Nigel Austin 

author of The Robin Gibson series

​​​​Posted 18th February 2017

To B.E. or not to B.E.

I’ve never liked the ‘word’ Brexit. Perhaps it’s my aversion to gimmicky expressions or simply my resistance to any attempt to reduce the importance of the concept of a British Exit from the EU by making it more digestible and easier to fit into tabloid headlines. Even now, for me, its use conveys all that is bad about anti-European sentiment in the UK.

Having nailed those colours to my mast, it should not surprise anyone reading this that I was and remain in the Remain camp. I may not live in the UK right now but I still pay taxes there and regard it as my natural home. I visit at least once a year - I would do so more often if BA would get their act together - and anticipate spending more of my time there in the future. I say this to explain why I am still passionate about my country and what happens to it, not that I need to justify how I feel, of course.

I have considerable sympathy, therefore, for the arguments previously espoused by Tony Blair and now contained within his keynote speech yesterday. I am not his greatest fan - far from it. He lost me over the Iraq invasion. But that doesn’t prevent me from accepting his message instead of vilifying the messenger. He is not the only former Prime Minister to express the view that leaving was not in the best interests of the Kingdom or its people; John Major also voiced his concern in November last year. Addressing the contention that those who voted to stay should have no say in what happens, he said, “The tyranny of the majority has never applied in a democracy and it should not apply in this particular democracy.” He went on to maintain that it must be parliament, not the government, that made the final decision on any new deal with the EU and that there was a “perfectly credible case” for a second referendum on such a deal. Views like this are not well received by everyone but I do wonder why so many Leave supporters are so vociferous and vitriolic in their condemnation of anyone who questions the decision. Those who voted Remain are expected to keep quiet and to accept what many see as the most devastating outcome of any plebiscite since universal suffrage. And this includes the Government and possibly a majority of Conservative MPs. Is our democracy really so fragile that freedom of expression is feared and despised?

Tony Blair’s extremely cogently argued position is that the Referendum had not resulted in a mandate for “Brexit at any cost”. How could it? Most of the implications, let alone the costs, were either unknown or not discussed during the campaign. The government appeared to have given little thought to EU rules concerning withdrawal (they existed but had never been used so it was uncharted territory) or the procedures and mechanisms that would apply. These were not spelt out to the electorate who therefore voted in ignorance. One can have some sympathy for the naive view held by some that within only a matter of days or weeks at most, we would be out of Europe - a view encouraged by Nigel Farage on the morning of 24th June when he said people would wake up to find we were “back to being a normal country and in charge of our own laws”. Compare that with the reality of it taking two years from the date of triggering Article 50! 

If the electorate had been informed that the UK would not be able to leave the EU for another 33 months and, during that relatively long time within any country’s economic life, the Pound would take a conceivably irreversible hammering and the Kingdom’s fortunes would be battered by doomsayers in the IMF and every country within the EU from Germany to Malta, is it not just possible that at least a few percent of voters would have decided differently ..or that some who didn’t bother to vote might have been panicked into action? It certainly seems that way and we haven’t even reached the trigger point. Beyond that lie tough, bruising negotiations with the EU, who, naturally, will not make this a walk-in-the-park for us - pour encourager les autres. And that assumes we have a competent negotiating team to secure the best terms for the UK. Forgive me if I offend but it’s not looking so promising on that front.

We have a Prime Minister who, immediately upon emerging as David Cameron’s replacement, adopted the "Brexit is Brexit" mantra and became so addicted to sackcloth and self-flagellation that she intensified the pain by calling for a hard Brexit. She is now incapable of entertaining the notion that this inclination to self-harm might just not be to everybody’s liking. Much of her cabinet has embraced this position and the Labour party leadership, if not all its MPs, has capitulated. This puts all of them dangerously out of touch with at least half the country. I say ‘at least’ not simply because all the indictions are that a second referendum tomorrow would produce a different result but because almost 28% of the electorate didn’t make a choice. I make no apology for using the argument that had those 13 million registered voters wished us to leave the EU, they would have said so and it is hard to interpret their silence on 23rd June as other than being either content to remain or unsure. That the country should embark upon, let alone finalise, such a monumental change based upon the expressed view of only 37.4% of registered voters - even less (33.9%) if all those of voting age are used - without double-checking beggars belief. 

Apart from these numbers, there are many sound reasons. Vital information either wasn’t available or was withheld during campaigning. The Leave campaign deliberately distorted and misrepresented facts (£350 million per week for the NHS, anybody?). The situation in which we find ourselves now is considerably more precarious than most people envisaged and lives are already being seriously affected if not destroyed. Pressure for a second Scottish referendum will be unstoppable and we shall almost certainly witness the dismantling of the United Kingdom. Theresa May, David Davies, et al are not in control of what will happen over the next two years and for them to pretend they are is deceitful and merely adds to the travesty of the Referendum campaign.

None of these is exactly persuasive of not having a second referendum. On the contrary, in light of what we now know, surely it is irresponsible and negligent to continue without one.