Only a confirmatory referendum, not a general election, can break the Brexit impasse


Parliament has spent the past three years proclaiming that “the people” voted for this, or didn’t vote for that. The truth is that the referendum was reduced to such a crude choice that no one knows exactly what the majority voted for. Rather than encouraging an informed politics, it has made our system even more reductive.

A binary referendum on such a complicated issue, one involving such a huge constitutional change, was never a good idea. To have one without requiring a threshold such as a supermajority requirement was criminal, and is what has caused such division and the toxic atmosphere we currently see in the nation.

But that is in the past – we now have the detail of how we might leave the EU and what that might involve, something that was absent during the campaign. It would only be wise to pause and think, look at the detail and forecasts, and to ask again if this is really what the public want.

“it might make more sense to have the second referendum after the renegotiation is completed”

Jacob Rees-Mogg

However, the government is pushing for a general election. They sense a chance to utilise a people vs parliament message to regain a parliamentary majority – and hence claim a mandate for their Brexit deal. The only way they can do so is by neutralising the threat of the Brexit Party – hence the deeply worrying war-like use of terms such as “surrender”. To beat the Brexit party, they must become the Brexit party.

A general election would by nature become a de-facto referendum on how we move forward with Brexit – this is, in fact, exactly what the Conservative government want. But a general election brings nothing but muddy waters. The first past the post system means that some people’s views on how we progress will not be honestly or represented at all as they would in a confirmatory referendum.

A general election should be an opportunity to vote on a broad range of policies – it should never be used as a vote on a single issue, this is by definition what we have referenda for.

How are people, for instance, expected to vote when they a pro-Leave but are worried about the state of our public services and the impact of austerity?

And, of course, as in the 2017 general election, we are not guaranteed a working majority at the end of it. Muddy waters.

As Shakespeare wrote, “it cannot come to good”. Yes, Hamlet was speaking of his mother’s incestuous relationship with his uncle, and not a general election tainted by Brexit – but the sentiment fits the bill.

So why do the government want a general election rather than a confirmatory referendum? Mainly due to the fact that 10 million votes would likely win a majority in the general election, and they’d need 17 million-plus to win a referendum. The 19th-century model of democracy, First Past the Post, which is in desperate need of reforms, sees to that. The referendum result stood at 52% to 48%, however 406 constituencies to 242 voted to leave.

Much like a dodgy car salesman sure that the car they are trying to sell you runs like a dream, but whatever you do don’t look under the bonnet, the government wants to avoid scrutiny of sending the country in a direction that will undoubtedly cause this country considerable hardship. They can avoid debate and simply bark “get Brexit done” over and over until they are red in the face. It is why Boris Johnson unlawfully shut down Parliament, refuses to release impact assessments, tried to ramrod an important bill through Parliament in only two days, and refuses to appear before select committees. To avoid scrutiny or any semblance of detail.

The devil is in the detail. With a deal in place and, to an extent, impact assessments to show what the future health of the nation would look like, a confirmatory referendum would give people the detail that was lacking in the original campaign – and give a much clearer mandate than a general election ever could.

The thing is, the detail doesn’t make good reading for Johnson and the Conservatives. And the only arguable reason for proceeding with Johnson’s deal is because people want to “get Brexit done” – because there are no positives, anyone with half a brain cell has already realised this, the Brexiteers have long since stopped claiming that Brexit will be sunny uplands and unicorns as they claimed during the referendum campaign.

“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”

Sir Walter Scott

A confirmatory referendum is the only clean way forward. It makes sense. But of course, when sense comes into the equation, Brexit falls apart like a cheap suit.

If the Brexiteers are so confident that this is a great deal, and that “the people” still desperately want Brexit, then why are they afraid to put this back to the people?

Because it won’t be a success, the governments own reports suggest this. it will best case scenario a logistical nightmare, and potentially a national catastrophe. Best case scenario Brexit may slice 5-6% off the economy – to put this in perspective, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 lead to a decline of around 2%. But this is all about Boris Johnson, his rich backers, and the Conservative party remaining in power, and not the welfare of the country. And so we must get Brexit done.

To hell and a handcart to the rest of the country. Bring on the removal of workers rights, measures improving air quality or tackling tax evasion.

You can bet that if Brexit does happen, and the country suffers, it will not be Johnson’s or the Conservative’s fault. It will be the fault of the EU, Jeremy Corbyn, or the “remoaner parliament” – anybody but them. The tabloids will echo this, and people will begin spouting it on the streets – even though some will have lost their jobs. People are so far down the rabbit hole they cannot and will continue to not be able to see they’ve been duped.

It’s that predictable it is enough to make you groan. Quite frankly, we deserve better. Boris Johnson can afford to be reckless – it will be the rest of us who pay the price.

Whatever happens now, it will be messy – a referendum can’t resolve the deep national rift, but it can clear the pungent smell that has tainted the political air.