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Obsession with a second Brexit vote must end

While it is possible to change minds in a democracy, Britons must be realistic about what can and can’t be achieved

Gulf News

They wander Westminster with staring eyes. “Repent,” they cry, “or be doomed. We are all doomed.” They are the second-referendum adventists, the priests of the afterthought, the experts of the second coming. They meet with decrepit peers in cobwebbed attics. They mix potions and spells, and stick pins in British Prime Minister Theresa May. They are mad. As mad as the flat-earth Leavers.

Of course Britain could change its mind on Brexit by next March 2019. May could evaporate. The Tory party could vanish in a cloud of waffle. Labour Party chief Jeremy Corbyn could descend from the clouds on a golden swing, cooing gently and speaking French.

Certainly the British love changing their minds. They executed Stuarts in 1649, invited them back in 1660 and chucked them out in 1688. They appeased Adolf Hitler then declared war on him. They were for joining the common market when kept out by Charles deGaulle, were against it when finally admitted, then for it in the 1975 referendum.

The fact is that Britain is not going to abandon Brexit this year. It is not going to do so because, two years ago, MPs had voted 544 to 53 for a referendum, which they pledged to honour. A year ago, they voted 498 to 114 to honour that pledge. Even if some Leavers are having buyer’s remorse, a YouGov poll last year showed just 14 per cent wanting Brexit stopped. The only clear popular wish is to get on with it — and shut up.

There are no rules for referendums because they do not feature in any constitutional edict, but convention dictates a second one would be justified only if the circumstances of the first have radically changed. The Danes (in 1993) and the Irish (in 2009) held second referendums, after renegotiations, to stay in the European Union (EU). Circumstances do not include second thoughts. There might, just, be an argument for a referendum after a final deal, purely to confirm it. But rejection would just precipitate another ghastly round of talks.

One thing has become clear from Brussels — that the EU negotiators are not interested in the good of the EU, let alone of Britain. They are about the self-interest of a cabal of unelected officials who have no love for Britain. They hate the reality: That the British had the guts to hold a referendum that few of them would dare in their respective countries.

What is strange is that Britain is now experiencing what Americans call “the silence of the rational centre”. Flat-earth Leavers hurl abuse at dyed-in-the-wool Remainers, in what has become a polarised culture war. There is no middle way. Those close to the talks admit that — as was seen in Northern Ireland — there is no “frictionless” option other than within the terms of the single market. This has produced a new form of flat-earthism, noted in May’s Florence speech, that Britain can somehow leave the customs union/single market and yet retain all its benefits, dressed up as the Canada-plus-plus-plus option.

This is not about the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but about a sensible trading relationship between a Brexit Britain and the rest of Europe. On this, the referendum took no view, effectively delegating decisions to parliament. Virtually everyone, politicians and public, wants a “frictionless” relationship. That goes far further than Canada’s modest trade in goods. It means essentially the Norway option, the single market. Yet, that is derided as “the worst of both worlds”, rather than possibly the best. It is insufficiently macho.

What is sad is that Corbyn has a golden opportunity to rise above his partisan image and offer the leadership that May appears unable to supply. He and his Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, claim to be converts to a customs union/single market. But they confine their public pronouncements to constant attacks on May’s position, forcing her into the “hard” Brexit camp — rather than enticing her into theirs. They seem sheepish, hole-in-the-corner single marketeers, as if it were a solution that dared not speak its name.

The single market is the banner to which Remainers should now be rallying. It leaves the EU. It repatriates formal sovereignty. Yes, it involves payments, which are the price of free trade and collective regulation. By being outside the EU, Britain can derogate and barter. The public’s one serious objection to the single market is its unrestricted movement of people. But the migration crisis is bringing that to an end across Europe. Schengen is collapsing.

The Norway option, which is at least favoured for the transition, is vulnerable to the complaint that Britain must obey rules it cannot influence. But Britain said it had no influence inside the EU anyway. In reality, any trader can influence rules, because trade is about the balance of power in a deal, be it on cars with Germany or food with France. What is the case is that the cost of no deal is real and heavy.

All international dealings are built on compromise. Britons decided by a narrow margin to break their link to an unaccountable and ever more Germano-centric EU regime. They did not want ever-closer union. It was a matter not of getting more control but of avoiding less. It is clearly in Britain’s interest to continue unfettered trade with the EU. That option is still on the table. Unless someone wants pigs to fly.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist.

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