I’m a big fan of the musical Hamilton, which follows the life of American founding father, Alexander Hamilton, through the American War of Independence and the early years of the USA. At the moment, the musical feels especially relevant, because the UK seems to be going through a similarly monumental shift. “The World Turned Upside Down”, by our own choice.
Like so many people, I was shocked by the result of Thursday’s referendum on EU membership, a result which is already bearing fruit. The UK economy has shrunk below that of France, the Pound has dropped, Scotland is considering independence, and we may have wilfully reignited the troubles. This is possibly the single biggest upheaval since the end of WW1, certainly since the break up of the USSR. But there is a big question looming over all this. As King George III? puts it, after the American forces win the Battle of Yorktown, “You’re on your own. Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?” The answer, bluntly, is “no”. The Leave campaign has utterly failed to present a vision of post-Brexit Britain, and its key backers seem too focused on their own internal turmoil to do so in the near future. The civil service is under-resourced to negotiate our departure at present. And we have yet to activate the now-infamous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (something I and most others had not even heard of two weeks ago).
That means that we have time. We have until at least October (by which point the new conservative leader and Prime Minister will be in post), to choose the direction we are heading. And make no mistake, we have both the right and the duty to shape our future. To grab hold of our country and stand for something. What, then, are our priorities for this new world in which we find ourselves?
The first question on many of our lips is, can we prevent Brexit from actually happening? I am one of the over 4 million signatories of a petition which calls for a second referendum, using stricter criteria however I am beginning to feel this is not necessary. While I believe binding constitutional change should require a supermajority overall, and at least a simple majority in every constituent part of the UK (i.e. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus Gibraltar) the vote on 23 June was merely advisory. There are no ‘conditions’ for us to Leave based on the referendum, because the referendum does not decide if we leave or not. Another In/Out referendum would probably bring a similar result (though I don’t deny that a decrease in the overall leave vote would help my corner). It would also make remain voters look like bad losers, and undermine what must be seen as a major expression of public discontent which must be addressed – the vote had the highest attendance of any since the 1992 General Election, and 52% of those voters wanted change. Anything seemed better than the status quo, even a vote which will cost them millions in local investment. That is something policy makers must not forget.
Power to Parliament
Yet we can still resist Brexit. Several constitutional lawyers have argued convincingly that to activate article 50, the Prime Minister must first seek approval from Parliament – indeed one firm has already begun a pre-emptive suit to this effect. That being the case, parliament has a duty to consider not only the outcome of the referendum, but its wider context; that the margin of victory was slim, and was limited to 2 of the five regions voting, the Leave campaign openly lied to the public, many people are now saying they regret their vote (widely used as a vote against the general political status quo, not a specific supra-national organisations), that the pound and the more domestically focused FTSE 250 are well below the levels they were at two weeks ago, that the country itself is on the brink of tearing itself apart. (These points are made well by Professor A.C. Grayling in this open letter to MPs.) Parliament must act in the best interests of the nation as a whole, and must surely take into account the damage already done by the vote, as well as the potential long-term fallout.
Yet our efforts to resist Brexit altogether should not lead us to neglect other priorities for where our country is heading. We need to continue to espouse progressive politics in all spheres.
Maintaining Peace in Northern Ireland
Our decision to leave the European Union threatens one of the greatest pieces of diplomacy of recent years. Preventing a resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland is good in itself, it helps preserve the union, and it sets the tone for the kind of country we want to be. To do this we must maintain our link with the European Convention on Human Rights, as this is foundational to the Belfast Agreement. The ECHR is separate to the EU, so is not automatically at risk, but there are many on the Conservative right who would see it replaced with a British Bill of Rights, with the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter. This is self-evidently bad, as it is most often states which infringe on human rights, and has also been criticised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (in the same report which decried the Conservative welfare reforms).
We also need to maintain the flexible citizenship and free movement which have been vital to making competing nationalisms less relevant. At present anyone born in Northern Ireland can chose British, Irish or Dual nationality. This must be maintained as part of any exit deal. As for free movement, if we join the European Economic Area (the Norway model) this is part of the deal. If we cut our ties altogether, I suggest that free movement remains on the Island, with border controls between Northern Ireland and the Mainland. A little uncontrolled EU immigration is a price we have to pay to stop utter chaos.
A New Political Settlement
At this point, nobody has a mandate to rule. The Conservative manifesto pledged a referendum, but assumed renegotiated membership. Brexit changes everything. Likewise, while David Cameron had a mandate as Prime Minister, this cannot be said of anyone in the race to succeed him. What his successor will have is an example of what happens after three years of rule by an unelected Prime Minister. It destroyed the career of Gordon Brown (who had a recession to deal with, it is true, but who had not been part of a pro-recession campaign). You can bet no politician wants to suffer a similar feat, so they can probably be convinced to call an election. We have been plunged into a constitutional crisis, and we need an election to find our way out before the end of the year. This can follow a vote of no confidence in the government, which then has 10 days to build a new government. But there is a simpler option. Get 434 MPs to vote for an election.
So what kind of world do we want post-election. If the referendum was a commentary on the political status quo, then something big and different is needed – what I call ProgPact. Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and Lib Dems, working together to shape a positive vision of the new world order. There will be prices to pay by all parties, but they will be as nothing compared to the alternative of a far right government directing our departure from the EU. I am not the first person to propose this. It has been mentioned by columnists, actively propounded by Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Lib Dems, and the Greens are backing it as an option.
ProgPact should stand on a pro-European platform, favouring continued EU membership (already backed by the Lib Dems), or failing that EEA membership. We must face up to the fact that a lot of people find the current immigration situation deeply painful, but must not risk losing the migrant doctors and builders and lawyers and farm hands who make up the rich tapestry of our identity and economy. Above all it needs to rise above xenophobia, and reassert Britain as a case study in multi-culturalism. Being a large coalition, it needs to stick to simple, bold politics: reversing the impact of austerity (particularly for the NHS and local government), maintaining the ECHR, ensuring peace in Northern Ireland, house building, electoral reform, combatting climate change, protecting existing employment rights and minimising the impact of any lost EU spending (for example on academic research and farming).
The Scottish Problem
I’m a big fan of our own union. I see myself as British, and believe we should do more to act as equal partners within the UK. Without Scotland, domestic politics would be poorer, and I am not convinced Scotland would thrive as an independent state. Yet if we push ahead with Brexit, and Scotland wants to reconsider independence in light of this, I believe they should be empowered to do so. One constitutional crisis is enough to be going on with.
Yet Scotland has the right to know what it is choosing between. It should to move forward until the broader picture is clear. That means waiting until after an election, and after the UK as a whole has decided which model it will pursue – EEA membership, a Free Trade agreement, a complete severing of all ties – but before we actually leave, giving Scotland time to negotiate.
As an aside, if there is another referendum on Scottish independence, we must learn from our most recent experience. This referendum was disastrous, because one party lied openly and the other tried to win with fear. There should be no public funding for official leave or remain campaigns. Instead, there should be a single independent body, releasing facts or academic assessments only.
Standing up for hope
There is one thing I haven’t mentioned. Something we can do today. Now. Something which is vital to the country we live in. Since the EU referendum results, there has been an outpouring of hate against some people in this country, based on where they were born or the colour of their skin. We can and must stand against this, whenever we see it.
The Progressive Plan
- Wear a Safety Pin. This is a small thing, but it is a statement about the kind of people we are. People who stand against xenophobia and a politics of fear. You can call for the rights of EU citizens in the UK to be protected. You might also find this article about how to handle racist abuse useful, while people in Birmingham can be proud of this movement.
- Support calls for our parliament to assess the evidence regarding our membership of the European Union and have the final say. Sign these petitions calling for a vote regarding the invocation of article 50. We can also write to MPs directly, using this handy pro-forma or independently. It’s their job to listen, and full details of all MPs are available online.
- Write to the Northern Ireland Secretary,
Theresa Villiers (MP for Chipping Barnet in North London) calling for continued free movement across the Island, and citizenship self-determination. If we need a border, put it between Ireland and Britain. It might not seem that relevant to most of us, but this will set the tone for everything we do.
UPDATE: Theresa Villiers is no longer Northern Ireland Secretary. That role now falls to James Brokenshire. Please direct corespondences to him.
- Sign this petition calling for a new election for a Brexit government by the end of the year. (This petition calls for PR, which may well be one ask too many, but I think it is important not to split support across petitions where possible).
- Sign this petition, started by the Green Party, calling for a progressive alliance. Those of you with a party affiliation, push for ProgPact. If you are a Lib Dem, support Lord Ashdown’s plan. Alone, we cannot succeed. Together, we stand a chance.
- If you don’t have a party affiliation, try to pin one down. I plan to do just that in the next few months.
- Put some thought into what your priorities are for this new Britain. What do we want to fund? What do we want to be like? People decide elections, and should do so based on the policies they want, not the public speaker they find most authoritative.
UPDATE: My friend James has chosen his priorities, and more information about his perspective, along with a call to action, can be found here (it’s a video, in case you are bored of reading).
- Keep doing what you love. Don’t flee. Don’t let fear numb you. We have a long road to walk, but a key part of that is keeping our economy, our culture, and our values afloat. So don’t give up just yet.
I know that just signing petitions seems futile, but it can carry weight in a wider debate, especially if email, or even better we write to MPs. Politics should not be left to the few. It is something for all of us, and if we do not take a place in that, someone else will.