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Let the People Take Back Control of Brexit

OIi Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
A worker at the Nissan factory in Sunderland, Northeast England, which the author visited in 2016 when campaigning for Remain in the Brexit referendum but where a majority of people voted for Leave

With 100 days to go until the United Kingdom officially leaves the European Union, the British government is in crisis, political parties are riven by deep divisions, and Parliament is gridlocked. Without something to break the deadlock, caused by politicians who hold such different views on Brexit that we are unable to agree on any of the options available, we will leave the EU with no deal at all on March 29, 2019, and the economic consequences will be severe.

Out in the country, there is an overwhelming sense of frustration with the inability of politicians to put differences aside, compromise, and find a way through this crisis. As problems like homelessness, chaos on the railways, and air pollution continue to grow, there is increasing anger that these issues lie unaddressed as Westminster goes around in circles over Brexit.

In that closed world, where London-based politicians and journalists mix frequently, it seems obvious that a second referendum is the answer. The assumption is that large swaths of the country have changed their minds since June 2016. They reason that nobody wanted this chaos and knowing now how hard it will be to negotiate a new relationship with the EU, opinion has significantly changed. The same opinion polls that said Remain would win the first time show a small shift to remain. But in towns across the Midlands and the North, where people voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, the mood could not be more different. 

Two and a half years on from the referendum, it feels the only significant change is the hardening of views on all sides. Leave voters in my Wigan constituency, who were once happy to leave on whatever terms Parliament negotiated, now contact me daily telling me they want to leave without any relationship with the EU at all. Meanwhile, many of those who voted to remain but accepted the result now want Parliament to stop this process altogether and stay in the EU. This is borne out by polling. In a 10,000 sample poll for YouGov this year, 58 percent of respondents saw themselves as either the most hardline Remain or the most hardline Leave voter. This is the thorny truth that the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum does nothing to resolve: Parliament is divided because the people are divided.

In the years since the referendum, we have done little in politics to try to heal this. Instead, our debates have been dominated by cries of betrayal from politicians on all sides of the argument. Media stories regularly carry comments from Members of Parliament describing how they wish to “knife” and “hang” one another. Though every MP in the country represents people who voted to leave and to remain, we have picked sides and insulted large sections of the population. Remain voters have been called liberal elites, supposedly out of touch with the sentiment of the country. My Leave-voting constituents have been called stupid, racist little Englanders. The truth is nothing of the sort.

The Leave side’s “Take Back Control” caught the mood in towns like mine like no other slogan in my lifetime. During the referendum, I campaigned for Labour’s Remain campaign across those northern towns that strongly support Labour but overwhelmingly wanted to leave the EU. It was in Sunderland, in the North East of England, where I finally started to understand the strength of feeling. At the Nissan factory there, I explained to workers that those car-manufacturing jobs that were the major source of good, skilled jobs in the area would likely disappear if we left the EU. One of the work force stood up and said, “We know and we are going to vote for it anyway.” People like him have been called irrational ever since, but I began to understand that day that this was a deeply rational choice because he, like many others, was prepared to forgo economic gain for power. 

Towns like Sunderland that overwhelmingly voted to leave have seen decades of relative decline. In the 1980s and 1990s, Britain’s mining, steel and manufacturing industries were decimated, causing widespread job losses and the devastation of entire communities that depended on those jobs. After 1997, the New Labour government invested in those areas but remained wedded to a model of economic growth that concentrated investment in the cities, in the hope that the benefits would trickle out to towns. For the most part, they didn’t. 

In 2005, the prime minister, Tony Blair, told Labour Party’s annual conference that “the character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition, unforgiving of frailty… The future is replete with opportunities but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” In those towns unable to adapt, where a third of adults have no skills or qualifications at all, the result was minimum-wage, jobs in warehouses that offered little hope for the future, while the well-paid white-collar jobs went to nearby cities This coincided with a huge expansion of higher education that was life-changing for many young people. They grasped the opportunities opened up to them and left. But when they looked back, increasingly they found there was nothing to return to. 

The consequence is that towns have grown older while cities have grown much younger. As the Centre for Towns think tank has shown, working-age populations have been lost from our towns and the older people who remain there live miles apart from their children and grandchildren. The loss of spending power in these towns has cost us dearly, from the struggling high streets and closure of community pubs and banks to the loss of bus services that are commissioned according to passenger numbers. 

After decades of seeing families split apart and close communities undone, many voters in those towns turned to the far-right party UKIP, a protest that rose so suddenly and overwhelmingly that for the most part, politicians and commentators failed to comprehend what had caused it. This followed years of falling turnout at elections that we ignored because we couldn’t hear that “roar,” as George Eliot put it, “that lies on the other side of silence.” Against this backdrop, when people were asked if they wanted to leave the EU, it was an opportunity to push back against one of the most vivid symbols of a political system that is faceless, unresponsive, and unaccountable, where decisions are made by people hundreds of miles away with no skin in the game.

A university degree was the best predictor of how you would vote in the 2016 EU referendum. In a very real sense, it was a tug of war between those who do and those who don’t have agency in their lives. Three years later, it still is. For those who lack agency, the words “People’s Vote” summon anger, not inspiration, and a feeling that they are now about to lose what little control and agency they wrestled back two and a half years ago. 

This is not a phenomenon confined to Britain. From the rise of Trump in the US to the ascendancy of populist and nationalist parties in countries across the EU, tensions between those who have agency and those who do not have broken out into the open. In France, when President Macron responded to the Gilets Jaunes protests last week, he acknowledged the depth and strength of feeling using words that could just as easily describe much of Britain: “It is as if they have been forgotten, erased. This is forty years of malaise that has risen to the surface. It has been a long time coming. But it is here now.”

In the face of this, to seek to overturn the referendum result by gaming the system—providing a choice between no deal at all with the EU or Remain, as Tony Blair suggested recently—would be disastrous. In former mining towns like mine, democracy is no abstract question. Within living memory, scores of people were killed and injured at work every year because they lacked basic rights that only democracy could win them, such as the minimum wage, health and safety laws, and protection from unfair dismissal. It is for that reason that trade unions are still strong and democracy feels precious. To seek to overturn a democratic referendum looks like tyranny to those who fought hard, using that vote as their only tool, for the security, dignity, and hope that was denied to their parents and grandparents. 

Advocates of a second referendum are right that leaving the EU without a trade deal would be particularly disastrous for the economies of many of those towns where majorities voted to leave, costing us jobs in car and food manufacturing, ceramics, and other industries. But for those who prize democracy above all else, a second referendum that seeks to overturn the first—with the possible options on the ballot being remaining in the EU, leaving with Theresa May’s deal, and leaving with no deal—would be more likely to provoke them into voting for no deal than any other option. How then to avoid it?

The answer does not lie in gaming the system or in any short-term fix by Parliament. Given the depth of the divisions exposed by Brexit, forty years in the making, and rightly described by the academics Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker as revealing “Two Englands” with different outlooks, values, and priorities, this can be settled only through dialogue and consensus. The tragedy of the last few years is that, across the angry and toxic political landscape, very few have been willing even to try. By contrast, the public have proven themselves better at compromise. The referendum may have split apart couples, families, neighbors, and colleagues, but for the most part they have laid aside their differences and got on with their lives. They may well do a better job of helping us to break the deadlock.

In Ireland, Citizens’ Assemblies have been used in recent years to help the country unite around two of the most contentious issues it has faced: abortion and marriage equality. Citizens are chosen at random but with the guarantee that, as a whole, they will be representative of the nation. With the support of neutral experts, they provide the politicians with a clear set of views that can help break the deadlock. The question of abortion in Ireland produced a referendum that politicians had resisted because the issue was too contentious. Importantly, when the public is divided and issues are so fractious, Citizens’ Assemblies give politicians the cover they need to proceed. In Britain, the sense that the “elite politicians” are somehow not representing the will of the people is a charge that has produced much of the deadlock. The failure to ask the people how we should leave the EU has meant that it is impossible for politicians to even articulate what “the will of the people” is.

A Citizens’ Assembly pilot on Brexit was run over a few weeks last year by University College, London, and produced a consensus around what is usually called a “soft Brexit,” in which trade, jobs, and access to the EU’s single market take priority over major restrictions on immigration. This is a model that would find a majority in Parliament and the country. It would protect us from a hard Brexit, in which the UK breaks its ties with the EU and seeks to form trade deals with countries that have lower standards, and prevent the leveling-down of wages and workplace rights that matter most in post-industrial Northern towns. 

We are running out of time. To establish a Citizens’ Assembly would require an extension of Article 50, and with EU elections beginning in May, it is likely that this would result in the granting of only a few extra weeks. That would still provide time for politicians to make recommendations about a way forward, providing enough certainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU for Parliament to confidently agree to the Withdrawal Agreement. This, in turn, would allow us to move to an orderly, rather than chaotic, transition out of the EU. 

One major stumbling block remains. To find a majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May would have to reach out beyond the Conservative Party to those Labour MPs who support a softer Brexit. This would alienate large sections of the hard Brexiteers in her own party. By doing so, she would most likely find a resolution to the national crisis but provoke a crisis in the Tory Party that could lead to a historic split. Similar challenges exist within the Labour Party, in which, two and a half years on from the referendum, there is still a division between the party’s leaders and sections of the party membership about whether we should leave the EU at all. 

If there has ever been a moment that the national interest must come first, it is surely now. In Wigan, people constantly tell me that they will never vote again if the result is overturned. There has long been a loss of trust in politicians, but the chaos surrounding Brexit is provoking a collapse of trust in democracy itself. There is no route to healing the country and beginning to rebuild those communities that have lived through decades of decline without that trust. 

When I stood at that Nissan factory in Sunderland three years ago, I said that leaving the EU, and the way in which we did so, would define what sort of country we would be for decades to come. Three years later, the stakes are even higher. In Britain, we are beset by waves of populism and a resurgent far right that thrives on fear, mistrust, and democratic crisis. Our institutions—from Parliament and the political parties to the media and civil society—are simply not fit to respond. The vote to leave the EU was a political earthquake, a clamor for change that has been a long time coming. As Abraham Lincoln put it, in no less a moment of historical rupture, “The dogmas of the quiet past are unfit for the stormy present.” That is the hard truth for our political system. We elected representatives cannot carry on divorced from an understanding of the sentiment out in the country. We either adapt and change, or we will be erased.