I voted for Brexit, but now Article 50 has been triggered I want a second referendum

I may still vote Leave, but I demand a vote on the deal, whatever it is, that Davis, Johnson and Fox bring back from Brussels. The fact is that Article 50 is reversible in the worst case scenario

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 29 March 2017 14:32 BST
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Article 50 is a political process, not a legal one, so we are entitled to change our minds
Article 50 is a political process, not a legal one, so we are entitled to change our minds (BBC News)

Brexit regrets? I’ve had a few. And you’d be mad not to. Allow me to mention them, especially now Theresa May has told us that “there can be no turning back” on the road out of the EU. One personal regret is alienating people who I know, who are right to take the Brexit thing very seriously indeed. The Brexit thing has divided communities, friends and families – and the reverberations in Scotland and Northern Ireland will be even more vicious.

“It’s all your fault.” That’s what friends tell me, some angrily, because they know I voted for Brexit last June. The peer pressure is starting to tell on me. So is the course of events, and the Prime Ministers’ apparently hardline willingness to accept “no deal”. Boris Johnson also said it would be “perfectly OK” to fall back on WTO rules. Well, I didn’t vote Leave last June to end up with a “no deal” deal, and I think that “no deal” is worse than a “bad deal” because it is the worst possible deal imaginable. The Prime Minister, in her momentous letter, repeated that possibility, this time trying to link it with security co-operation. So we now have the prospect of no trade agreement with Europe and no security co-operation either, by way of retaliation: again, not something a lot of us ever voted for.

It’s just not sane, the Prime Minister ruling out any change in direction in the national interest if that is where we end up. If she really wants to do that then she needs to have another referendum to win the full-hearted consent of the British people on the actual terms of exit when they are settled.

'No turning back' as Theresa May triggers Article 50

So if that is where we end up, then I would vote against it, because the immediate costs to the economy – and national security – would be too severe, even for eventual rewards from global trading and investment. And, therefore, I do demand a vote on the deal, whatever it is, that David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox bring back from Brussels. The fact is that Article 50 is reversible if all concerned wish to do so, because it is a political and not a legal matter. The EU doesn’t want Britain to leave, and Britain is in two minds about it still – seriously split with no “clear decision” last June.

We the people have a right, and Parliament does too, to see and have final approval on the eventual terms of Brexit. If we do not like them then we should have the option of staying in, as well as seeking changes. It may even be that the EU, having been through this process, will deliver the economic reforms that so many of its people’s desire (and not just the British). In particular the EU may finally decide that free movement of people is something that no longer commands popular assent, and that the single currency is doing more harm than good to some of the weaker economies. Either way, the “mandate” from last June was not for Brexit at any cost.

If I am betraying genuine doubts I don’t mind. Like many, on both sides, I must say it was a marginal decision, my opting for Leave – I could recognise strong arguments for both options. I wasn’t doing it in some sort of nationalistic spasm. I didn’t put controlling immigration or “sovereignty” above all else. I didn’t believe many of the arguments put forward by the Leave or the Remain camps, as it happens.

On balance I decided that the economic arguments for exit in the long run outweighed those against in the short to medium run. I may be the only person in the country who voted for Leave because they wanted more immigration into the UK. I admit that, looking around at some of my fellow-travellers, I may have been a little naïve in that respect. I also didn’t vote for “English independence”, another unintended consequence. What happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is up to the people there. But again if I know now that the consequences will be the likely break-up of the UK, then I can factor that into my decision about staying or leaving the EU. In other words there should be a second referendum, however you want to style it, and Article 50 cannot be called irrevocable for that reason.

So I am under no illusion about the prospects for important industries and jobs, especially in the car industry, in the City and in aerospace, among others. I have little doubt that all of those sectors will suffer, and we will undergo higher unemployment in many regions as a result. I sometimes have nightmares about plausible-sounding news reports for the near-future such as these:

“Nissan UK today announced that it would progressively switch investment form its Sunderland plant to a new facility in Romania. Manufacture of the new generation of Qashqai and related models will be the first to transfer, followed by the electric car unit. A spokesperson for Nissan UK said that the company remained committed to retaining a design studio, employing ‘up to 30’ staff, but that the economics of Brexit, including much more complex arrangements around component supply have made the management of their business immensely more difficult. Last-minute attempts by ministers to persuade Nissan to stay with large investment grants and guarantees of government procurement contracts ultimately failed. The unions could not match the low wage rates in the Balkans. Around 10,000 jobs are said to be at immediate risk by 2029.”

Or this: “The last tenants in some of the City and Canary Wharf’s landmark skyscrapers have declared that they are to transfer to smaller premises in London, and switch some more operations to Frankfurt and New York. They say that the difficulties surrounding access to the European markets have multiplied since Brexit, and that they can no longer justify their presence. The Mayor of London has taken charge of a task force to find new uses for the Canary Wharf Tower, Shard, the Walkie Talkie and other famous buildings.”

I don’t think any of that is alarmist or far-fetched. Yet I also happen to think that the European economy is in serious secular decline, that the single currency and the insistence on completely free movement of labour will cripple its ability to work efficiently and win political assent into the future. Just as we joined the European Communities in 1973 to link to what was then one of the fastest growing economic blocs in the world, so now we must unplug ourselves from a fundamentally flawed project. As in the 1970s in 1980s, the pain of adjustment from leaving will be no less than the pain of adjustment we had when we joined, albeit with the important difference that the UK is much more competitive than it was back then.

But if Europe really is unreformable – and it seems to be so – then there is no reason to stay with it beyond the fact that, I agree, pulling out will be expensive and enormously disruptive. It will be a long time indeed before the UK gains a net benefit from Brexit.

Now I am making assumptions, albeit based on what Theresa May said in her keynote Brexit speech. The Prime Minister outlined what was not being promised, exactly, in the Brexit campaign: no access to the single market, the customs unions, no Swiss- or Norwegian-style “special deals”, no halfway house, no associate membership; just a “bespoke” deal, of necessarily unspecified provisions.

I really do want to see that deal in all its glory and to have a say on it – I mean a vote – before we enact it. I might still vote Leave, but I would be making a decision that I felt more comfortable with – and had many fewer regrets about.

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