The leader of the Brighton and Hove Leave campaign in 2016, Councillor Tom Bewick, says a confirmatory ballot is the only way to bring the country back together again.
In June 2016, Britain was convulsed by a binary choice perhaps not seen since the days of the English civil war in the 1640s. In those days, Parliament was pitted against the overweening power of a belligerent King. It nearly shattered the country. Of course, Charles I paid the ultimate price. But no sooner had we committed regicide and the community of the realm, briefly a republic, decided a complete about turn.
In the EU referendum, England and Wales voted to leave the EU. It was a case of the people rejecting the unaccountable power of an undemocratic EU. In the eyes of many, the EU project had become no better than the cavalier writs of the Stuart monarchs.
But for our friends and relatives in major cities like Brighton, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, they had voted to remain. The path to Brexit therefore and the UK’s departure from the EU was never going to be a straightforward one.
The Conservative government has had nearly 3 years to negotiate an orderly Brexit. It has made a complete hash of it. Far from trying to bring the country back together it has only entrenched divisions still further. When you add the ongoing austerity cuts, our society is fractured like never before. Families have been divided. Good friendships have been lost. And valued members in all the major political parties have felt the need to break away, in sheer exasperation with a Westminster class that has abysmally failed to find a constructive way forward.
People like me voted to leave the EU because we had a noble disagreement with the Establishment (Remain) parties, that sought to try and gloss over the imperfections of the Brussels elite, by mostly scaring people to vote to stay in. The fact is both sides lied in that referendum campaign and one hopes that this method of campaigning — one based on abject scaremongering and fear — will never be repeated again.
We find ourselves in a national crisis. No one can say for sure exactly what type of Brexit the 17.4 million voted for. The withdrawal agreement brought back by the Prime Minister, for all the government’s hype, fails to bring back control of our laws, trade and sovereignty. The UK will be trapped in a kind of colony status if the Prime Minister’s deal is approved. If I had a straight choice between May’s deal and current membership of the EU, for all its imperfections, I would choose the latter.
Because what the last three years has exposed is that there is no such thing as a half-in, half-out Brexit. There is only membership of the EU on the current terms or a clean, WTO (World Trade Organisation) Brexit. We also now know, in very stark terms, that the land (EU) border we share with the Republic of Ireland requires some kind of regulatory alignment or else the important peace process is threatened, for both nationalist and unionist communities alike. And division of that nature can never be allowed to happen.
I have a huge amount of respect for Peter Kyle. We have remained good friends despite the fact we have found ourselves on very different sides of the referendum divide. What I have always liked about Peter is that he has been consistent in his views and passionately believes that Britain’s future best belongs in the EU. For him to come forward therefore, with Phil Wilson MP, and suggest this compromise is a sign of a true democrat and a future statesman. He clearly recognises that MPs alone do not have the power to override the wishes of the British people, as expressed in June 2016 and the general election in 2017. It is time therefore for the electorate to break the deadlock. We need to settle the European question once and for all.
To break the impasse, Parliament needs to put the Brexit options back to the people. The government, if it wants to, should get the chance to seek approval of the deal it has negotiated with the EU27. Or it could set out an alternative proposition by testing Parliament’s opinion through the process of indicative votes.
It should be up to Parliament and the Electoral Commission, acting impartially, to come up with the form of question on the confirmatory ballot paper. Personally, I would argue for a two-stage process. Firstly, check the will of the people on Theresa May’s deal. If that is rejected, there should be a straight run-off ballot between Remaining in the EU on the current terms, or prepare for a WTO Brexit, with perhaps separate arrangements for Northern Ireland, after a two-year extension to Article 50 is completed.
It’s time to bring the country back together again. What makes Britain such a great place is that we have forged a tolerance and a respect for one another over centuries. It is through our diversity that we have developed an unwavering faith in our democratic traditions to resolve great differences about our future course.
It’s time to heal the divisions and move on. Parliament needs to rise to the challenge and restore power back to the people. Peter Kyle’s amendment is a great British compromise — the only sensible and patriotic way forward.
Tom Bewick is a Labour councillor in Hove and chaired the official Vote Leave campaign in 2016.