Let us march once more for a Final Say on Brexit

This game of political chicken is no way to make the most momentous peacetime decision in a generation

Saturday 16 February 2019 23:00 GMT
The last march in support of a second referendum attracted an estimated 700,000 people
The last march in support of a second referendum attracted an estimated 700,000 people

The danger is real.

By “running down the clock” on Brexit, the prime minister plainly hopes to force – blackmail, if you prefer – MPs to choose between her deal or no deal. The atmosphere being deliberately generated is increasingly panicky.

With time so short, the whole political system is being stressed to breaking point, the cramped conditions forcing people into that infamous bogus choice: “My way or no way.”

The mantra is constantly repeated, the implication being that there is simply no time left to do anything else. It is not true.

There is still time for democracy. There has to be.

The European Union has already made it clear that Article 50 can be extended, for the purposes of a democratic resolution of the issue.

With the House of Commons having been for months in an unbreakable deadlock, and with the risk of an accidental no-deal Brexit looming, the rational, fair and pragmatic path is to ask the people, to give them what The Independent has long demanded – a Final Say on leaving the EU.

As the novelist Robert Harris tweeted as long ago as last summer: “Strongly suspect there will be a second referendum, not for any noble reason, but because MPs will desperately want to hand the screaming, defecating, vomiting baby back to its parents – the electorate – and let them decide what to do with it.”

The only impressive thing about the government’s performance in recent weeks is the ingenuity with which it devises new ways to waste time and generate this false sense of inevitability about accepting the prime minister’s proposals. It is reckless and extreme.

There is now talk of the “meaningful vote”, and parliamentary debate, to be shoe-horned into the short window between the end of the EU heads of government summit on Friday 22 March and so-called Brexit day on 29 March, also a Friday. Hardly meaningful; and what, in any event, will MPs be voting on?

A call to action

Therefore, the timing of the next Final Say march – the Put It To The People march – on Saturday 23 March, could hardly be better, given where we now are.

Organised by the People’s Vote campaign and supported to the hilt by The Independent, it will provide a vital further opportunity for the British public to demand that they be allowed to exercise their democratic rights.

This is not about setting aside the result of the 2016 referendum. That was, as is now clear, a flawed event – preceded by a terrible campaign by both sides, with false claims made and both the Leave and Remain camps criticised by the Electoral Commission. Even so, the result can be “respected”, as the phrase goes.

The Independent hands in Final Say petition to Downing Street

Yet now, almost three years on, and with the facts better known and the terms of the Brexit deal now – more or less – negotiated, the people should be consulted on whether they now wish to go ahead. It is a simple, pragmatic matter of democracy.

So many people speak confidently about “the Brexit we voted for”, and yet none of the varieties that have been so endlessly discussed were on the ballot paper in June 2016. In any case, almost half of the electorate rejected Brexit in any form.

The abiding fact of the 2016 vote is that it helped to divide the country, a country that has failed to become reconciled since, despite the rhetoric about coming together from both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

A second referendum would allow that healing process to begin. If the vote was to leave, then the Remainers would have to concede that this was indeed the decisive judgement of a people in as full a possession of the facts as is possible. If the vote was to remain, then the Leavers would have to agree that the reality of Brexit, rather than the ideal or the principle, was, in the end, something the British people decided to reject.

What should not be allowed to happen, behind veiled threats of public disorder, is for that final resolution of the issue never to take place, with the sense of grievance on both sides – given how dissatisfied some Leavers are with the government’s current proposals – festering far into the future.

Parliament has failed; the people will not

The most powerful practical reason to ask the people what they think is that parliament has failed to agree a policy on Brexit, and shows little sign of doing so, even now.

Indeed, this failure in Westminster goes to the heart of The Independent’s position on the Brexit conundrum.

After the referendum, the result of which we respected – though it came as a disappointment – we gave MPs the chance to make Brexit work. We awaited a positive vision and a good deal.

Neither was forthcoming. Instead, the prime minister sought, and lost, parliamentary advantage in a botched election. She then dilly-dallied in her negotiations with the EU. By last summer, it was obvious that the grim realities of Brexit were coming home to roost.

With progress negligible, we launched our Final Say campaign: well over a million people rallied to the call of our petition. In October, alongside the People’s Vote campaign and hundreds of thousands of readers and supporters, we took to the streets to show our passion for the cause of a second referendum.

When the prime minister finally agreed a deal with Brussels in November, it appeared that perhaps Westminster could reach a democratic consensus on the people’s behalf after all.

Such hopes were swiftly dashed. That is why we must be decisive once again and remind MPs of all parties that it should be the people who resolve this mess. Parliamentarians have for the most part proved unequal to the task.

There may be an overwhelming majority against no deal among MPs – but parliament has failed so far to rule out leaving without agreement. Some MPs perhaps feel pushed into a corner by the disingenuous claim by the prime minister that Britain must heroically hold its nerve in the face of dastardly EU negotiators. Yet what must be dawning upon even the most stubborn of them is that this game of chicken is no way to make the most momentous peacetime decision in a generation.

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With luck parliament will – at the last moment – force the government to declare its intentions and realise that a second referendum is the only answer; but Britain has had precious little good fortune during the Brexit process thus far. The pressure and the momentum, across parties, across the nation, across ethnicity, class and age, has to be maintained.

The “my deal or no deal” choice is plainly false. There are many other options, and the British people ought to be allowed to pass their judgement on them.

Our legislators need to be forcefully reminded that they have other choices open to them than any of the more or less disastrous Brexit options now being canvassed.

On Saturday 23 March, the people will speak loud and clear.

For more details about the Put It To The People march – and to sign up – please visit https://www.peoples-vote.uk/march

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