Reflexions on the “how to exit Brexit” debate at the Autumn Conference

As always, I quite enjoyed attending the LibDem Autumn Conference and its fringe meetings. The only suggestion about fringe meetings I would like to make (as a member of D66, 27.000 members; we’ve always had one member one vote at our halfyearly conferences) is: if it is about the three issues Social Liberals care most about: Europe, Education and the Environment, having some fringe meetings in the plenary sessions hall (or a secondary big hall, like at the back of Bournemouths BIC, where the Prospect interview with Clegg was moved to) so that every interested member gets a change of being there, should be debatable. We at D66 often hold “fringe” meetings on these three subjects in the plenary hall, also to emphasize how important these three are to us and D66 policy thinking.

I was especially fascinated by the debate inserted (by suspending Standing orders) in the plenary agenda about how we should go about realizing the “exit from Brexit”: a parliamentary procedure and debate only, or organizing a “first Referendum about the facts of Brexit” (Cable) after the deal with Barnier (and Verhofstadt!) is reached.

The Dutch have lived through two big Europeans referendum campaigns: in 2005 about the “European Constitution”, and in 2016 about the EU Association Treaty with the Ukraine. In both cases, populists from not only the Right (Wilders), but also the left (the “Socialist Party”, former Maoists who’ve moved to leftist Social Democracy) used the campaign to spread fake news and conspiracy or scare stories about the EU and its ruling elite (including Europhile parties like D66), the EMU and its Austerity dictats, and suchlike.

In the Ukraine Referendum campaign, D66 also used canvassing (a new practice in Dutch electoral campaigns) in which I took a small part. So I could fully sympathize with the speakers in the debate who didn’t want a “second Referendum about Brexit”, because it had proved nearly impossible to dispel or counter the myths and scare stories of the Brexiteers while talking to voters on their doorstep. But I nevertheless fully supported the amendment from Tom Brake MP and FPC to continue asking for that referendum. Let me explain why.

True Liberals of any hue (Social or Classical/Rightwing) are easily framed by left and right-wing Populists as “elitist”, bourgeoisie. Pro-EU-liberals are even worse in their eyes (doubly elitist, suspect). And the British Parliament (with many lost votes in many constituencies) can’t be a paragon of representative democracy, and is likely to be seen as elitist too.

When Dutch Prime minister Rutte used parliament and Brussel EU summits to insert a Dutch “clarification” appendix in the EU-Ukraine Association Treaty, to let the objections of the majority of Dutch voters who voted “no” be heard, included, many Populists rejected that as “the Elite” manoeuvring to get their way, paying only lip service to that majority. Letting only parliament change course thus is not convincing; doesn’t close the argument.

Only a second Referendum carries enough weight, credibility with Populists to reverse a disastrous course set by a previous referendum. Brexiteers demanded a second one to reverse the 1975 British EEC referendum.

* Bernard Aris is a Dutch historian (university of Leiden), and Documentation assistant to the D66 parliamentary Party. He is a member of the Brussels/EU branch of the LibDems.

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  • @ Bernard, “the three issues Social Liberals care most about: Europe, Education and the Environment”.

    This social Liberal cares about inequality and social justice. It is just as important if not more so than those three issues.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Oct '17 - 1:22pm

    David and Bernard

    I care more about healthcare than anything , the issues of inequality of access and social injustice of that, law and order, the criminality of individuals , low level intrusion into peoples lives , violence , war , so many issues.

    The emphasis on Europe first is effecting my enthusiasm for this whole political effort, I knew that if the country went this way we,d have nothing else for years, but this party is losing touch with reality.

    It has so much going for it and in reality it is correct even on much related to Brexit.

    It however appears like an obsession.

    It makes me emphasise the very thing I have neglected too long, my real concern is for my own area, my own input in the arts and culture, the latter in every way, needs improving and shaking up !

  • Peter Martin 6th Oct '17 - 1:28pm

    ” the three issues Social Liberals care most about: Europe, Education and the Environment”

    What about Health and Social Care? What about high levels of unemployment and underemployment? Homelessness etc.

    Why just Europe? What about the rest of the world?

    And do Social Liberals care about all of it, equally, right up to the Ural mountains in the East, or is it just the Western parts that really matter?

  • As a social Liberal issues of concern to me are tacking racism and discrimination.

  • Bernard Aris 6th Oct '17 - 3:20pm

    I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding; I was talking about our choices and attendance behaviour at national/federal party events; not what issues get us going, are our lifetime priorities (there are plenty of those).
    40 years of visiting national D66 congresses (and having visited just about 9 LibDem Conferences in the past 25 years) have taught me that these three are almost guaranteed “room-fillers” at national party events.

    D66 is known (for good reasons ) in the Netherlands as “the lawyers and judges party”, but fringe meetings about Health issues (we launched thde worldwide trend towards euthanasia legislastion, and are presently trying to get an Opt-out system of organ donation into law), Social Inequality (there is a strong “basic income” subcurrent in D66), laws and jurisdiction issues (we started giving victims the right to speak and testify in criminal trials), and even Feminism/LGTBI rights (D66 launched gay marriage legislation) draw smaller, more specialist-minded crowds at D66 events.

    Sorry again to anybody whose feelings I inadvertently hurt…

  • No problem, Bernard. As the recipient of a transplant over six years ago, I’m delighted to hear of your stance on the organ donation system.

    My personal worry is that my daughter who lives in London and is married to a Dutch citizen (who also works in London) has just given birth to twins. You can imagine our anxiety about EU citizens’ rights and the future of that part of our family given the current Brexit nonsense.


  • Bernard Aris 6th Oct '17 - 5:20pm


    my sympathy to your daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren (belated congratulations to all concerned). D66 and the LibDems are as one in advocating the maintenance of all present rights and obligations for EU citizens in the UK (I don’t believe anything the May government says or coughs about that until I see the Home Office start behaving civilised and respectful) and UK citizens in the EU; there were some excellent fringe meetings about that at conference.

    A D66 parliamentary candidate, Mr. Keij, is very active in the UK and on the continent moblizing both groups; just this week he mobilized expats in the Netherlands to (successfully! Hurray!) block a bill in the Senate to extend the period you have to live here to be able to become a Dutch citizen.

  • Martin Walker 7th Oct '17 - 7:54am

    It’s water under the bridge now but I disagree. I don’t think our policy on Brexit is clear enough – I don’t see any difficulty in arguing that we should remain in the EU, and that our democratically elected MPs, elected on such a platform, would vote as such. Such a position is not undemocratic, and it is much clearer than our current position. 39% of voters did not know our policy on Brexit at the last election was, or thought our position was unclear – more than any other Party. Nobody wants another referendum, it is a fudge based on timidity, based on the views of a small number of MPs in pro-leave constituencies who are worried about their majorities, and based on the fact that somehow we have allowed ourself to be browbeaten by the right wing narrative that one referendum, at one point in time, must be upheld for ever more, regardless of the damage and the consequences.

  • William Fowler 7th Oct '17 - 9:25am

    Alas, the country is pretty much evenly split on the EU so the only way there will be a second referendum is if the EU changes some of the rules on freedom of movement (which again the EU would be pretty much evenly split on such a change!), both Merkel and Macron want to appease their voters so who knows?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 7th Oct '17 - 9:39am

    David Raw, as a parent of twins myself, please tell your daughter from me that although she is probably feeling exhausted and sleep deprived right now, it does get easier, and as time goes on there are many advantages to having two children the same age.
    It is such a pity that what should be a very happy, albeit exhausting time for your daughter and son-on-law is being spoiled by anxiety about your son-in-law’s status as an EU citizen in Britain. Actually I feel fairly sure that all EU citizens already living in Britain will be given the right to stay, but of course Theresa May should just guarantee them this right now, unconditionally. She should have done so right from the start. After all, the Leave side, during the referendum campaign, repeatedly said that “of course” EU citizens already in Britain would have the right to stay.

  • Katharine Pindar 7th Oct '17 - 3:03pm

    The ‘fudge based on timidity’ is not, Martin Walker, the proposed ‘referendum on the facts’, which it is pure nonsense to say ‘nobody wants’, but the proposed ‘transition or implementation period’, which solves nothing, puts off final decisions. and would make Exit from Brexit impossible because it is meant to take place after we have left, in March 2019. The party is, and should be, campaigning to widen the growing feeling in the country that a further referendum now the facts are known should take place. The failing negotiations, as well as declining living standards and fears of further post-Brexit national decline, should rouse a sufficient clamour in the next few months for the Labour Party at least to realise that we are right to say that the people should be given another chance to decide on our country’s future.

  • David Becket 7th Oct '17 - 5:45pm

    The country has a choice, Chaotic Conservatives incapable of agreeing a policy or conducting negotiations, a surfeit of Socialism with no clear policy on Europe or a capable Cable, we should be shouting this from the rooftops. Yes we will put Article 50 on hold, but this country is in no fit state to negotiate article 50.

  • William Fowler 8th Oct '17 - 8:50am

    Corbyn is possibly playing a very clever hand, leaving his options open and talking with Merkel and co… end up with some kind of associate membership and saving the day at the last moment. His major advantage over May is he actually listens to his colleagues, albeit in the context of fixed and outdated ideas, but the prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn and President McDonald (after the Queen passes on) trumps raw dogma.

    Given that May’s only expertise is in hanging on to power, if Brexit implodes, she will have the choice of a general election she will lose or another referendum on membership, saying she will happily do whatever the British people decide.

    Vince talks a good game but has not come up with a solution and does not seem to be in the room, though no doubt lots of quiet stuff going on in the background.

    Interesting that Merkel/Macron have dissed the idea of an interim period and promise of 20 billion from the British taxpayer, sure that went down well with the countries who take money out of the pot rather than put it in.

  • William Fowler 8th Oct ’17 – 8:50am…………. but the prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn and President McDonald (after the Queen passes on) trumps raw dogma……….

    Writing such nonsense ‘trumps’ any sensible points you try and make…

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