Monday, 20 February 2017

The Blair quandary

I agree with much of what Blair said last week – and there’s a sentence I never expected to write.  The response from the committed Brexiteers was entirely predictable, but he is right to say that in a democracy, people opposed to a decision, even one taken democratically, have every right to seek to change that decision, and to persuade others that they too should support a reconsideration of the question.
Given their professed great love for freedom and democracy, why are Brexiteers are so insistent in their demands that this one decision, uniquely, is something that can never ever be revisited?  I can only assume that it’s their fear of a different result.  I suspect that I’m not alone in thinking that one of the reasons that so many of them are keen on a quick exit and hang the consequences is that the longer the situation drags on the more obvious it will be that the outcome is not going to be the land of milk and honey that they promised us; and their real reasons for wanting Brexit had little to do with the promises which they made.
If the referendum decision had gone the other way, does anyone really believe that Duncan Smith, Farage and their ilk would have said “Oh well, that’s it then” and gone away to do something even less productive?  No, of course not – and it would be their right to continue making the case.  (In the same way, closer to home, those people opposed to the existence of the National Assembly – and indeed, in some cases, even to the existence of the Welsh nation itself – have every right to continue to campaign for its abolition.  I hope they fail, but I accept that the decision that Wales should become a political nation isn’t a once-and-for-ever decision; it’s something that we need to re-affirm continually.)
If, in either case – or indeed on any other issue – clear evidence emerges that public opinion has changed, then there is always a case for revisiting a decision.  And campaigning to bring about a change of opinion is a wholly legitimate form of political activity.  Blair wasn’t doing much more than making that simple point.  Merely asking for a second referendum with no evidence of a significant and sustained opinion shift seems to me to be futile; but working to bring about that shift is another matter entirely. 
On that point, it was obvious that Blair was deliberately avoiding the question of a second referendum - perhaps unwisely because it gave the impression that he believed the decision could somehow be changed without further reference to a democratic vote.  Whilst I too might prefer not to have referendums which reduce complex questions to a simple binary choice, in the case of Brexit that’s already been done and it is hard to see how those who voted to leave would consider a decision to remain after all to be legitimate without another vote.
Having said all of that, there is a problem with the personage of Blair.  I don’t understand how the man who took the UK to war in Iraq on the basis of an outright lie about weapons of mass destruction could stand there with a straight face and accuse the Brexiteers of having lied to get the result they wanted.  Pot, kettle, black – could he really not see the way that was going to be interpreted?  He has a serious credibility problem as a leader of any campaign given his history.
There is a ‘however’ to that, as well, though.  Given that the only debate which any of our mainstream politicians are prepared to engage in is about the nature of Brexit, who else is speaking out?  Most of the MPs who told us during the referendum campaign that Brexit would be a huge mistake for the UK have subsequently trooped through the division lobbies of the House of Commons in support of that which they told us would be a disaster.  And here in Wales, of the four party groups represented in the Assembly two are committed to full-on Brexit and the other two have decided to restrict themselves to whingeing about the detail.
So, this for me is the quandary.  For all my doubts about Blair as a leader of anything, who else is stepping up to the plate?  Is he really so toxic that it’s better to have no-one making the case than for him to do so?


David Walters said...

It may be that the reason why pro-leave people don't want the decision revisited is that we were told that this was to settle the question of membership of the EU once and for all. This was the one opportunity we all had to have our say. If there is a further referendum which goes the other way, what then? Do we then go for another - best of three? Given that every referendum on this issue is likely to be won and lost on narrow margins, there is the potential for a switch in "public opinion" each time. Where do we draw the line? Either in or out, revisiting the question every two or three years is a non-starter.
Of course unionists are entitled to continue to influence public opinion. I doubt that they would have been any more tolerant of the pro-leave camp continuing to campaign had the result gone the other way but, there you go. Two wrongs don't make a right.

John Dixon said...


We might have been "told that this was to settle the question of membership of the EU once and for all", but that was never actually the government's intention. Cameron's prime objective was to settle the dispute within the Conservative Party once and for all. And he might actually have achieved that, although perhaps not in the way intended!

"Where do we draw the line? Either in or out, revisiting the question every two or three years is a non-starter." I agree with that latter point, and where do we draw the line is a difficult question. Clearly, no question can ever be settled "for all time"; that isn't the way humans work. Opinions change and there must always be the opportunity to change decisions in the light of that. But, equally clearly, on a decision of this magnitude, flip-flopping every few years is also a silly thing to do - even assuming that the other EU members would tolerate it, which I'm sure they wouldn't. But there's a lot of ground between those two extremes.

Personally, if we're going to use referendums to take decisions like this, I'd prefer that they were either post-legislative (as happened in setting up the Assembly), or else two-stage (decision in principle, then a final decision on the detail). The problem with a decision 'in principle' in isolation is that no-one really knows what they are voting for, and the fact that that applies to the EU referendum is becoming increasingly obvious. The argument for there being an opportunity to rethink the EU decision is therefore two-fold in my view. Firstly, it's about knowing the detail before taking a final decision, and secondly, it's about recognizing that there is a very brief window - between the triggering of Article 50 and the actual departure - in which a re-think is possible.

But, and it's a big but, I haven't argued simply for a second referendum, I've made the slightly different point that a) those who think the decision is wrong have every right to try and persuade people to change their minds, and b) that a second vote should be called if, and only if, it is clear from other evidence that opinions have changed. Simply demanding that people vote again because we don't like the result is futile, and I understand why that might be considered anti-democratic. But there's nothing anti-democratic about trying to sway people's opinions, and if that is successful, then giving them an opportunity to express those revised opinions.

Huw Meredydd said...

'Who speaks for us' Good question?

In proper democracies, referendum questions must meet a certain set of criteria that then get adjudicated in a constitutional court. If they do not meet the criteria they are not accepted and must be amended. Why? In order to avoid binary questions on complex issues, for one thing.

The greatest puzzle of all, at the moment, is why - as you say - all those campaigned for 'Remain' now troop through the lobbies in support of 'Leave'. The referendum question was at best a headline, it had no context, no subsidiary questions and no means of divining, in complex consequential circumstances, how the decision was to be interpreted. It was entirely open and allows those intent on a small government, permanent austerity, low wage, low social protection state to have their way unimpeded.

In other words, the UK electorate voted narrowly, in June, to buy a car. We still don't know if it is to be diesel, LPG, petrol or indeed pedal powered. We don't know whether it will a luxury, family, SUV or sports model. We don't know what colour it will be. We don't know who gets to drive, or where it will be parked. No matter - 'the people have spoken'.

But the one great deafening silence is the lack of voices raised on behalf of the European project. As war again appears on the horizon in lieu of economic success at the hands of demagogues (as Trump fails and China's economy finally collapses, and we all scramble in a race to the bottom), and as the results of imperialism keep on coming home to roost in wave after wave, now is not the time to walk off into the dark.

Speaking up for the EU is not just about being better together in economic terms, it is about solidarity - i.e. standing together when the times get tough.