Time to take a deep breath…

November 1, 2017

It’s hard to see anything good about the Harvey Weinstein scandal, but at least it’s taken Brexit off the front page for a few moments. We are all suffering Brexit saturation.

But while the topic has become increasingly boring, it has also become increasingly worrying. Today’s news showed that the value of our financial services business is a massive £67 billion: and that is now at risk, as banks start to move people out of London to cities like Frankfurt and Paris. Our economy was the strongest in Europe: but now incomes are falling behind inflation, and any prosperity we have is being fuelled by unhealthy levels of debt. Then there is the Irish border problem. Peace in Northern Ireland is one of the great political achievements of recent times. A hard border (and what other sort could there be, once we’re out of the customs union?) casts a dark shadow over all of that.

The plain truth is that the closer we get to the reality, the less appetising it seems. If we had a referendum, today, would ‘Leave’ still win? I doubt it. But our politicians, most of whom were remainers, seem mesmerized by the idea that the people have spoken. Well, maybe they have; but what have they said?

The facts are simple: 37% voted to leave, 35% voted to stay, and 28% didn’t give a view. That’s hardly a clear mandate for a hard Brexit. And let’s face it, the referendum itself was a farce. The case for staying was presented with staggering ineptitude, and the case for leaving was presented with scandalous dishonesty. No wonder we made a choice that many may now be regretting.

I don’t know why we had a referendum anyway. Our system has worked well for 500 years, and it’s simple. We, the voters, don’t presume to understand all of the political detail: we express our view by voting MPs into office to make the right decisions for us, and if they don’t deliver we vote them out again. The public choose the experts, and if the experts fail, we replace them. But we shouldn’t be asked to do their job for them.

It’s sobering to think that when I was a child, gay sex between consenting adults in the privacy of their own home was a criminal offence. You could go to prison for it, and people did. You could also be hung for murder, so the state became a murderer too. That’s all changed now – because MPs voted for reform. But if those issues had been put to a referendum, those reforms might never have happened. It’s the responsibility of MPs to lead opinion, not to follow it.

I think we’re now at the point when politicians need to recognize that Brexit is a far tougher journey than we thought, with a far less positive future. They need to recognize that they failed us, by asking us to make the decision for them. And they need to recognize that the margin of victory for leave was so narrow that the nation will be left painfully divided.

It takes courage to admit that a terrible mistake has been made, and we have to go back to the beginning and start again. It always seems easier to stumble on, privately knowing it’s in the wrong direction. But our futures, and our children’s futures, are at stake. We need to admit that the referendum was a bungled affair, with information that was often inadequate and often dishonest. It’s time to take a deep breath, reject the referendum, and make a fresh start on a momentous choice.

I suspect that most voters would respect that. But do our leaders have the courage to pull us back from the abyss?

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