Honouring the referendum without leaving the EU

The last three years have laid bare the inadequacies of our current political system and many people who were previously fairly happy with how our country is governed now recognise that, whatever happens with Brexit, we need fundamental change, not just in our relationship with Europe but also in the way our domestic politics works.

For now, though, most people find it hard to look beyond the looming deadline – and that’s a large part of why the current problem seems so intractable.

Many of the people advocating a People’s Vote, or straightforward revocation of the Article 50 notification, do acknowledge the need for reform. But they generally say (as my MP did three years ago) that we should get Brexit behind us first and then talk about the deeper problems – in other words, that we should restore the status quo (the status quo that leavers have rejected) and then get down to tackling all the issues that … well, that reformers have been talking about for years, without being listened to.

How many leavers are going to be satisfied with that? Part of their frustration comes from years of hearing promises that their concerns will be addressed, promises that, over and over again, are forgotten about once the immediate crisis is past. Right now it is the threat of Brexit that creates an opportunity for change, and leavers know that, if that threat is removed, any promised change will be diluted so far that it will end up being worthless.

Putting off more fundamental reform until we’ve got through the turmoil of Brexit might work if people do genuinely care about our membership of the EU as passionately as they appear to. But if the turmoil is really about something else and, in fact, some deeper resentment is being projected onto an issue that, actually, relatively few people feel strongly about, then going ahead with Brexit is likely to compound the underlying problems. Leaving the EU, with or without a deal, will absorb so much political and administrative energy that there will be none to spare, for the foreseeable future, for addressing the deeper flaws in the way we are governed.

It seems to me that the nominal issue – whether the UK should remain a member of the EU – is acting as a proxy for deeper grievances, grievances rooted in a widespread sense of powerlessness that can only be put right through fundamental reform of our political systems and processes. As long as that’s the case, the issue of our membership of the EU will only ever be seen through the lens of established prejudices, a lens which is distorted by long-standing flaws inherent in the way our political system operates. We need to address the deeper problems first; only then will we get a proper perspective on our relationship with the EU.

The only sensible way forward now, as far as I can see, would be a thorough review of our existing political system, a review that the public could be sure would lead to change. That could either take place after a straightforward revocation of the Article 50 notification or it could be offered in a confirmatory referendum as an alternative to Parliament’s preferred Brexit.

For that to happen, MPs need to recognise that they may not be the right people to decide on fundamental constitutional questions. How could they be? They were elected to deal with all the normal operational aspects of government that make up the substance of everyday political life. Constitutional questions only rarely become urgent but, when they do, as they have now, they need to be considered apart from normal issues. And they call for a different, more detached perspective than what is needed to oversee the ordinary business of government.

At this time, what I think we need is a different type of General Election, an election of a Constitutional Assembly, to sit for a limited period of time – eighteen months perhaps – to debate and legislate on a narrow range of constitutional issues. Those issues would, of course, include the question of how sovereignty should be shared between different levels (which would cover the question of how much could be ceded by treaty to supra-national bodies like the EU and the UN). They would also have to include two other important areas which the last two years have shown to be thoroughly inadequate: how and when the will of the people should be determined, and what rules should govern the relationship between the different branches of government.

Would MPs vote for such an innovative approach? They almost certainly wouldn’t have done so even a few months ago but now, as we approach the cliff-edge for a third time with no viable solution in sight, perhaps they might.

How we persuade them to even consider it is another question. As a first step, I’ve started a petition asking Parliament to ‘Debate whether the referendum can be honoured without leaving the EU‘. That petition is currently being checked by the parliamentary petitions team ahead of publication (which might take two or three weeks) and I will post about it again once it goes live.

Originally published on my T’Reasonable Man blog in early April

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