We’re in the Brexit endgame so we need a policy that is clear and unequivocal – and that’s what my party’s got now, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton.
I don’t like contradicting myself, but on Sunday I had to pull a full 180 on a position I’d defended to the hilt just two years ago.
I was at the Lib Dem spring conference in Bournemouth and I spoke in favour of a policy shift that will see my party cancel Brexit on our first day in power if we secure a parliamentary majority in the coming general election.
Just two years previously, in the same conference hall, I helped to defeat a policy motion that would have placed us on a “revoke Article 50” footing there and then.
Why the about-face? Well, times have changed and so have I.
Our country is now in the grip of a constitutional knot, pulled ever tighter with every passing day and at the expense of all other public policy considerations. We have seen the total destruction of those arguments deployed by the Leave campaign and evidence emerge of their deception and criminality in that referendum. And we have an occupant of No 10, clinging miserably to power, defying law, convention and decency in pursuit of a policy he knows will harm the people he is meant to serve.
It feels like we may finally be in the Brexit endgame, and that demands a policy response that is clear and unequivocal.
In that conference debate two years ago, I supported the retention of our people’s vote policy and rejected a shift to revoke by stating that something begun by the will of the people can only be undone by the will of the people. I still believe that and our support for a people’s vote continues, (if we don’t get a majority, we’ll continue to back a people’s vote in the new parliament). But the coming election may be the last opportunity to test that will.
Boris Johnson has stated on several occasions that he intends to interpret the result of a general election as the manifest intent of the British people and what they think about Brexit. Put simply, If he can do that, then so can we.
If he goes into that election seeking a mandate for no-deal, then we shall present the people of these islands with a counter offer – No-Brexit.
Already our new policy has caused quite a stir. Never before has my party fought an election with such message purity, but it’s raising some eyebrows too.
One challenge we’ve been receiving from the Scottish press goes something like: “If you can cancel Brexit off the back of winning an election in the UK, why shouldn’t the SNP declare independence after winning one in Scotland?”
Firstly, we’ve resisted a move to a revoke stance for three years but it’s now clear that the coming general election may be the last test of public will before we leave the European Union. As such, that election will become a proxy for a people’s vote. It may represent our very last chance to stop Brexit. No such time imperative exists around Scotland’s constitutional future.
Secondly, revoking article 50 delivers the status quo. People will have absolute certainty about what staying in the EU will be like, because they are living in it now. Independence has as many uncertainties, and as many permutations as Brexit does. You simply couldn’t harness an SNP win at a Scottish election as a mandate for any one kind of independence.
One thing is clear, the people of these islands are desperate for all of this to go away. So am I. These have been historic, fascinating times, but I’m keen to get back to those (albeit more prosaic) public policy issues that are crying out for parliamentary attention.
Brexit has acted as a sea anchor on so much of our lives for so long. It suffocates everything. That’s why I’m very proud my party has made it clear that we’ll make it stop on our first day in power.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western