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While 90% of Brits believe that the handling of Brexit has been humiliating, the calls for a second referendum are growing. Of course, this presents yet more problems.
The option for a second referendum on how or whether to end Britain’s membership of the EU is very much on the table. Today’s political paralysis has led many Brits to believe that this would offer the only fair-minded way of settling the interminable political infighting and intransigence.
The process of disassembling the 46-year-old UK-EU relationship has become as clear as mud. Having endured the negotiating shambles of the last two years, 90% of people, according to a Sky Data poll, think the government’s handling of Brexit has been a public humiliation.
Yet the impasse continues. 44% now “just want Brexit sorted and don’t really care how”, while millions of others are not in a settling mood, ranging from the Brexiteer “Spartans” and Conservative party base to a new breakaway pro-Remain party of disaffected Conservatives and Labour MP’s known as Change UK.
Yet a second referendum would ask the electorate to decide between incompatible variants that – placed side by side – could be an undemocratic ballot.
The two choices that those who argue for a second referendum want on that ballot are “May’s deal” and “Remain”. But May’s deal is a process of leaving with no future trading relationship in place, whereas “Remain” is an end state and the done deal that exists today. For all those who voted to “Leave” on June 23, 2016, this just looks like a way to try to sneak back a Remain vote.
In light of this, many of those 17.4 million Leavers would demand that the referendum include a “No Deal” option. For them, this would be a perfectly acceptable outcome, with or without any of the many necessary contingency plans.
Ignoring those who want a “No Deal” on the ballot would not be feasible or sensible. Nostalgia may be a fluid emotion softened by the mists of time, but betrayal is as stark as the day it was felt a thousand years ago.
In fact, a “No Deal” option on a second referendum would stand a good chance of winning, mobilised by a buffed new Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, UKIP stragglers, and many Conservatives determined not to see their Brexit dream drift away.
The deeper problem with a second referendum is that it is being debated in a context in which the electorate has little or no respect for its politicians. It still seethes from the political and corporate deafness to the Iraq war, the 2008 banking crisis and ensuing austerity, and the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal.
68% of Brits feel “no political party” speaks for them. This was confirmed in last week’s local council elections in which both main parties were soundly rejected, through spoiled ballots by dissatisfied voters as well as significant desertions to the pro-Remain Greens and Liberal Democrats across both Leave and Remain voting areas.
The most practical way forward is also a very tall ask; for Parliament to accept May’s deal and spend the next five or ten years negotiating a constructive future UK-EU relationship that remains as close as possible on issues of security, trade and the environment, and that thereby continues to protect the continents’ as well as Britain’s economic and political stability.
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Crucially, these negotiations would need to go hand in hand with overcoming the deep division between much of England and its capital, as well as from the few other parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, which voted to remain.
100 out of 120 English parliamentary constituencies with a coastline north of Greater London voted to Leave, as did Wales. All share economic and industrial decline and widespread social deprivation.
Westminster needs to decentralise London-radial policies in order to create local environments capable of engineering their own social mobility and economic opportunity.
Councils need to be able to claim back a large proportion of the central government funding which was halved under austerity measures, disproportionately affecting their public services and creating tensions between local populations and EU immigrants.
Policy decisions incentivise investment. Billions in domestic government funding continue to be allocated for rail networks in and out of the capital. A third airport runway has been hotly debated over the last ten years, but again for London’s Heathrow or Gatwick airports.
With billions more planned on London-centred infrastructure, including a lengthy and protracted refurbishment of the crumbling and hazardous Houses of Parliament, MPs and their staff could send a powerful political signal by relocating temporarily to a series of cities outside the capital, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds.
The government needs to do a better job of tackling the real social ills afflicting much of England today, including the shocking lack of social and geographical mobility. If Brexit comes to pass, then the country may even choose to pay to re-join the EU, which could by then be a much less monolithic and politically integrating project.
Of course, that’s assuming Scotland hasn’t voted to secede and that Northern Ireland still lies within the United Kingdom.