As a Bregrexiteer, Tony Blair is right to call for a second referendum

The basic argument for a second referendum is sound, even to those of us who are still inclined to get the hell out of the EU

Friday 28 October 2016 12:56 BST
Tony Blair’s call for a second referendum is a sensible one
Tony Blair’s call for a second referendum is a sensible one (Reuters)

I voted Brexit. Do I regret that? Probably not. Do I have doubts? Yes. Of course I do. It is hugely risky. Would I like it if, as Tony Blair argues, the country kept its options open, including a second referendum, when we have a better idea of what it will all mean? Yes.

What’s more, I think there are very many people like me, who weren’t zealots about sovereignty or migration, but were frustrated at Europe’s many failures. They looked at its direction of travel, the dismal economic decline we were shackled to, its never-ending crises, and decided life outside had more promise. I still think that is possible. Yet I also think there are perfectly respectable and powerful reasons why we should indeed have chance to weight up the alternatives once we know what they actually are.

The basic argument for a second referendum is sound, even to those of us who are still inclined to get the hell out of the EU. On 23 June we said what we wanted, in broad, principled terms. We wanted out. David Cameron had come back with a fairly unimpressive “renegotiation”. Had our European partners been a bit more grown-up and magnanimous about his pleas, things might easily be different now. They must know, deep down, that the way Europe has been running itself is not sustainable, and that the peoples of Europe have had enough of integration, austerity (because of the crazed and still doomed single currency project) and the lack of any policy and burden-sharing on migration. Europe hasn't been functioning properly for some time, and everyone knows it. It needs economic and structural reform, badly. It is something the British have argued for consistently, including Mr Blair himself as PM, when we had the now-forgotten Lisbon Agenda to try and make Europe face up to the economic challenges from the east. Like all such initiatives it failed. And so the British decided, at last, it had had enough of the EU. It did not, though, know what the alternative was.

Yet we really do need to be sure about the “terms of exit”. Decades ago, when the issue of entry into the then European Community was live, there was great emphasis placed on the “terms of entry”. Many people took a practical approach then, just as they do now. Would it mean more jobs? Would food be more expensive? Would it be democratic? Now we need to ask similar questions about getting out, and judge whether the alternative of staying put, preferably in a reshaped EU, would be better. When we know the shape of the deal we will receive on leaving we can then make a judgement about whether it is worth getting out, or actually whether it is so poor a proposition we may as well stay in. Let me offer a couple of scenarios.

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First, let’s say it all goes well on the soft Brexit idea, and we get an ideal bespoke deal, of the kind Theresa May says she’ll get. Let us assume the EU allows the UK to remain in the single market. It also allows the UK to set its own immigration policy for EU nationals wanting to live and work in the UK. Let us further imagine that the EU only requires the British to make a token contribution (say one euro) to the Common Agricultural Policy and to the rest of the EU budget. Let us allow our imaginations to run free and posit a world where the UK could also settle its own trade deals with third parties. Yes, I know this is unrealistic, but bear with me.

On that set of options, then, leaving the EU would be very attractive indeed. There would be no impact in trade, and the immigration restrictions, while economically harmful, would pacify British public opinion. We would indeed save money on the EU budget and can spend it on the NHS. We would have all the benefits of the EU and few of the costs. Even Tony Blair, Ken Clark or Nicola Sturgeon might vote to leave the EU when faced with a soft Brexit of such luxurious goose-feathered gentleness.

Second, by contrast, we might take what we have today – far from ideal – and put it against a hard Brexit. That would mean no automatic access to the single market, and tariff and other barriers. It would mean a deal so bad we would assuredly be poorer for a long time, with no great hope of quickly winning new markets to make up for the lost ones. It might well mean visa and customs restrictions on the movement of Britons going to live or work in the EU. It could leave those huge tower blocks in the City of London derelict. It could destroy employment in places such as Sunderland, Swindon and Oxford, where we make cars that sell mainly in the EU. Alternatively we might have to pump billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into hidden subsidies to the big banks, car companies and airlines to keep them going in the UK. We would not, though, be required to join the single currency or any European defence forces (just as we aren’t now). Given such an unattractive alternative to the EU, even Boris Johnson or David Davis might vote to stay in the EU.

Now, the eventual deal will of course be somewhere between those extremes (one hopes), but the principle remains. We can take a considered view. Brexit voters such as me might still conclude we’re better off out if, longer term, it means we can build stronger economic relationships with the faster growing economies of the world. If it meant, too, that we could create a dynamic, low-cost highly competitive economy, the Singapore of Europe, if you will, things might be better outside the EU. Yet many people who voted Leave would look at that model and shudder. They have a sovereign right to change their minds when they are in full possession of the facts, and have a clearer idea of what the future might bring outside the EU. They might prefer the status quo, after all.

This, then, to me seems a perfectly respectable course to take. There are other reasons too why a second referendum would be a good idea, now that we know some other possible consequences that we could not have known, or at least not for sure, on 23 June. For we now see for sure that the very unity of the UK is under threat. For those with family, business or other links to Northern Ireland and Scotland, this can be of paramount importance. On 23 June we did not as a nation vote to break up the UK. Now we know that it is likely to endanger the peace process and the stability of Northern Ireland, and may mean border controls on the roads into Scotland. We need to take a long, hard look at whether England and Wales really want out if it means that. Yes, that would mean an effective veto for a few millions in Ulster and Scotland, but that is the price we may have to pay to keep our country a partnership of nations.

We would also know, for example, whether the Slovak family next door would have to return home, or whether Brexit would also mean your retired dad in his Costa Blanca villa was going to get kicked out of Spain in some tit-for-tat retaliation. We would know if our students could easily study in the EU, and if we need to get a visa if work wanted us to go and work in Frankfurt, or a visitor’s visa to go on a trip to Paris. We know none of those things today, and all of them matter a good deal.

It is also the case that a very large minority of the electorate voted to stay in, and many of them feel passionately about it. I voted for Brexit, but I don’t view the result as being some overwhelming landslide victory. I don’t think it gives the Government a mandate to do anything it wants in Europe. It worries me that the result was in reality so evenly matched. There is an argument that big constitutional changes should require a clearer majority – say two thirds, rather than 50 per cent plus one vote, or the pretty narrow margin we saw on 23 June. A second referendum, with a properly clear majority to leave, would, to put things bluntly, shut the remoaners up for good. It would be good to settle a national argument that remains unsettled, including in the Conservative Party. Whatever we might pretend it wasn’t settled on 23 June. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Practically, I have little idea about how the idea of a second referendum could be made real. It would need an Act of Parliament, for a start. If we activate Article 50 next year, and our government manages to negotiate a deal within two years, and that then goes to a referendum on the “terms of exit”, and the terms of exit are then rejected in favour of the status quo – well, can we just rescind Article 50? Legally? Presumably the political reality is that the UK could, because the EU doesn’t want Britain to leave anyway.

Another possibility – more fanciful – is that the EU wakes up, listens to its people and decides to reform itself from within, which would prevent similar moves to the British one in future. In other words it could offer all of its members new terms of membership that would suit them all rather better than the current setup. They will have to do so one day anyway, and the coming French and German elections will prove that point. The next two years could shake the kaleidoscope some more.

Yet the second referendum process would also incentivise the EU to offer the UK a less advantageous deal simply to provoke people into voting to remain because the terms of exit would be so harsh and terrifying. A second referendum might also be flawed if the majority in either direction is small, or if it instead becomes a vote of confidence in the policies of the government of the day, ie not about Europe at all.

So I cannot pretend that a second referendum would be straightforward, but it seems to be sensible that we should take the pragmatic approach and look at whether the eventual terms of exit we manage to secure are truly in the British national interest. No one can, or should, stop the British people from thinking again.

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