AS national politics descends into further fragmentation and recrimination, the British people might well think the world has gone mad. All that alongside an imminent Brexit and no agreement as to how that happens.
We are where we are because many national politicians use the issue to either pursue party political advantage or find a way of reversing the original referendum decision. This, coupled with those hardline Brexiteers who put dogma before reality, means not only is our economic future uncertain, but so is democracy itself.
We need to heal our country from these divisions. Two key tests need to be satisfied. We need a solution which creates economic stability and one which restores faith in our democratic processes. Both are inextricably linked.
Of course there are those who say a second referendum would do just that. They are mistaken. Framed and debated in the current context, it can only cause more bitterness and division.
If a people’s vote reaffirmed the original decision, it would not resolve the conditions upon which we leave the EU. If the result were to reverse the original decision, there are potentially even worse consequences.
There are those who promote a general election as a solution. While I, for one, would welcome a Labour government, the reality is that the issues and options remain the same and the EU has made it clear the deal is the deal.
So what can be done? We can only achieve economic and political stability by seeking a way forward which the British people deem fair and acceptable. This requires putting country before party with informed, objective proposals – not fake news spin and disinformation which bedevils the current situation. As no single action can resolve these challenges, a series of independent measures are required.
First we need to honour the 2016 referendum and the democratic will of the people and bring short-term economic stability until many of the outstanding issues can be resolved. This means agreeing the deal on offer. A no-deal Brexit is too uncertain with its consequences – both economically for all of us and politically in Northern Ireland. Signing the deal means democracy will have been served with time secured to complete a trade agreement and resolve the Irish border question.
In return, Parliament should agree to a further referendum in five years’ time. First, this would allow the outstanding issues on trade and the Irish Border to be resolved. Second, the terms on which re-entry to the EU can be made can be identified. Third, the British people can experience life outside the EU for themselves. Thus when the new poll arrives, the electorate will have clear choices about their future alongside experience of being both within and outside the EU to help inform their decision.
That’s not all. Unless further steps are taken, the culture of disinformation we have now will continue to undermine our democracy. The electorate is entitled to informed and objective information if they are to come to a sustainable and balanced decision. Information in the lead up to a future poll must be led – and to some extent – managed by an independent commission. This would help to frame the debate in a more sensible way than has been the case. Secondly, organised campaigns and opinion polls should be prohibited for six months before the vote occurs. The power of money and vested interests needs to be minimised if we want a true reflection of the public’s will, giving people breathing space to come to their conclusions.
As someone who voted to remain in the EU, it breaks my heart to see us where we are now. But we have to recognise the reality of leaving the EU. What we must do is secure our economy, but give ourselves the right to change our minds in due course. These measures will, I believe, give the best opportunity for a true reflection of the public will and one which is sustainable. Democracy in both the short and long term will have its way – and the public will have the opportunity to have confidence in it. It may be said, however, that all I propose is five more years of uncertainty.
There are, of course, no guarantees. The deal with the EU is a platform to build upon and with widespread public support (these measures have something for everyone), they will give time to the UK not only to establish what EU re-entry might look like, but to rebuild relationships – both with the EU and worldwide – and for business to inform and benefit from it. In any case, can these proposals be any worse than what we have now?
Sadly, there are no winners under the current scenario, only losers. The biggest of which are the British people, who deserve better. Parliament must come together and act. For all our sakes.
Sir Steve Houghton CBE is the Labour leader of Barnsley Council.