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Brexit – time to break free from the plotters’ playground

January 10, 2019

In my Brexit-plagued country, 2019 is kicking off much as 2018 ended. Hot air blasting out of every seam of the House of Commons as our elected representatives work themselves up into a frenzy over procedural issues, plot away in the corridors and line up with desperate enthusiasm to get on the telly in order to spout a dozen different arguments they hope will shape the slowest political crisis in my lifetime. And boost their careers, of course.

Last year, about the only positives I can recall were the arrival of my lovely grandson and the England football team not living up to expectations of failure in the World Cup. Of the negatives, take your pick. The long-term biggies, such as climate change and competition for water and other natural resources. The outrages, including Salisbury and Khashoggi. And then the crises of Western democracy: a dangerous, disturbed president of the United States and, for my little island, Brexit.

It looks like more of the same for the next twelve months. Brexit has loomed large, both in conversations and in this blog, since the referendum. I’m not a voice crying the wilderness. Millions appear to share my concern that the will of the people, ineptly solicited and fraudulently influenced, is being used as an ordinance more immutable than the Ten Commandments.

So, kind readers, at the risk of boring you beyond your tolerance, especially those of you who aren’t British and have only a passing interest in our torturous politics, my first serious post of 2019 has to be about the political meteorite that we can all see but don’t seem able to avoid.

The other day I got an email from my brother, Professor Patrick Royston. He works in biomedical research. We don’t meet as often as I would like, and when we do, we rarely talk about politics. I had never asked him how he voted in the referendum. These days, even among family, that seems like an impolite question.

Patrick has always been a quiet counterpoint to my intermittently bombastic persona. He has greater concerns in his life than the implications of Brexit. But an opinion expressed by someone who does so rarely is often more noteworthy than that of someone who shouts all the time.

Here’s what he wrote:

“I know you have written quite a lot about Brexit already, and I have no claim to be adding anything very new or stunning to the discussion. However, I thought my personal perspective on it might be of interest to you and possibly to others if you were inclined to include some suitably edited version of it in your blog.

I recall, around the time of the referendum in June 2016, thinking about which way I should vote. I was aware of being sceptical about the extravagant claims of benefits of various kinds made by the raucous Leave campaigners. I’d noticed also the perhaps rather dour and off-putting attitudes towards the EU of some of our older (and not-so-old) folk in different parts of the land. Nevertheless, I do vividly remember, even up to the last minute, being quite unsure whether to vote Leave or Remain. My main reasons for disliking the EU concerned the bureaucratic and undemocratic way the Commission operated. I was unhappy about the fact that the EU could quite legally impose rules and regulations on the rest of us with no opportunity to demur or discuss. (Rules about the permitted shapes of certain items of fruit and veg come to mind.) At least, that was my personal understanding of how things operated.

In the event in 2016, it turned out that the Bristol area (where I live) voted 62:38 in favour of Remain. Two and a half years on, I feel I know a lot more about the pros and (particularly) the cons of leaving. For example, I wasn’t aware earlier on that the Northern Ireland/Eire border was such a key issue – that re-instituting a physical border would be tantamount to breaking the all-important Good Friday agreement. Not to mention the serious impedance to trade, increased inconvenience and sheer bother that a physical barrier would impose. It now seems quite clear that leaving the EU will impose terrible damage on certain important parts of our economy. Our country will become poorer for some as yet unquantified period of time. Just as important, we will lose credibility as an influential player on the world stage, including of course the EU itself. The effect of Brexit on reducing funding of biomedical research, the area I work in, will be dire. And more, of course.

The upshot of all of this for me is: I want the opportunity to reaffirm my support for Remain. I believe there is now increasing evidence of a significant national majority on the Remain side. People’s vote, second referendum, call it what you like, I want the opportunity to re-express my view and I think the country needs it too. After all, the politicians have not exactly covered themselves in glory over the whole Brexit process, and even now, aren’t offering a majority view for anything attractive or sensible. The alternative choice in the ballot: Leave with no deal. Simple binary decision. It is obvious that May’s hard won but ill-fated “deal” is dead in the water, so why offer that?”

I would only add to Patrick’s words an answer to an argument I have heard too many times: “if we’re to have a second referendum, why not a best of three?”. The difference between 2016 and now was that then we made a choice while blindfolded, with people all around us telling us which way to walk. Now we can see pretty clearly for ourselves where we’re going. A notional second referendum is not a rerun of the first. End of story.

Finally, my preferred way forward, assuming that a second referendum doesn’t have the support of parliament. We are only running out of time to decide our future if we allow ourselves to do so. If we are not to have a second vote, the most sensible comment I’ve heard in the past few days came from Ken Clarke, who suggested that we stop the clock by revoking Article 50, thus giving ourselves more time to reach a consensus on the way forward. That way we can restart the clock – or not – at a time of our choosing, rather than sticking to a deadline that has become increasingly destructive.

We have reached the point at which in normal times we would agree to differ, and spend our energy solving the innumerable pressing problems that governments usually face. If we must set a deadline for revisiting Brexit, it should expire in five years. That would give us ample time time to re-align our politics, to re-visit the terms of our leaving and prepare for the orderly Brexit that is not in prospect today. If necessary, we could have a second referendum in year four to seal the deal or revert to the status quo. By that time, much is likely to have happened within the European Union and elsewhere in the world that would influence that decision. What will a political landscape without May and Merkel (definitely), Corbyn, Macron, Trump and Putin (likely) look like?

You could argue that calling a temporary halt to Brexit would be an act of kicking the can down the road. True, but better that we kick it down a friendly road we know reasonably well than boot it into a minefield, as seems likely at present. In five years’ time we might need all the friends we can get.

That, it seems to me, is how we take control, at least of our immediate future.

From → Politics, UK

  1. Tonicombe permalink

    This is surely too sane for our present world!
    We can’t have people thinking like this and, worse, making rational proposals for the future welfare of our country. It’s just not British.
    Begone sir! Get back to the knee-jerk, fact-ignoring finger-stabbing opinions of tradition.

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