Let’s leave Brexit for another time

Referendums are strange things. Uniquely divisive, and their outcome unpredictable. No matter what the issue, voters flock to opposing sides like supporters at a football match. There is no sitting on the fence.

You could have a referendum on whether we leave the earth and live in outer space, and it could succeed, who knows? Humans will have to colonise space sooner or later to survive, but the time is not here yet. And the time for leaving Europe is not here yet. It may come, if the EU fails to reform itself and technology solves the Irish border problem, but it is not here yet.

Revoking article 50 was proposed by Chuka Ummuna just recently as a solution for our crisis, though it did not stir much reaction. But perhaps it deserves a second look.

The big advantage of revoking is that it keeps our powder dry. We can always trigger article 50 again at any time, and thus retaining our negotiating power. What we can’t do is unbrexit once we have left, and lost all our negotiating power. The fact is that we currently have the best deal of all 28 countries, and the other countries are jealous of us. If we throw it away, we will never get it back.

So what we can do is say to the EU “We are halting our departure to give you a stay of execution. Take note of our discontents and reform yourselves, otherwise we will leave for real next time”.

And there are many discontents. The EU bureaucrats have been as remote from us as aliens on Mars, an easy target for the newspapers to denigrate. When did we last see one of their number on the Andrew Marr show? We need to get to know these guys, to see their faces. Instead of that, we get Donald Trump coming over with his family.

The grievances of leavers must be taken seriously, but the problem with a “final say” vote is that it is all too easily portrayed as a mechanism for overturning their expressed feelings and crushing them down permanently. Revoking article 50 does not crush anybody down, all it does is press the pause button.

To give Farage credit where it is due, all he wants to do is to restore the self respect and dignity of Leavers following their betrayal over the non- implementation of the referendum result.

And all Hitler wanted to do in the 1930’s was to restore the self respect and dignity of the German people following their betrayal in the Treaty of Versailles. The parallel is exact, as a German neighbour of mine recalled from her personal experience. Hitler was worshipped as a saviour in the early years, just as Farage is today by his acolytes.

Of course it all ended badly for Hitler, and so it will too for Farage, unless he is stopped. And the quickest way to do that is to press the pause button.

Yet at present nobody seems be in a mood to pause anything. “Deliver, deliver, deliver!” is the constant cry, as if Brexit were a hot pizza we had ordered, which was in danger of going cold. In fact, cooling off is just what we need, a time to think, to take a breath. Rather than having Brexit delivered, we need to be delivered from the stress of it.

* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.

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  • Dr David Hill 27th May '19 - 5:31pm

    If we do not leave on 31 October 2019 we shall never be able to leave, as our veto is no more under the Lisbon Treaty, unlike the Treaty of Nice that had the veto. For if we stay in and then at a future time want to leave the next time will it only takes 65% of the EU to block it without any veto being able to stop this. I doubt that the EU would let us leave or any other EU state for that matter and where this of course is not democracy at all. So be careful what you sow I would say.

  • Richard O'Neill 27th May '19 - 5:52pm

    We can reverse Brexit five or more years down the road and reapply to join.

    Regarding terms, both Cameron and May’s negotiations with the EU have been like getting blood out of a stone. And the EU is very concerned about members playing chicken by constantly invoking and then revoking Article 50 to seek better terms. If the EU powerbrokers really cared about us staying they would have made us a better offer since 2016. Macron seems as if he can’t wait for the door to hit us on the way out.

    And I do wish people would stop invoking Hitler casually in arguments.

  • Mick Taylor 27th May '19 - 6:23pm

    Sorry Dr Hill, the veto has not been abolished, certainly not for treaty changes. Whilst some decisions can be taken by a qualified majority new country accessions, treaty changes and many critical decisions still require unanimity. As for leaving that isn’t a matter for a veto as any country is free to give notice under article 50. The terms for leaving do require the non-leaving countries to agree unanimously, and any country could veto the deal – as Ireland has threatened to do – but no, the EU cannot veto our leaving under existing treaties. A no deal exit is always possible

  • Roland Postle 27th May '19 - 7:08pm

    Mick, I believe a Withdrawal Agreement only requires qualified majority of the Council (65% by vote weight) but in practice they try to get consensus and unanimity for all these things and only very take action by qualified majority. Extension of A50 requires unanimity.

    Regardless, it’s very clear any member can unilaterally withdraw (with two years notice):

    The Lisbon Treaty qualified majority rules have been in effect since 2014. If they had a legal means and will to stop us leaving as Dr David claims then they would have used it already. (There’s a powerful implied economic means of dissuading us from leaving of course but we can clearly veto that if we want).

  • Yeovil Yokel 27th May '19 - 8:25pm

    I agree that Nigel Farage seems to enjoy an extraordinary degree of uncritical adulation by his followers, and he is certainly a thin-skinned autocrat, but any similarity to Hitler ends there.

    And I cannot agree, John King, that Farage in any way acts in a noble or selfless manner – he established UKIP Mk 2 as a vehicle for his own enrichment and self-aggrandisement, and this is reflected in him having I believe sole ownership and control of The Brexit Party Ltd. History has shown that he is not a team player and quickly falls out with his lieutenants, and I think this initial phase of euphoria will eventually give way to internal conflict, a dissipation of political energy, and growing frustration and disillusionment amongst his followers. He failed in his promise 3 years ago that he would “hold the Government’s feet to the fire” to ensure Brexit was delivered, and even if his party wins the Peterborough by-election I think Brexit is now doomed and he’ll remain as a loud, angry but declining influence in British politics.

  • John Marriott 27th May '19 - 8:35pm

    @John King
    David Raw is correct. I agree that it was the terms imposed on Germany at Versailles that ended up producing Hitler. Indeed, had he been assassinated back in 1938, following the first attempt on his life, his reputation may have been very different. However, his antisemitism came out of his experience in pre WW1 Vienna and was clearly delineated in ‘Mein Kampf’ as David says.

    Much as I dislike him, I do not think that Farage is in the same league as Hitler when it comes to despotism.

  • Many thanks for these thoughtful comments. I should clarify that any attribution of noble motives to Farage was sarcasm on my part. I share Yeovil Yokel’s hope that the present euphoria and triumphalism will be short lived.

  • The main thing about Hitler was the desire to expand German territory eastward and to retake countries that had gained independence after WWI, the so called Sudetenland. Modern Germany was actually a relatively new country only united by Bismarck in 1871. Both world wars were fundamentally about German Imperial expansion. Hence Britain responded to the invasion of Poland in 1939 and not to Germany’s attacks on its Jewish citizens which was official policy from 1933.

  • Sue Sutherland 28th May '19 - 1:27pm

    Farage fuels hatred which is the easiest emotion to whip up for political gain. He does so to reach an end which will be good for him and his mates but bad news for many of his followers. He needs to be stopped. I was horrified to hear a speech by the Italian right wing party leader saying that they’d done well, and also Marine lePen in France and Farage in the UK. Take this back to the 1930s and it’s shocking. We are the country that fought for freedom and prided ourselves on doing so. Unfortunately that pride is being turned around and used against us.

  • Richard O'Neill 28th May '19 - 4:04pm

    @ John Innes
    I don’t see that it is that unlikely we would be allowed to rejoin, provided we met the entry criteria. The UK market is very large in the European context. A European project without the UK can never be really complete.

    Yes five or ten years is entirely possible. We may not get the same terms , but if we are to join up to the EU for the next fifty years or so we may need to commit more fully to full European integration.

    But if the EU countries really loathe us so much, then staying in it will be like remaining in an unhappy marriage just because you fear being worse off. I really wish the EU had shown more warmth to us, but they haven’t. There hasn’t really even been much of an attempt to understand why Britain voted to leave. Now all we hear is Macron and others talking about the UK as if it was a rabid dog they can’t wait to get rid of for fear it will infect other members.

  • Peter Hirst 28th May '19 - 4:20pm

    What we need to do is remain in the eu while offering those who voted for Brexit something substantial. I don’t know how we do this in this polarised debate. A general election would allow us to offer a manifesto that might comfort some of them if there was the trust that we would deliver. Reforming the eu though desirable is not enough. Some sort of tax relief for those places with over a certain level of unemployment or on benefits might work.

  • Having read the comments above, my conclusion is that revoking might be most useful as an antecedent to a referendum. It would give us control of the timetable, rather than dependence on an extension which might or might not be granted. The downside being that if Leave won, there would be a 2 year delay due to having to repeat the article 50 process. Regarding Peter Hirst’s point, the Remain Dividend (money saved by not Brexiting) could be channeled into distressed areas where the Leave vote was high as a consequence of austerity.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 29th May '19 - 8:17am

    John King, in your last comment, you seem to be suggesting that that Parliament should revoke article 50, and that this is should followed by another referendum.
    But revoking article 50 is not just a “pause button”. Parliament revoking article 50 would mean Parliament announcing that Britain was no longer intending to Leave the EU.
    If Parliament took this action without even holding a second referendum first, there would be so much anger, that if there was another referendum afterwards, as you suggest, then Leave would almost certainly win.
    Would you really want to start all over again, with article 50 being triggered again, followed by another 2 years of negotiations? Everything else put on hold while this was happening?
    And how could the EU be expected to take Britain seriously if we revoked article 50, then triggered it again shortly afterwards.
    You say “we need to be delivered from the stress of it [brexit]”. But wouldn’t the best way to do that be to implement the 2016 referendum result as soon as possible?

  • Yes Catherine, it might seem that a clean break and get it over with asap is the solution, which is the incentive held out by Brexiteers. But in reality implementing Brexit involves years more of dispute and argument, so that is the route of maximum stress.

    No deal may be rejected by parliament in which case revoking could be the only option left. In theory that would return us to the pre-referendum state when the idea of leaving the EU was very far from the concerns of most people, who never asked for any referendum in the first place, but since then the dominance of the right wing media in the UK has been consolidated, so politically the pressure for another vote would be irresistible. However, the timing would rest with us and we would not need to beg extensions from the EU.

    Overall there is no easy solution but it seems to me the UK has a valuable role now as the scarecrow which is holding the European project together, which is likely to continue for some time.

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