they should not be the basis for transforming the UK’s position in the world. That requires an economic and political and cultural plan that commands the widest possible support. There is no such plan, no consensus, which is why Ken Clarke suggested that MPs take back control of brexit and cancel it. He was right. MPs, it’s up to you. Just get on with it. You never know, if you succeed, May’s last act as Prime Minister might be to send the letter to the EU that revokes Article 50.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics.
Charles Turner is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick.