Warning, this article contains a spoiler from Game of Thrones Season 8!
It is not often that I find myself in disagreement with my extremely learned colleague von Hayek, but his latest revelation that he will in fact, all-be-it with nose clenched, be voting for Mr Farage et al in the upcoming European Elections is really one that must be challenged.
His position is very clear. It is only the one pillar of The Brexit party’s policy that he is supporting and that is in fact their only policy position and I quote; ‘The UK must leave the European Union properly, because if you hold a referendum you must abide by its instruction. That unequivocally means what has been dubbed a “hard Brexit” – no Customs Union and no Single Market’.
As a democrat myself, it is hard to challenge this argument. In the 2015 general election, The Conservative party made manifest commitment to whether Britain stays or leaves the EU with ‘an in-out referendum by the end of 2017’. David Cameron won a majority of 12 seats, thus granting him the mandate to deliver on his manifesto promise. Subsequent legislation was then approved by Parliament and granted Royal Ascent, leading to the 2016 referendum where citizens of the UK were asked the following question; ‘do you want to remain in the EU or leave the EU?’. The result of the referendum was 51.9% voting to Leave and 48.1% voting to remain, with a turnout of 72.2%. Despite being non-binding as all UK referendums are, this gave clear consent from the people to Parliament to work on delivering Britain’s exit from the EU. I am therefore happy to say I agree with von Hayek’s statement that ‘if you hold a referendum, you must abide by its instructions’. The first step to solving anything is to admit you have a problem, which indeed we have.
Now whilst I admire von Hayek’s diagnostic skills, it is in his cure that I find fault. The idea that the only possible way of respecting democracy for the sake of the long-term stability of British politics is by totally dropping out of the EU without a deal, is a contradiction in terms. Leaving without a deal would be chaotic in both the short and long term. The preparations that were made for a ‘no-deal’ scenario were quite simply laughable. Who could forget Transport Secretary Chris Grayling awarding a contract to deliver extra ferry services in the result of no-deal to a company that did not actually have any ferries, or by using 40 lorries on the M20 to recreate what could happen to a flow of over 5000 lorries, should there be border controls imposed on entry to the continent. In addition, Britain has little capability when it comes to trade negotiators, due to the fact that this has been done on our behalf by Brussels for the past 30 years as part of our membership of the customs union. The fact that the Department for International Trade has so far only landed some piecemeal trade arrangements with the likes of the Faroe Islands since its inception goes to shows the clear gap in this vital area of foreign and economic policy delivery. Add to that the currency fluctuations and flight of capital due to even higher levels of uncertainty and we end up being far from the utopia of political stability imagined by my erstwhile colleague. This is not project fear, this is project reality.
The People’s Vote campaign is merely the ‘remain’ movement in disguise. I would wager that there is not one person in that campaign or its associates (Change UK) who would not vote for remain again should a second referendum actually happen. At least the Liberal Democrats have firmly pinned their flags to the mast and claimed openly that they are the ‘anti-Brexit’ party. Again I agree with von Hayek’s assessment that this impasse cannot and should not be resolved through direct democracy, as it would simply go on and on ad infinitum.
To find inspiration for a solution to this deadlock, one must look no further than everyone’s favourite pseudo-geopolitical, period, sci-fi, bloodthirsty romp-athon, Game of Thrones. Without offering too much of a spoiler, the humans of Westeros realise that the only way of dealing with the threat they face from the army of the undead is to wipe out the person that created this army, The Night King. Destroy him, you destroy his army. Problem solved. The same can be said for the current Brexit deadlock. If we really want to get Brexit over and done with and move on for the sake of long term political stability, without sacrificing democracy at the same time, the only possible option is a general election.
Britain is a representative democracy. We have an uncodified constitution which grants sovereignty to Parliament, apart from at election time whereby the people become sovereign to elect representatives to represent them to then govern on their behalf. Prior to the introduction of the Fixed Term Parliament Act in 2011, if a government found themselves unable to pass legislation through parliament, then the Prime Minister would take this to be a confidence motion, and a signal to let the electorate decide on what happens net to break the deadlock. This can still be done even with the new act, by either a 2/3 majority motion passed for an early general election or the government losing and official vote of no confidence, which it could in fact effectively trigger and vote for itself with a simple majority.
Going back to 2015, the issue with the Conservative manifesto pledge on having a referendum was that it was far too general, suggesting that it was only put in by Cameron as a way of preventing further leakage of votes and indeed his own MPs to UKIP. What does an ‘in-out referendum’ actually mean? This was never properly set out in the manifesto itself, or even by both sides in the referendum campaign, hence the confusion that has existed ever since as to what leaving actually means. Indeed one only has to look back to Nigel Farage’s claim that the UK could be like Norway (members of the customs union) during the referendum (which he is now denying) or Michael Gove’s statement that Britain would still maintain ‘access’ to the single market in an interview on the ‘Today’ programme on behalf of the ‘leave’ campaign to show that the concept of what leaving actually meant was never clearly articulated, leaving a vacuum which all number of competing sides are now trying to fill with their own interpretations; including ‘Brexit means Brexit’. ‘Brexit means WTO rules’. ‘Brexit means leaving the single market but not the customs union’.
So here is what should happen. Theresa May should call off talks with Labour and resign as Conservative party leader. A leadership contest should then happen, with the winner then putting a vote to Parliament to by-pass the Fixed Term Parliament Act and trigger an early general election, which would gain multi-party support. Each party would then be forced to articulate EXACTLY what their plans for leaving the EU will be in their manifesto and this would be put back to the electorate, with the objective being for them to grant a mandate to the party with the most palatable solution, to then be implemented in consultation with the EU.
Ah-ha, but what if it is a hung parliament I hear you say. Surely that puts us back to square one? Well not exactly. If there is a hung parliament, then there is a 14 day window in which parties have an opportunity to either form a coalition or instigate as confidence and supply deal (such as the current one between the Conservatives and the DUP). The key to this is having enough support to pass a Queens Speech and a budget. However this agreement would have to factor in a Brexit plan in order for it to happen, meaning that a compromise would have to happen in this time, otherwise Britain would go back to the polls again, something that would no body would want, hence why a sensible compromise that could pass through Parliament would happen.
For those people who still believe that Britain should remain in the EU, this is the only possible way to achieve this whilst still keeping democracy intact. For those wanting to leave, this respects their wishes, but forces the hand of the political parties to finally deliver an exact blueprint of what their version of leave actually means. No more hiding behind vague, fuzzy, ‘catch-all’ slogans. To maintain our position as a respectable, functioning, liberal democracy this, like it or not, is the only sensible option. It really is time to arm Arya Stark with Valarian steel, and send her charging into the Godswood to take down the Night King!*
And if this means we never have another referendum about anything else, ever again, then so much the better!
*Spoiler alert! But probably too late!