(I’ve pushed the Batpost and Beach Boys post back a couple of days, as I had a blood pressure headache yesterday and then news happened today. They’ll be up tomorrow and Friday).
I’ve mostly stayed away from the subject of “Brexit” on this blog, mostly because I don’t want to fall out with people about something neither they or I can change. A lot of people on both sides have very strong views, and see any disagreement about them as being an attack on their core identity. I’ve already lost friends because of the relatively mild things I’ve said on my own Facebook about it, and while I think there are circumstances where losing friendships is a reasonable price to pay, a disagreement over political decisions made at levels no-one I know can affect is not one of those circumstances.
One distinction I *have* always been at pains to make, though, is that while I am a Remain supporter (and my position there has only hardened as more information has come in), the people who voted to leave did so from a huge variety of motives, and can’t all be characterised as fascist Little Englanders.
(Which is not to say, of course, that fascist Little Englanders didn’t vote to leave. In much the same way as the old quote from John Stuart Mill — “not all Conservatives are stupid, but all stupid people are Conservative” — the leave vote contained much more than those people, but it did include them).
The leave voters had a variety of motives, from those who just wanted to “send them back”, to those who were voting in the hope of removing some of the pro-capitalism elements in the EU’s founding treaties and bringing back the post-war Keynesian consensus; from those who want to bring about a low-regulation Singapore-style economy built on the exploitation of the poorest, to those who are so poor, and who have been so ignored by every government of my lifetime, that they’re willing to take any risk in the hope, no matter how faint, of improving their lives.
This is one of the many reasons I was against the referendum in principle (and indeed am against all referendums) — the question being asked simply wasn’t reducible to a binary yes/no. If the kind of left-wing utopia portrayed by some supporters of “Lexit” had been a realistic possibility, I may well have voted to leave myself. As it is, my political instincts told me that the intended result by those Leavers in positions of power was rather closer to the “crush the poor under my bootheels” one. Maybe I’m wrong — I certainly *hope* I’m wrong, since the result didn’t go my way.
But that distinction is one that the Lib Dems, unlike pretty much everyone else involved in the argument, appear to have recognised, if Tim Farron’s most recent articles are anything to go by. Farron has based these on the policy proposals that will be put to Lib Dem conference later this month, and as a democratic party we may well vote against those proposals of course, but I suspect they will be broadly acceptable to Lib Dem members.
The idea is a simple one. The Lib Dems will continue to support membership of the EU — anything else would, in fact, be against the party’s constitution, and would require a constitutional amendment — but will not be pushing for a simple rerun of the referendum we just had. Quite rightly, the argument is that you don’t just keep rerunning a referendum until you get the result you wanted.
Nor will the party be pushing for an early general election on the issue — if nothing else, given Jeremy Corbyn’s recent comments about the single market, the Lib Dems are now the only pro-EU UK-wide party, and unfortunately the chances of a Lib Dem landslide any time in the next few years are minimal.
What the Lib Dems will be pushing for is a referendum *on the final agreed terms of exit*, once those have been negotiated by the government. The choice then would be “exit on these terms” or “remain” — and the Lib Dems would campaign for remain as a party (though individuals of course may not).
Given that we’re accepting referendums as a legitimate way of making decisions — which I’m very unhappy about, but can do little to change — this seems to make sense to me.
Crucially, it’s *not* about rerunning the previous referendum. The referendum we just had was one where one side was pointing to a single, concrete, state — the deal we had with the EU at the time — while the other side was pointing to every conceivable state that could be described as “Brexit”, which could encompass everything from Singapore-style ultracapitalism to a Trotskyite workers’ state (many of the small Trotskyite parties actually campaigned for leave) through to the “soft Brexit” many politicians are now arguing for, which is essentially “keep everything the same, except stop having the right to elect MEPs and have a different passport”.
It’s only right that the people get to say yes or no to the final deal. It may well be, for example, that the deal that gets negotiated is one which keeps single market access and also has the UK becoming members of Schengen — those who voted leave to keep out immigrants would get the opposite of what they wanted. Alternatively, if Jeremy Corbyn gets his expressed wish of access to the single market but less regulation around what kind of involvement the Government can have with regards to subsidising failing industries, the free marketeers will not be very happy. And so on.
That’s not the same thing as rerunning the first referendum, and it goes both ways. I can easily imagine deals being made that would be enough to get me to say “OK, that’s actually better than being in the EU would be”. I don’t think that the people currently in government are likely to make such a deal, but I can imagine it happening.
At the moment, the British public is split very close to 50/50 on the issue, and that showed in the referendum result — and right now, a lot of people are angry, on both sides. But as Tim puts it, “voting for a departure is not the same as voting for a destination”. It may well be that the politicians in charge can find a destination we can all agree on — or one that we can all agree is a disaster. Either way, if, as it appears we must, we have to regard the referendum as a legitimate way of making that decision, the people should get to decide where we’re going, ideally before we get there.
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