Where is the Remain fightback?

Published by The i paper (6th February, 2017)

A few weeks before the Brexit vote, Nigel Farage gave clear warning he would fight for a second referendum if his side lost by slender margin. Polls were predicting defeat for the Leave camp, but its leading light said this would not end their struggle unless two-thirds of voters backed the other side. ‘In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way,’ he told one interviewer.

This was, of course, the referendum result – only against staying in the European Union. Yet now the former Ukip leader and his furious friends insist the result is sacred. Farage tweeted last week 114 MPs who voted against triggering Article 50 were ‘enemies of democracy’ who should be ousted from parliament. His Brexit allies pour fire and brimstone on anyone who dares quibble with shrill demands for the most extreme severing of ties with our biggest trading block.

Perhaps these people fear the future they have unleashed as they seek to clamp down debate with abuse. Regardless, intemperate attacks on those who challenge their view is widening the divisions that engulf our nation after that referendum. They are also one more example of the hypocrisy of Brexiteers, from promulgating a £350m weekly cash boost for the health service through to the sinuous way they shift their arguments having unexpectedly won.

The Remain camp, so cowed and deflated since defeat, needs to fight back – not least against a false definition of democracy being used to silence opposition and attack liberal values. Yes, people voted to leave the EU. And please discard flawed arguments that a majority of those that did not vote opposed Brexit; more fool them for failing to bother with such a crucial ballot. I also accept Theresa May’s job is to seek smoothest possible departure – although this is undermined by her stubborn obsession with cutting immigration regardless of economic damage.

Michael Gove argued in last week’s Article 50 debate that those seeking details on Brexit through a white paper wanted only ‘obfuscation, delay and a dilution of the democratic mandate of the British people’. Yet democracy is nothing without the ebb and flow of debate. Why else did a group of hard-right Tory rebels pursue the eurosceptic cause with such remorseless tenacity for decades, destroying a succession of their own prime ministers given electoral mandates by the nation.

There is something chilling about attempts to shout down the slightest opposition. As the great constitutionalist Walter Bagehot explained, representative democracy is ‘government by discussion’. Or as a certain David Davis – now overseeing Brexit – said more recently, democracy is not just about casting a vote and must be able to change its mind. A single referendum is a snapshot of opinion. It should not turn MPs into robots, nor stifle widest possible debate on future direction of our nation.

And what precisely is this mystical ‘will of the people’ suddenly held so sacrosanct (although ignored on many other issues from aid to rail renationalisation). Voters were given a binary choice: stay or go. A slim majority endorsed Brexit – but the nation now holds incompatible desires. Polls indicate Britons are divided over single market access and the customs union. They want to retain an open border with Ireland yet control immigration, although not at expense of Europeans already here and only if it does not hit them in the pocket (as it most surely will).

May is hurtling towards a hard Brexit as a consequence of her stance on borders. So how pitiful and profoundly anti-democratic to see all those craven Remain MPs line up behind her despite believing this will damage their country. Scores of them bleating like sheep about backing Article 50 with heavy hearts having argued forcefully that Brexit will be disastrous and trade deals should not be rushed. Is it any wonder the public distrust politicians when they betray British interests and their own beliefs in this way?

Labour has abandoned any sense of adequate opposition on the biggest issue facing our nation, rendering the party almost pointless. And how sad to see even the redoubtable Tory former minister Anna Soubry, scourge of Little Englanders, support the Article 50 bill ‘against my long-held belief that the interests of this country are better served by our being a member of the EU.’ Defeatist turncoats mutter about mitigating the damage in parliament, but mild rebellions will do little to restrain a resolute prime minister. MPs will most likely end up being offered only Deal or No Deal.

Some argue that to stand firm would inflame electoral anger, even as they ignore the 48 per cent who voted to remain. Yet the terrible irony is Brexit will not salve the wounds of disgruntled voters and pain of fractured communities that fostered a populist insurgency. Already we see fuel and food prices rise; firms and public services suffer labour shortages. Any disruptions caused by departure will hurt poor and least-skilled Britons the most – as Remainers now backing Brexit know well.

This threatens to increase electoral anger as Britain moves from being just inside the world’s biggest economy to firmly outside. Voters were led to believe serious problems ingrained in many societies could be fixed by keeping out foreigners and ‘taking back control.’ Yet the problems remain and may well worsen. For all the talk of respecting voters’ wishes, this may just corrode faith in politics further. Farage and his fellow fanatics would never have given up fighting had they lost. What a shame their opponents display such weakness by failing to understand democracy.

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