My Chatham House speech: Brexit can and should be stopped


We are in a deep Brexit crisis and we need, now at this moment, a plan both to get out of it and to get beyond it with confident national purpose and mission.

I want to set out a plan with three points.

First, the goal can and must be to stop Brexit entirely. Brexit is a cliff not a gradient. The category mistake we are in danger of making is to believe that some Brexits are better than others when the fundamental problem is Brexit itself.

Being on the edge of a cliff, the necessary course is to step back from the edge, and not delude ourselves with ever more absurd and bizarre schemes for jumping over while clinging to a branch and hoping to find a ledge a third or half way down.

It is now crystal clear that the fatal flaw of Brexit is the act of putting the United Kingdom outside the European Union – its markets, its customs union, its institutions, its law, its leadership, its future. Working out what we might do having left is the politics of a ‘least worst’ options unworthy and dangerous for this nation and this people with its European geography and destiny.

After two years of ceaseless Brexiteering by government and Parliament, it is a statement of fact that there is no viable Brexit plan on offer, none in sight, and that all of those muted involve massive dislocation and ongoing uncertainty for our trade, our security, Ireland, and our whole international position as a country. Even if we could get to something like a Norweigan or Swiss option – don’t get me going on the complexities even of those, and of course they aren’t remotely government policy – but even if we could safely reach some Norwegian fjord or Swiss chalet, the difference between that and our present position in the EU is measured in miles not inches. And anything short of this is frankly ludicrous, as the last few weeks of ‘keep calm and carry on’ Battle of Britain planning for food stockpiling and transport chaos has demonstrated.

Point two. The path away from the cliff edge is for Theresa May to announce that the government’s Brexit deal will be put to a referendum after it comes to Parliament at the end of the year, giving the people the choice not to proceed and instead to stay in the European Union. If the Prime Minister will not do this, the House of Commons should direct her or her successor to hold this referendum, as it has directed monarchs and governments at moments of national crisis over the centuries since Magna Carta.

There is a lot being said about democracy and referendum results which must be honoured irrespective of circumstances. Democracy is not a single event; it is a process of constant public engagement, what Attlee called ‘government by discussion.’ It’s why we have regular elections for multiple tiers of government, why Parliament has two debating chambers and dozens of committee rooms, and is not simply a registry office; and why the process of enacting even the most minor legislation involves numerous stages over many months in both Houses of Parliament, not just one vote.

So my second point is to state clearly that a people’s vote – to stop a government potentially harming the people – not only accords with our constitution and traditions, but in my view it is necessitated by them. Parliament has what Gladstone said in respect of self-government for Ireland when he proposed it in 1886: a ‘golden moment’ to resolve an imminent national calamity. True, this moment does not feel especially golden, but nor was it when Gladstone spoke amid Irish terrorism and civil insurrection. His point was that Parliament had a rare moment of autonomy in the power to act. Which is precisely where we are at the moment with Brexit: we have the autonomy to act now before the timetable actually to leave the EU on March 29th next year overwhelms us and we lose control of events, as we surely will.

Which brings me to point three. Brexit will only be stopped if members of parliament show courage and leadership at this moment.

If in the historic Brexit votes soon to come, MPs hand their consciences to party whips and leave it to others to do their duty, we will most likely end up in a ‘Blind Brexit’ – a ‘Wile E Coyote’ Brexit –

where we leave Europe next March, running off the edge of the cliff without a credible plan for our national future, whatever the immediate provisions for stability. For this we and our children will pay a steadily greater price in economic, diplomatic and security vulnerability until as we surely will in the next generation, either by our initiative or through European crisis, we once again to take our place in the European Union.

So this is the strategy I propose – along with many other parliamentarians and others who have been wrestling with these great issues and with whom I have been in a virtual committee of public safety in recent months.

First, Brexit can and must be stopped, democratically.

Second, this can and should be done by means of a people’s vote.

Third, it is the duty of all MPs who realise that Brexit is basically wrong to support the people’s vote and give their frank advice to their constituents on the right course to stay in the EU.

Let me address two crucial follow-on points. It is suggested, by people in the shadows of our embattled Prime Minister, that the choice in any referendum would be between her deal and something called ‘no deal’ – something which, I should stress, does not exist and has not been defined by Mr Rees-Mogg and others who glibly mouth the words ‘no deal’ because it isn’t remotely viable to exit the EU next March with no treaty governing the hundreds of issues, from aviation to food safety, vital to the life of this country.

Fact. It is Parliament which, if it calls a referendum, will also decide the question; and the only viable question, assuming that the Prime Minister succeeds in negotiating a draft treaty, is to put that draft to the people. I suggest it is sent to every household, as was done with the Good Friday Agreement in the 1998 referendum in Northern Ireland – and for the people to judge, on a case made factually and fairly by both sides, whether they think her treaty is preferable to the benefits we currently gain from membership of the European Union.

The second follow-on point is about timing. The same people in the Number 10 shadows say we have ‘run out of time’ to hold a referendum. This too is incorrect. It is true that it may now be difficult to legislate for, and hold, a referendum before next March. But Lord Kerr, who drafted and negotiated article 50, and other European leaders privately, have made clear that any request by the UK Government to extend the article 50 timeframe for the bona fide purpose of holding a referendum – as opposed to an extension for further adventures in Wonderland – would almost certainly be granted.

The European Union is above all an association of democracies – which, is one of the reasons it is so strong and successful. It has always respected the democratic processes of member states in reaching decisions on treaties and policies, and no one seriously believes it is going to do otherwise on the most momentous decision by a member state since its creation 61 years ago.

So, I see a clear path to a People’s Vote. I also believe that we would win such a vote, not least because younger voters will vote heavily against Brexit. Their future is literally at stake – and they will, I predict, turn out to vote in record numbers.

This presupposes there is a People’s Vote, and I want to issue a stark warning. We are a great democracy. But it is impossible to warn too strongly that it is not foreordained that we will get through next six months to next March without committing an act of massive national self harm.

Democracies, when badly led – and we have been very badly led – can and do make grievous mistakes for which their people pay grievously in their livelihoods and sometimes even their lives. And, yes, that includes in England, ‘this Throne of Kings, this sceptr’d isle, this earth of Majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise, set in a silver sea’ – the purple passage of Shakespeare’s Richard II, a play all about the destruction of a throne of kings.

Part of the reason I am so concerned that we might get it badly wrong is that we have often got it badly wrong in the past.

There have been six deep and prolonged crises of the British state in the past 150 years, since we became something approaching a democracy.

  • We failed, as Britain democratised in the late 19th century, to put the government of Ireland on a liberal democratic footing within the United Kingdom;

  • We failed to halt the drift into the cataclysm of the First World War without any viable plan or policy;

  • In the 1930s, we failed, through appeasement, to stop a second and even more bloody war with Germany in just 20 years;

  • Then in the 1960s the state failed to manage industrial relations effectively, which led to nearly twenty years of chronic industrial unrest, involving the fall of three successive governments, Wilson’s, Heath’s and Callaghan’s, and vast human misery and de-industrialisation across Britain, up to and beyond the end of the miners’ strike in 1985;

  • That is four prolonged crises. The fifth is now: the rupturing of our membership of the European Union which has been progressive since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech delivered almost 30 years ago to the day, in which she essentially declared war on the European Union, bringing us, by highways and byways, to the brink of Brexit today.

My critical and very sombre reflection on all this is that in three of the four crises I have just mentioned, until the present one, government and Parliament failed to take the right decisions in time to prevent the crisis spiralling out of control.

Thus it was

  • that in 1886 the House of Commons narrowly rejected Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill, because the Liberal party split on the principle of a devolved parliament for Ireland, with terrible consequences throughout the 20th century for Ireland and the entire British Isles.

  • that in 1914, the drift into cataclysmic European war went unchecked in Parliament – partly, in a double tragedy, because prime minister Asquith was preoccupied in the key month of July 1914 with a civil emergency in Ulster, created by the Conservative Party fighting Irish Home Rule not only in Parliament but through military mutiny in Ulster. Parliament was by then debating the fifth Irish Home Rule Bill in 30 years – or to be more precise, in 28 years: the 30th anniversary of the Commons’ rejection of Home Rule in 1886 was in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising in Dublin and the start of a full civil war in Ireland, right in the middle of the First World War.

As for the crisis in industrial relations in the 1960s and beyond, in 1969 Harold Wilson’s Cabinet split fatefully on Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’ plan for bringing industrial relations within a democratic legal framework. The upshot, for nearly two decades, was year after year of widespread national strikes and bitter industrial strife and intimidation. Many of us here grew up in the 60s and 70s. Incredibly, we accepted as normal an intermittently functioning economy, beleaguered by strikes, just as we got used to IRA bombs going off not only in Northern Ireland but in Oxford Street and Regent’s Park.

So let no one doubt Parliament’s capacity to get big decisions very wrong, with dire long-term consequences. Moreover, when fatefully wrong decisions are taken, the results are often worse – far worse – than even the pessimists predicted at the time – as they were in Ireland, on the Somme, under Hitler’s tyranny, and in the successive miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 1980s.

I was traveling around Ireland by train three weeks ago – and watched on the television in an Irish pub as Leo Varadkar received the Pope in a moving ceremony in Dublin Castle. Dublin Castle is where the court martials and summary executions took place in 1916 after the Irish Republic was proclaimed in Dublin’s General Post Office. I visited the Post Office when I got to Dublin. On the wall are these words of Seamus Heaney:

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

This is the desperate situation into which our Parliament allowed Ireland to descend by decisions taken and not taken over a generation.

Now, the observant will have noticed that I said above that there were six prolonged crises of the British state in the past 150 years. I have so far discussed four – and mentioned a fifth, appeasement and the 1930s, to which I will return. What is the sixth?

The sixth is a case of prolonged crisis where seriously wrong decisions were taken at the outset, but where, by good fortune and wise leadership, they were put right two decades later and the upshot was long-run benefits far greater even than predicted by the optimists, such are the dynamics of getting big decisions right and wrong. I refer to the saga of British non-membership and then membership of what became the European Union in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

You know the story. Attlee and Bevin’s decision not to join the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 because ‘the Durham miners won’t wear it.’ The equally fateful decision not to sign the Treaty of Rome six years later. Macmillan’s desperate bid to reverse this error in 1961, vetoed by de Gaulle; Wilson’s repeat in 1967, also vetoed by de Gaulle. Success by Heath at the 3rd attempt in 1971, upheld in the 1975 referendum.

The lessons crucial for todays’ Brexit debate are, first, that once out of the EU, it will be a nightmare to get back in. Last time it took us a decade of feverish diplomacy to get in, even with prime ministers and parliaments overwhelmingly committed to the cause, negotiating with an EU of six. Think what it will be like in the fractured politics of post-Brexit, even when and if there is a government intent on rejoining the EU, having to negotiate with an EU of maybe 30, the memory of our traumatic departure etched in red.

However, the bigger point to make about the history of our engagement membership of the EU since 1973- and let me make it, because it is so rarely made and was never made two years ago - is that after the initial missteps, our membership of the EU has been an overwhelming success.

Because of the long shadow of Margaret Thatcher and a culture of constant belittling of and lying about Brussels, we constantly lose sight of the fact that our 45 years membership of the EU, and the 70 years of the EU’s rise and operation, have been arguably the most successful decades both in the history of this country and in the history of Europe. Seventy years of peace in all the states belonging to the EU – the only seventy consecutive years of peace in the history of Europe. Seventy years of near universal growth and growing general prosperity - the only 70 consecutive years in the history of the continent when that happened too. Quite some requiem will have to be written next March, if Brexit happens.

It is very telling that the four catastrophes I set out earlier all pre-date – or in the case of industrial strife started – before our joining the EU in 1973.

Our international security, our trade and economic dynamism, our relations with Ireland and the position of Ireland itself, north and south, have been vastly improved by the success of the EU. A success to which Britain has so largely contributed, not least through the forging of the Single Market by none other than Margaret Thatcher before Jacques Delors, the former French social democratic finance minister, came on the scene as president of the European Commission and led her to fantasise that he was going to impose Marxism from Brussels.

You know the statistics, 45% of our trade is with the EU. 15% is with the more than 70 countries with which the EU has free trade agreements including, most recently, Japan and Canada. No-one understood all this better than Margaret Thatcher pre-Delors. This is Margaret Thatcher in 1988, shortly before her Bruges speech:

“How we meet the challenge of the Single Market will be a major factor, possibly the major factor, in our competitive position in European and world markets into the twenty-first century. Getting it right needs a partnership between government and business.

The task of government is two-fold – to negotiate in Brussels so as to get the possible results for Britain; - and then to make you, the business community, aware of the opportunities so you can make the most of them.”

That was Margaret Thatcher, 1988. Boris Johnson, 2018: “Fuck business.” An extraordinary case of the party of trade and business becoming the English National Party.

But far beyond the economic realm, I never cease to be amazed at further instances of what Brexit might cost us. The low point of the 150 hours spent in the House of Lords debating the EU Withdrawal Act – almost as long as Liam Fox’s circumnavigation of the globe in his quest for the easiest trade deal in history – was when it became apparent that leaving the EU means losing the intricate legal basis for stopping cross-border child abductions, which are surprisingly common after marriage breakdowns and have been sharply reduced in number thanks to European law requiring automatic and immediate enforcement in all EU jurisdictions of one member state court’s instructions on child return. When this came up in the Lords, a pro-Brexit peer said in so many words that more child abductions was a price worth paying for liberation from Brussels. I have never seen the Lords so angry. Whatever the instruction from the British people on 23rd June 2016, it was not this, nor hundreds of the other things now happening, from the collapse of our space programme to the wholesale relocation of jobs, agencies and companies from Britain to the Continent.

There are three other immense dimensions to the success of Brexit and conversely to the danger we may soon face. The first is Britain’s security and international influence, the mission of Chatham House, an institution which has done so much so well to foster British diplomacy for peace and progress.

Because Brexit is economically damaging in whatever form, the line being peddled by Mrs May, is that you can separate economy and security and say ‘don’t worry, we’ll be safe with NATO.’ This is foolhardy and dangerous.

Crucially, NATO itself doesn’t take that view. Jens Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister who is Secretary-General of NATO, constantly points out that if the UK leaves the EU, 80 per cent of the military resources of NATO will be outside the EU yet the EU’s security and foreign policy institutions are vital instruments of the Atlantic alliance – and, of course, almost all the members of NATO vulnerable to attack from Russia are small European states. Moreover, countries engaged in bitter trade rivalry, particularly if they are neighbours, rarely make good security partners. Look at the history of Anglo-German rivalry before 1914.

If the international perils weren’t clear enough two years ago, the 27 months since the 2016 referendum – Trump, Putin, Salisbury, Orban, Salvini, the far right AfD becoming Germany’s main opposition – are flashing red lights.

For an exhibition just in the past week of the corruption of our foreign policy by Brexit, and how economy and security can’t be compartmentalised, look at last week’s vote by the Conservative party in the European Parliament to back Viktor Orban, alongside Latvian fascists, the French National Front and the German AfD, against every mainstream European party of left and right. Britain’s prime minister is no longer prepared to criticise rising fascism in a European state because its leader’s support may be needed for Brexit.

Churchill had something to say about this. Remember the ‘far away country … of whom we know nothing’ in 1938? That was the one next door to Hungary. This is not only morally wrong; it is also deeply damaging to Britain’s true interests. Orban today. What price Salvini tomorrow and, who knows, Putin the day after?

Next, Ireland. I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland in recent months, to understand the implications of Brexit for our western neighbour.

Ireland is a phenomenal EU success story, south and north. The Ireland of today is socially and politically almost unrecognisable from De Valera’s. Northern Ireland too is largely transformed since the end of the troubles. As I travelled in and between Belfast, Derry and the borderlands, people kept pointing out to me where the checkpoints were, where the border posts were, where the army helicopters used to land, where people were killed by bombs and by booby traps. Now, the roads are free-flowing, the border is detectable only by different colour road signs, the army has gone and in Derry city centre the barracks are being converted into cafes and nightclubs.

Ireland is the Achilles heel of Brexit because what the Irish north and south want to change is – precisely nothing, in terms of the benefits of membership of the EU. And that is also the British Government’s agreed position in respect of Northern Ireland because of the Good Friday Agreement, the fruit of stunning statesmanship by John Major and Tony Blair.

Crucially, In the European negotiations leading to the EU and UK’s joint report last December, Mrs May accepted the necessity of a ‘backstop’ in respect of Northern Ireland whereby if new border or customs controls affect Great Britain after Brexit, Northern Ireland will remain subject to EU customs and trade provisions. Mrs May struggled to avoid a commitment to such alignment and the backstop but she had no choice, for two reasons: the Good Friday Agreement, and the reality that the Republic of Ireland would simply have vetoed any EU negotiating provision that did not guarantee that there would be no new border regime between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

As I said, Mrs May struggled hard against those provisions, so much so that when she was in Belfast last month—in a visit orchestrated and supervised by Arlene Foster, the DUP leader who has Mrs May at her beck and call—the Prime Minister rhetorically disowned the backstop, saying that it should not be a legal mechanism in European law and should be time limited. In other words, it should be a backstop that is not a backstop, like an insurance policy that does not provide any insurance.

I doubt that Mrs May will in fact fail to honour the Irish backstop in any Brexit treaty, not least because the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been highly vocal about what might happen without it. The Chief Constable of the PSNI said last week that any different customs and tariff regime between north and south would be a smugglers charter, and smugglers and paramilitaries have always gone hand in hand on the Irish border. But the call to ignore Ireland is, disgracefully, now par for the course among Brexiters. When I challenged Nigel Farage about Ireland in a recent debate, he said that the concerns about Northern Ireland were, “entirely got up by Barnier”, and that, anyway, Ireland was a “tiddly” country. This echoes Boris Johnson who has just called the Irish backstop the “suicide vest” of Brexit – words so shocking as to be almost unbelievable from a former Foreign Secretary.

Not to be outdone, Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested that the answer to the Irish problem is for the Republic of Ireland to follow Britain in leaving the European Union. If it does not, we might need searches at or near the border, “like there were in the Troubles”. In other words, it’s a choice between neo-colonialism and a return to the 1980s. No-one in Ireland beyond the leadership of the DUP wants that, which is when I think Ireland is the Achilles heel of Brexit, and it is going gangrenous.

The Third Brexit dimension is of course Great Britain itself. The truth of the matter is that in the last 45 years Great Britain would have been far worse off outside of the EU, but in the last 10 years in particular, since the financial crash, living standards have stagnated or dropped; and layered upon a deep and growing sense of alienation, particularly in England outside London where there is still no devolution worth the name, there is deep frustration and anger. From my extensive travels around ‘leave’ areas in England in recent months, it is clear to me that had the question on the ballot paper in 2016 been ‘do you want a fundamental change in the government of England?’ and ‘do you want an end to austerity?’ there would have been huge ‘yes’ majorities in both cases. But the only question was ‘do you want to leave the European Union?’ – an act which if it happens will in fact make it harder to do almost everything that people really want in terms of devolution and improved services, including the NHS.

Will Hutton and I discuss all this in our book ‘Saving Britain’ whose central message is ‘Change Britain, Don’t Brexit.’ We also face head-on the issue of immigration which was a major factor in the referendum. We argue the case for ID cards, replacing national insurance cards, so that we know that people are legally in the country, working and being paid legally, and eligible for access to public services. We also argue for a new Migration Impact Fund, so that local communities are properly funded to meet the costs of new and larger migrant communities, and our full participation in EU law which, for example in Belgium, requires migrants to register immediately on arrival and leave within 3 months if they don’t have the means to support themselves.

In all these ways we need to make the case for the EU: why it is so strongly in the interests of Britain, of Ireland, of our security, our prosperity and our whole future. I want finally to return to arguably the greatest of the crises I mentioned earlier – the trauma of appeasement in the late 1930s, when the effects of a seriously mistaken policy were to be experienced sometime after the key mistakes had been made. Also, May 1940, and the replacement of Chamberlain by Churchill, is also the supreme instance of parliament having got it right in the nick of time. In this it is the shining example for MPs as they prepare for the Brexit votes to come.

On the events of May 1940, I cannot recommend too highly a recent book by Nicholas Shakespeare Six Minutes in May – an account of Chamberlain’s fall through the prism of the critical vote at the end of the House of Commons debate on the fall of Norway in May 1940 – the six minutes being the time allowed for MPs to file through the division lobby. It was in this crucial division that 39 government MPs voted with Labour, which together with a similar number of abstentions made Chamberlain’s position untenable and brought Churchill to power.

I draw two lessons from Six Minutes in May. First, it is possible by action in parliament to reconstitute a government in crisis and fundamentally change its policy. But for the Norway debate and vote, Chamberlain would have survived in May 1940 and there would almost certainly have been an armistice with Germany after the fall of France a month later.

But the second lesson is it was unbelievably close run. Attlee, as leader of the opposition, didn’t even decide to call a vote until the morning of the second day of the debate. Until then he thought that any vote would simply consolidate Chamberlain’s position, since no Tory MP had rebelled in any previous key vote on appeasement or the conduct of the war. Even after the Munich agreement, when Churchill delivered what in retrospect was his most devastating indictment of Chamberlain’s policy, there were no Tory rebels and even Churchill himself only abstained, partly from a very real fear of deselection in his Epping constituency.

What persuaded Attlee to vote against Chamberlain is the brave action of a group of young conservative MPs, many of them who had been fighting at the front, and one of whom went to see him and told him that the war could not be won with Chamberlain and that a group of Tories were prepared to vote against the government. This persuaded Attlee, who thereafter was ruthless. Back to today. Provided Jeremy Corbyn does an Attlee, backbench Tory MPs will be in a similarly pivotal position in the votes leading up to Brexit.

One final point. My political hero Roy Jenkins told me about the Norway debate first hand, because his father Arthur Jenkins was Attlee’s parliamentary private secretary at the time and he sat in the gallery for the debate. He said that Churchill’s supreme qualities were confidence, optimism and leadership. He used to quote to me the famous lines of another Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, on the problem of politics in the 1920s and 30s:

‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

The best lack all conviction. While the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.’

Yeats was so right, and so right today. We need the case for the European Union to be made with confidence, optimism and leadership. We need the best, not the worst, to be full of passionate intensity. And it needs to happen now.


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Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer, author, and leading campaigner for a People's Vote

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