Theresa May has postponed the parliamentary vote on her Withdrawal Agreement but it cannot be put off indefinitely. There is only one sure-fire way for it to get through the House of Commons and that is with an amendment that it must be also ratified by voters in a referendum, or the country will stay in the EU. This would achieve three things. It would allow the Commons to sweep aside the call for a Trump-style ‘No deal’. It would accept, if through gritted teeth, that May’s negotiations define what Brexit means. It would give voters the ability to pass their verdict on it.
Instead, she has just told parliament that another referendum “will divide the country”, as if her agreement with its commitment to a long process of further negotiation will not do so. She is right, of course, that referendums are divisive and there is nothing wrong with that if they are based on honest arguments. Then, as in Scotland in 2014, they will gain losers consent. What was poisonous about the UK’s wretched plebiscite of 2016 was its contrived and dishonest nature, on all sides.
That does not mean a new one will necessarily be better. The Daily Mail Survation poll shows 48% want a Peoples Vote while 34% oppose it. But 47% say staying in the EU would damage Britain’s standing. Only 24% disagree with this and overall, 52%, the same proportion that voted for Brexit in 2016, think May’s is the best deal on offer.
There are other polls showing a significant switch to Remain, such as today’s analysis by Best for Britain and Hope not Hate. But the New Statesman’s political editor Stephen Bush has, rightly, just warned pro-Europeans of the need “to overcome decades of unchallenged cultural Euroscepticism and a largely hostile press. Don't forget that the biggest and most widely shared content on Facebook in the last referendum wasn't anything devised by Cambridge Analytica but the Daily Express… it is not at all clear how that cultural opposition to British membership of the European project can be overcome.’ And he concludes more emphatically to predict that any new referendum will confirm a Brexit supremacy, “until those things change, pro-European victories in Britain will continue to be confined to the courts”.
His point is well made and must be confronted. Given this, I have a message for the Remain side, which I support. We have to change our tune. The dire Europhobia Bush warns against is already being eroded, led by young campaigners against Brexit and Caroline Lucas in parliament, but much more is needed.
For example, many People’s Vote supporters now gleefully parrot the argument made by hard Brexiteers that the Withdrawal Agreement is “worse” than being in the EU. But this accepts the premise that being a member is bad in the first place. Were we to win a referendum having branded the outcome in advance as a form of national loss in this way, resentment is bound to follow, but it also makes it much more likely that we will lose.
It reproduces the approach David Cameron took when he launched the referendum in the first place, that blew him out the water. He decided he had to appeal to voters’ “heads not hearts”, as if these can’t be in unison. As the then prime minister’s spin doctor, Craig Oliver, revealed in his inside account, Cameron defined the choice as a matter of calculation not principle. He reinforced the country’s dislike of the EU and said we were in it to make a profit.
The referendum was in part a great democratic moment that rightly rejected this way of thinking about ourselves. We should not be talking about whether voters should “buy” May’s deal. Napoleon was wrong. England is not a country of shopkeepers. The de facto alliance of Cameron Conservatives and New Labour leaders, aided by Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, deserved to be shown the door. Together they had become a narrow, unrepresentative political caste who made money out of gaining public office.
But the European Union was not responsible for their baleful, grasping influence on Britain.
Our membership of the EU, outside of the Eurozone, was good for Britain as a country, including our democracy. But those of us who advocate a return to it must make it clear we will brook no reprise of the old manipulating elite.
Whatever you think of them, at least May and Corbyn have distinguished themselves by their rejection of the fast boys of 21st century Westminster politics. They both share an honourable commitment to public service. Neither are in it for the money and each resist rule by American corporate interests, although Corbyn of course is a genuine opponent.
However, too many supporters of a People’s Vote have failed to make the same break from the recent past. They still bang-on exclusively about the economic self-harm of leaving the EU, using corporate language. They threaten a return to pre-referendum Britain. This hands Leave campaigners, including even those who want a hard-Brexit, an inestimable and undeserved advantage: of being the ones to make positive arguments, especially on democracy and ‘taking control’. It also gives them an easy path to accuse Remain supporters of failing to love their country.
Carry on like this and Bush will be proved right in any future referendum. The Remain side must advocate its own positive and honest version of democracy and sovereignty. Otherwise it doesn’t have the right to call for a People’s Vote and doesn’t deserve to win one. Two defining issues can help: regulation and nationalism.
Boris Johnson has made his career out of denouncing regulation. The most popular advocate of a hard Brexit, he compares the EU to a “Hitler-style super state” and calls May’s Agreement an “appalling sell-out”. His evidence for the latter is that British citizens in Northern Ireland will have to “obey EU rules on everything from lawnmower noise to the description of preserved sardines”. Well, Britain did not fight Hitler because he threatened to impose quieter lawnmowers or ensure packaging is honest. Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers commit a fundamental error when they claim regulation is an extension of classical sovereignty, as if rules about food safety are the same as matters of war and peace.
Over the last half-century, regulation has become a new branch of government alongside executive power, the legislature and the judiciary. For example, rules about data privacy and the exchange of data are a vital part of modern life that require international adjudication. People understand this from their own experience, which is why EU regulation, especially on the environment and food and medicines, is popular.
Indeed, as Theresa May has discovered, the UK can no more leave the single market, which is built on shared regulation, than leave the internet. It is not impossible. But it is hugely expensive, diminishes our freedom and does not restore ‘national sovereignty’. Membership of the Single Market that Britain played a vital role in creating is a gain in terms of modern sovereignty not a loss. Yet many on the Remain side are still reluctant to make this case with confidence and panache.
Perhaps a shared longing for Britain as a world leader prevents this. It stretches back not so much to ‘Empire’ as to the effort (and failure) to create a ‘British nation’ after 1945, analysed by David Edgerton. As a consequence an unresolved national question is locked within the UK, whose compulsions led to Brexit.
This brings us back to Stephen Bush’s scepticism that a new referendum would achieve a different outcome. For should there be a new vote we can be certain of one set of results. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, which had Remain majorities of 24, 12 and 20 per cent respectively, will vote in even larger numbers for EU membership. While recent polling shows that Wales, which supported Brexit by only 80,000 (it has a population of 3 million) in 2016 has definitely changed its mind with 56% of voters now in support of Remain.
Brexit happened because of a country we can call England-without-London. Its 46 million inhabitants backed Leave by an 11 per cent majority. It is not clear that, apart from those under 30, it has shifted away decisively from its hostility to the EU. This is the land of the Daily Express followers that Bush refers to: the land of old England.
Another referendum will therefore divide old England-without-London from the UK as a whole. Uneasily aware of this, some Remain supporters speak disparagingly about a narrow English nationalism. In fact, England suffers an acute and peculiar democratic deficit as a historic nation, as it has no parliament, assembly or even think tanks or other institutions, whether business, trade union or civil society, that embody its national interest and concerns. Instead, our natural desire to be represented has been sucked into an anachronistic passion for Great Britain. On the right this leads to hostility to the EU, stretching from the nose-holding instrumental kind of David Cameron to varieties of bigoted, free-market Anglo-exceptionalism of Farage, Johnson and Rees Mogg. On the left, to a blurred internationalism and desire for progressive global influence.
The contrast with Scotland is striking. Its first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, passionately supports both national independence and membership of the EU. Like most Scots she does not experience them as opposites. Her country and Ireland have moved ahead of England in this, and become normal democracies at ease within the European single market. For democratic nationalism today is cosmopolitan – it is about joining the world and bridging differences, not belligerence and creating divisions.
As I have tried to show the issue here is more about democracy than identity. Democracy needs institutions that demonstrate its essential plurality. It is now essential to offer England-without-London a route into the contemporary world if Britain is to find its home in Europe. One inspired, for example, by the spirit of Gareth Southgate’s football team, which is a model for young England: open, diverse and hard-working; its creative energy at home in the larger continent of Europe just as the whole of Britain needs to be.
Remain supporters need a leadership that promises no return to the past and helps young England find its voice. Otherwise we will not overcome the cockeyed Great British notion that freedom, true sovereignty and self-determination mean hauling up the drawbridge and being oneself alone, and the incipient civil war will deepen.