It’s time to cut the Brexitian knot

Tick tock. Tick tock. We are inching inexorably towards the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU).

Yes, the UK is due to leave the EU at 11 pm on Friday 29 March. Even the Brexit deadline will play out according to the EU’s schedule, Brussels time. It will be midnight there. How ironic.

However, it’s hard to fathom that more than 2½ years on from the vote (by a small majority) in the ‘advisory’ referendum of June 2016 to leave the EU, we are essentially no closer to resolving many of the issues (and prejudices) that Brexit has brought to the surface. Indeed, some have become even more deeply entrenched.

Many seem almost insoluble, given the almost even split in opinion (in 2016) among the nation’s voters, and the parliamentary deadlock that currently blights the House of Commons. Party before nation!

It seems as if everyone has a different idea of what Brexit really means or its consequences. Opinion across the House ranges from Remain on one side of the debate, to the hardest of hard Brexits (the purview of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group¹ or ERG acolytes).

Much of the criticism can be laid at Prime Minister Theresa May’s door for her (mis)handling of the negotiations, her red lines, and obsession about immigration as I wrote just a few days ago.

Remainers knew what they were voting for in the 2016 referendum. I’m not sure if Leavers fully understood what they voted for. A land of milk and honey, unicorns? From interviews of many Leave supporters I have watched in recent weeks, they do not appear to have the slightest inkling what Brexit means or how it might affect their day-to-day lives. When they voted they had little or no idea about the EU or how it works (the Single Market or the Customs Union), the real level of the UK’s financial contributions to the EU, or the many benefits that membership has brought to the UK (particularly benefits from the EU’s regional funds in impoverished areas of the UK). For many, a vote to leave the EU was simply a protest vote against the status quo, years of austerity, of neglect. A xenophobic vote against immigration. More worryingly, many ardent Brexiteers clearly don’t care about any economic, social, or constitutional consequences of Brexit.

But this week has seen a significant change in parliamentary dynamics. Several groups of MPs of different political persuasions are working to prevent the UK leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement, taking the so-called ‘No Deal’ option ‘off the table’. Incredibly, a not insignificant number of voters understand ‘No Deal’ to mean ‘Remain’!

Even the Labour Party has now publicly come out in favor of holding a second referendum that would give the electorate an opportunity to make its will known about the outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK.

But as things currently stand we are facing acceptance of Theresa May’s draft Withdrawal Agreement or No Deal (leaving the EU without any agreement, no transition period, nothing). The parliamentary arithmetic suggests that Theresa May still does not have enough votes for her agreement to pass, having been rejected by the House of Commons in mid-January by a margin of 432 votes to 202. Yet, with nothing new to offer, she is bringing the deal back to Parliament by 12 March for yet another ‘meaningful vote’. Funny how this second vote is seen as the epitome of democracy, yet asking the electorate to pass its verdict on the same deal, or other Brexit options, in a People’s Vote is viewed as a subversion of that same democracy. Meanwhile, we all sit on the edge of our seats, staring into a Brexit abyss.

But talk of a second referendum worries me. For many Brexiteers and the Leave-supporting public, a ‘second referendum’ is or will be seen simply as a re-run of the 2016 referendum. A People’s Vote is not a second referendum per se. The opinion of the electorate, the British people, is now needed on how to move forward because no single Brexit option commands a parliamentary majority. There is stalemate.

So, moving towards another national vote, it’s not like 2016, a simple question of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. The choices are more complex and, I think, among the reasons why politicians have shied away from agreeing to a new vote, notwithstanding their faux support of democracy.

So what form should a second vote take? I’ve thought long and hard about this, and as I said, it can’t be described (vilified even from some quarters) as 2016 Mk 2. How will the vote be organized? Must a vote be based only on binary choices, or can a vote be based on three or more choices? This is what the Institute for Government has to say on the matter. I was reminded of this issue yesterday in a tweet from my former colleague.

In my opinion, a People’s Vote has to have two parts, otherwise the expectations of many voters will simply not be captured in a binary choice (while avoiding re-running 2016).

Here’s my take. My wording maybe be naïve or inappropriate, but it gets us to the outcome I think we all want to achieve.

This format allows the electorate to vote to continue with Brexit if it so desires, but under terms they understand and agree with (May’s agreement). It’s a simple choice: support Theresa May’s deal or not. The outcome is a majority one way or the other. If the vote is YES, then that’s it. We leave the EU under defined terms.

In the second part, assuming a NO majority in Part I, the electorate can choose to continue with Brexit (whatever the consequences) or remain in the EU.

Is this format too complicated? Maybe. But it does provide clear binary choices. There is no guarantee, however, that all voters would complete both parts. Maybe a ballot paper would be void/spoiled unless both parts are completed. I don’t know enough (which is very little) about the electoral process. I do know that a People’s Vote must avoid language or outcome ambiguities.

Some way has to be found to cut the Brexitian knot,  resulting in a clear decision for a defined option. The nation is sick and tired of the constant Brexit bickering that meets the aspirations of neither Leavers nor Remainers.


¹ European Research Group – yes, these MPs are a group, a definite caucus within the Conservative Party. As a scientist, however, I object to them using the term ‘Research’. They don’t appear to understand even the basic principles of what research is all about.

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