Huffington Post: Brexit Can and Must be Stopped
I wrote for the Huffington Post this week to argue that Brexit can be stopped.
Clement Attlee, the man who led us out of the rubble of the Second World War and into a more modern, egalitarian Britain, is one of this country’s greatest Prime Ministers. One major reason for this is that he was better able to recognise the wants and needs of the British people than some of his more polished political contemporaries.
What Britain needs now is an Attlee government which tackles the countries deep social crisis from an international perspective. So no Brexit, but big reform at home. To contribute to this thinking, last month I began my nationwide Brexit listening tour. Speaking to people in all parts of the country, it has become clear to me that there is a definite appetite for the option to reject Theresa May’s Brexit and hold a referendum.
It was a group of young people I spoke to in Durham who made the most convincing democratic case I’ve heard so far for a referendum. They argued it cannot be anti-democratic by definition, as some Brexiteers claim, to offer the public a say on the terms of withdrawal. In fact, it is in keeping with our democratic tradition – every few years the people are given the opportunity to change their minds in the shape of a general election. Why should it be any different when it comes to one of the greatest constitutional changes our country has faced for decades? After all, there was a two-year interval between the last two general elections (2015 and 2017); a referendum in 2019 would be three years after the last one.
This would not be a re-run of the 2016 referendum. The terms of Brexit could not be discussed then, still less agreed by the people, because they did not exist. They had to be negotiated first. That’s why a referendum on those terms is so necessary. Without one, the people will not have their say on the whole economic and political system which the government is proposing to replace our existing membership of the European Union.
Even many of the 2016 leave voters that I have met agree on my travels agree that having a final say would be empowering. A referendum on the terms would really be a chance for the British people to ‘take back control’ of their political futures.
I can see several clear paths to a democractic vote by the British people on the Brexit treaty.
The simplest would be to allow existing legislation to automatically trigger a referendum. Brexiters used the 2011 European Union Act, which requires there be a referendum on any treaty changes with the EU, as a stepping stone to getting a full referendum on membership. Some very bright legal minds believe the UK leaving the EU could be interpreted as a treaty change, and the matter is set to be decided in the courts in the near future. The EU Withdrawal Bill, which is making its way through the Lords at the moment, aims to repeal the 2011 act, but I’ve tabled an amendment to keep it on the statute book. If the courts agree with the lawyers, and the Lords back my amendment then we will have a national referendum on whether to leave on Mrs May’s terms.
Alternatively, Parliament could legislate for a final say. The Commons have already guaranteed there will be a meaningful parliamentary vote on Brexit before we leave. It would not take a big legislative leap to refer the question to the people. And the parliamentary arithmetic to make this possible is adding up too – Labour is slowly edging towards it (Corbyn’s acceptance of Customs Union membership is the latest step in this direction) and the fact that enough Conservatives have rebelled on Brexit matters in the past means there is a potential for a referendum cross-party coalition.
We’re at a pivotal point in our national history. I see Attlee as our guide. We need wide-ranging reform to address the real concerns that led to Brexit – policies as bold as those introduced by our greatest Prime Minister since 1945. Brexit is not inevitable.