Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Why liberal Britain still gets Brexit wrong

First things first. I was a Remainer and I still am.

The EU referendum in June produced a decision which was irrational and reckless. It’s hardly an overstatement to say that the consequences will be felt for generations to come. And in the worst-case scenario, I wonder if historians will see the Brexit vote as a trigger which led to the ultimate demise of the whole European project. If so, they’ll be writing a history of deep economic recession and war.

Given that I feel so strongly about this, you might expect me to back wholeheartedly the renegades who are fighting tooth and nail for the pro-European cause. Cheering every mishap and fumble from the government in the hope that the whole absurd Brexit project collapses in on itself.

But I don’t. And the reason is quite simple. As well as being a strong supporter of Europe, I believe in social cohesion and public trust in the democratic process here in the UK. And I fear that both may come under threat as we move into 2017.

Let’s look at the legal case currently before the Supreme Court. Those who brought the action originally are avowedly anti-Brexit. They’re not interested in the judgment because it answers some very particular and esoteric piece of constitutional law about Crown prerogatives. They see it as a way of creating a stumbling block to the triggering of Article 50.

The Court – if it rules in the government’s favour – will be at pains to point out that they have no political axe to grind. They will send the decision back to Parliament and there will be much rejoicing in liberal and left-wing circles.

But why the celebration? We’re repeatedly assured that Parliament would never actually block Article 50.  Would they be cheering because some ancient, ‘uncodified’ constitutional right has been upheld? Or because, secretly, there’s a hope that Article 50 will be further delayed or obstructed?

The majority of the general public, according to the latest YouGov polling, wants the government to win the case and for Theresa May to decide on the trigger. This news will probably surprise young hipster activists and the Guardian-reading middle classes in Richmond-upon-Thames who rely on being able to visit their Tuscan villas twice a year. It will shock the legal professionals who are well read in Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights. But is it really that astonishing?

When people voted in the summer referendum, they were told on numerous occasions by both sides of the debate that they were making a momentous decision. We Remainers said that once you’ve voted out, there will be no turning back. The Brexiters opined that it was the one and only chance to break free from the shackles of the EU.

So people voted believing that their vote counted for something. And when they did, they kicked the establishment in the teeth, because they gave the verdict every politician and business leader and clergyman and international statesman had told them not to give.

The establishment licked its wounds and said that it understood. It claimed to recognise the loud cry of discontent. Democracy would stand. As the American political consultant, Dick Tuck, once put it: ‘The people have spoken, the bastards.’

Let’s imagine a scenario. Early in 2017, a group of unelected judges decides that the referendum result cannot be put into effect without a vote in Parliament. The anger will be palpable, because in the eyes of most ordinary people – who are not necessary well versed in constitutional law – their referendum has more legitimacy on this issue than anything that can be decided by MPs. It was, after all, a mass democratic exercise.

And let’s say that some MPs – a vocal minority, perhaps – try to delay or obstruct the triggering of 
Article 50, that sense of anger will start to grow stronger. Maybe the lawmakers will put down amendments which tie the hands of the British government in negotiations and signal to EU bureaucrats the limited wriggle room that Theresa May has.

Of course, Members of Parliament may well be reluctant to push their luck too far. 63% of them, according to the University of East Anglia, represent seats which voted for Brexit. But will members of the House of Lords have any compunction in this regard? Elected by no one and only loosely accountable to their parties, they may react in unpredictable ways.

And, of course, it’s worth mentioning in passing that it might be decreed by the learned justices that the Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish Assembly have a potential veto over Brexit. In reality, that is the truly nuclear scenario, which no one talks about. It would quickly threaten the break-up of the UK.

So we can’t yet know the detail, but quite early in 2017, there is a chance of a full-blown constitutional and political crisis. And my message to those on the left of British politics is to beware of what you wish for. I personally do not see any good coming out of the confrontations we can easily envisage.

If May battles through, but is wounded in Parliament and is seen to be obstructed by Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour MPs, my prediction is that we shall see a huge UKIP resurgence and possibly the growth of even more unsavoury far-right politics.

Her other option is to request a general election, for which she’ll need a two-thirds majority in Parliament. As I’ve said before, it is hard to see how Corbyn and McDonnell can refuse such a request, given their stated desire to confront her at the polls.

I have absolutely no doubt that May would achieve a very large majority. It is, of course, possible that there would be resurgence of the Lib Dems in some strongly pro-Brexit seats. But in a general election, there would be nothing like the effect they managed to achieve in a bizarre one-off by-election in south-west London. Labour meanwhile would be under huge threat from UKIP in its northern heartlands and undoubtedly stands on the verge of a historic catastrophe.

So I can’t cheer Brexit. It’s still the most stupid political decision made in the UK in my lifetime. But beware. If there’s one thing worse than Brexit, it’s Brexit denied. I’m not sure our fragile democracy would be able to cope with the consequences.