The electorate could be asked whether or not it accepts the deal negotiated by its government with the EU.
At its annual conference in Liverpool, the British Labour Party came close this week to endorsing a second referendum on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU), although it was not initially very clear exactly what question might be put to the vote.
The electorate could be asked whether or not it accepts the deal negotiated by its government with the EU, or it could simultaneously be given the option of reversing the result of the 2016 referendum by altogether rejecting the very idea of a Brexit. Not surprisingly, Labour is divided on the issue, even though a majority of its members and supporters appear to favour the possibility of Britons being given the right to rescind the choice they made two years ago.
The argument against such an open-ended choice is that the 2016 verdict was clear-cut, and that it’s infeasible in a functioning democracy to bring up the same question every couple of years. That makes sense at one level. On the other hand, though, it could be argued that some of the most prominent campaigners on both sides deliberately distorted the facts; that almost 28 per cent of the electorate did not cast a vote, through either apathy or uncertainty; and that there was a generational divide, with younger people — who are inevitably more concerned about the future, and whose numbers have been strengthened in the interim — more clearly inclined to favour the Remain option.
At the same time, nobody had any idea of how Brexit negotiations would go. Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May took her controversial Chequers plan to an EU summit in Salzburg, and returned humiliated. This was her second embarrassment on that particular basis, following the fiasco in July when she corralled the Conservative Party front bench in Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, and insisted on everyone signing up to a strategy hardly any of them had been given the opportunity to absorb. They went along with the charade, but both her Brexit secretary, David Davis, and foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, felt obliged to resign from the cabinet in the days that followed, alongside a handful of lesser-known luminaries.
May ought to have realised that the EU would be disinclined to accept any proposal whereby Britain gets to pick and choose whichever elements of its relationship with Europe it wishes to retain. One of the main bones of contention relates to the UK’s only land border with the EU, between Britain’s last significant colony, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic. That divide was rendered a lot less rigid in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, and hardly anyone favours a return to the status quo ante. Permitting its Irish province to remain a part of the European customs union while mainland Britain adopts contrary rules entails a degree of incoherence. The simplest way out would be to agree to a long overdue reunification of Ireland — but that is hardly an option for May, who relies for her parliamentary majority on an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents the Protestant hard core of Northern Irish separatism. But even the Labour Party would, at least for the time being, be wary of backing a united Ireland, at least without some kind an Irish referendum.
The Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have lately been under pressure to articulate a coherent alternative to the Tory Brexit strategy, rather than merely relishing the Conservative chaos, and hoping that it will sooner or later entail Britain’s third general election since 2015. It’s not that they don’t have a plan — but their radical policy platform, with several elements that boast considerable popular appeal, relates primarily to the domestic economy.
At the moment, the likeliest outcome appears to be the worst-case scenario: a no-deal Brexit in March 2019, which its relatively few Tory proponents say will work out just fine, while some of them at the same time are advising British citizens to stock food and medicines. Just in case it becomes impossible to keep calm and carry on.
A change of government would probably be the best option for Britain in the short run. But time is running out, and there’s no guarantee of a desirable result in either a third election or a second referendum.
By arrangement with Dawn