Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Revocation would not be an accident

According to the Prime Minister, Brexit could “slip through our fingers” unless a compromise deal can be reached with Labour.  It is yet another of those statements showing an almost complete lack of awareness of the potential impact of what she says on different audiences.  She sets out to alarm one audience (the Brexiteers) into supporting her deal, but inadvertently encourages an entirely different audience to believe that Brexit can be reversed. 
The phraseology is curious, implying that Brexit is somehow going to be stopped by accident, unless something is done to prevent it.  But in reality, there is only one way in which Brexit can be stopped and that is by deliberate decision of a government – presumably her own government – to revoke the letter issued to the EU27 in accordance with the terms of Article 50 of the treaty.  It is true that there are two circumstances in which that could happen, but in either case it requires action by the government and is not something which happens by accident.  The first is in panic in the next three days if no extension can be agreed, leaving the government and parliament to face the two options of no deal or no Brexit.  The second – and more likely – is after a lengthy extension, incorporating a General Election and/or further referendum.
In either event, a cancellation of Brexit will occur not because a government or parliament has failed to follow through on a referendum decision, but because the parliament elected by the people in 2017 does not contain a majority for any particular outcome of the 2016 referendum.  There is a very real sense in which it is possible to argue that, whatever result parliament comes up with eventually, it is the result which people voted for when they elected their MPs in the election called by the PM in 2017.  It’s possible that those who voted didn’t fully understand what line their MPs would take when push came to shove (and who could blame them; few MPs would have been able to predict at the time of the 2017 election just how big a mess the Tory party would actually get itself into, let alone on what they would eventually be asked to vote).  But under what passes for ‘democracy’ in the UK, the 2017 election (itself called, at least in part, because Theresa May knew that she didn’t have a stable majority for any type of Brexit within her own party) trumps any previous vote and resets the government’s mandate. 
If Brexit ends up being cancelled, either this week in panic or else in some months’ time after a rethink and new referendum, such a decision will be every bit as ‘democratic’ as the 2016 vote, because it will be the direct result of the choices made by voters in the 2017 election.  But the ‘problem’ isn’t with parliament or its members, it’s with the ‘winner-takes-all’ electoral system used in the UK.  The same electoral system which gave us an ill thought out referendum which only a minority voted to hold has also failed to create a clear majority in either parliament or the two main parties for any particular interpretation of the result of that referendum.  I entirely accept that we’ve reached a point where any outcome is going to be unacceptable to an enormous number of people, and that trying to rebuild faith in the political system will be far from easy.  I’m certain, though, that trying to do so within a system which has been shown to fail so spectacularly is doomed to fail; electoral reform which more accurately reflects voting outcomes is a key precondition for any reconciliation.

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