Gordon Brown’s plan to deal with the current impasse over Brexit has aspects that should appeal to both Leavers and Remainers, writes Professor Jim Gallager, former Director-General for Devolution in the UK Ministry of Justice.
With the UK Parliament paralysed, the country deeply divided, and trust in political institutions eroded by the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, it is easy to conclude that there’s no way through the political and perhaps economic chaos which faces Britain. It seems we can neither stay in the EU, nor leave it.
These problems feed off one another. Deadlock in Parliament stokes up cynicism and polarises opinion in the country further. Even if Westminster devises some complex parliamentary manouevre, the lesson of Mrs May’s inept deal-making is that sustainable compromise is impossible in the face of such deep divisions.
Voters could be forgiven for concluding the British political system is broken, unable to deal with the main issue of the day. They will be right, unless we do something radically different, which addresses all and not just one of the issues. That is the attraction of the ideas put forward by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Brown starts from some incontestable premises. First, we’ve run out of time. Mrs May’s policy of setting a Brexit date to blackmail her own party with has failed spectacularly. It is now simply impossible to do everything needed by end March. Create an agreed UK position and persuade the EU to accept it. Pass huge swathes of legislation at Westminster to make it work and have it ratified in 27 EU capitals. Can’t be done. Even if we want referendum, it’s too late for that too. Delay is therefore inevitable.
But delay isn’t enough. There’s no point in going through all this again to be in the same place in May or June after more Westminster wrangling. That does nothing for the divisions in the country, and further damages trust in our politics.
Brown’s plan is to do something different. First, the UK agree with the EU to suspend Article 50, for perhaps a year, to allow the UK to reflect in a structured way on the issues underlying the Brexit referendum, and what relationship with Europe we actually want. During this period, Parliament would run a systematic process of national discussion through Citizens’ National Assemblies, to replace shrill partisan debate with measured and thoughtful discussion. In parallel, the UK can engage in further negotiations with the EU on the options for its future relationship.
At the end of this process, Parliament would decide whether circumstances in the EU and the UK had changed sufficiently to call another referendum on whether we remain in or leave the EU. Additionally, Brown suggests, to recognise the concerns of Leave voters, the UK could, even while still in the EU, take the steps available to it to manage EU migration more tightly, and to assert the primacy of the UK courts over matters which are critical to the UK’s constitution, as other European legal systems, notably Germany, have done.
The attractions of such a plan are obvious. As delay is inevitable, put it to constructive use, not more unproductive parliamentary squabbling and take some of the heat, and the time pressure, out of the situation. National and international evidence show well-structured citizens’ assembly processes, not focused on binary choices, produce real participation and more thoughtful outcomes. Managed well, they could help reengage the public and the political system.
There is something in this plan for both sides of the argument: leavers can be reassured the referendum result stands, and it’s indeed already possible to change the UK’s approach to EU migration within the existing rules, and assert the primacy of our own legal system. Remainers will not have a chaotic Brexit imposed on them in a few weeks’ time, and the option of a future vote. And we can stop wasting billions on No-Deal preparations, redirecting it to those ‘left behind’ places.
Nice idea, you might say, but will anyone will buy it? Well, stopping the clock is not unknown in European negotiations, and Brussels already seems resigned to delay, since Britain clearly cannot sort itself out. It will prefer a delay for a defined purpose, including the possibility Britain might change its mind. If we don’t, Brussels still has a withdrawal agreement on the shelf, and may have made progress on a long-term trade relationship in a year’s time. Next May’s European elections do present a problem: how could a country on its way out send MEP’s to Strasbourg? One option would be for UK MEPs elected in May to delay taking up their seats until the UK makes up its mind. Similarly, the UK’s European Commissioner might continue to be a discreet foreign office official, making no waves in the Berlaymont.
Dedicated partisans, notably on the leave side, will find this unacceptable. But both in Parliament and in the country they are a minority. Those who want a referendum immediately, like the SNP and Lib Dems, may be disappointed, but might recognise that a referendum now exacerbates division with an uncertain outcome, while in a year’s time opinion may have decisively moved their way. Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May will both thank Brown for not having have to adopt a final position on another referendum until circumstances may have changed, and perhaps public opinion with them. Most people will simply be relieved.
Of course, business will worry about another year’s uncertainty, but in truth uncertainty is all we have today. No one knows what will happen in a just few weeks’ time, and even if we somehow move into a transition period, we still know little of our long-term European relationship. With this plan, a March cliff-edge is avoided, and there is a road map to a decision.
In the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, no course of action is unproblematic. But the Brown plan – which has already attracted some high-profile support – is the only proposition on the table which looks beyond a short-term quick fix and attempts to address the underlying issues. If we do not deal with the problems of paralysis and division, future generations will not forgive us.