I’ve just read the headline ‘Pound hits 20-month low amid Brexit confusion’, and to be honest: I know how the pound feels.
As I write this, Theresa May has just announced that she’s delaying the Commons vote on her Brexit deal. Or more precisely: as I begin to write this, Theresa May has just announced that she’s delaying the Commons vote on her Brexit deal. Because who knows what will have happened by the time I’ve reached the end of this blog post? She may have resigned and put Harry Redknapp in charge of things. Or worse: Andrea Leadsom.
Yes, a week may indeed be a long time in politics; but right now, a day feels easily long enough, doesn’t it? Let alone two and a half years.
It’s been two and half years (nearly) since 23rd June 2016. Two and a half years – long enough for plenty of facts to emerge; long enough for the reality of a situation to become clearer. And long enough for people to change their minds as a result.
I’ve finally decided to put pen to paper – or finger to keyboard – on Brexit because, frankly, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to chunter quietly at the internet anymore.
I think it’s time to plant my EU-starred flag in the sand and say: I back the campaign for a People’s Vote on what happens next in the interminable saga that is Brexit; and here’s why.
I believe, as a nation, that we should have the right to change our minds – especially if we are about to commit to something which will change the course of this country for generations to come. To me, this is not anti-democratic: it is absolutely core to fairness and democracy.
As the writer John O’Farrell memorably put it on the podcast Strong And Stable last year: when you’re buying a house, you say you want to buy the house, you get a survey done – and if the survey shows up problems, you have the right to back out of the sale. Similarly, when you get a divorce, you have the decree nisi stage – ‘decree nisi’ being Latin for ‘listen, are you guys sure about this?’ – meaning your divorce is, at that stage, still provisional. And yet when the British public makes a decision before all the implications of that decision could possibly come to light, before all the facts and consequences are known, we’re not allowed to put the brakes on it?
And I use the word ‘brakes’ deliberately. The metaphor I find myself using in conversations – when I leave the house and the internet and start chuntering at social gatherings instead – is one of being in a car. I am the driver (leading the country) and you, the passenger (the British people. It’s a large car. Bear with me) are in the passenger seat telling me to drive you from A to B. You’ve told me I’m to follow your instructions. So off I set, driving you to B as you’ve asked… and yet halfway along the route I find out that B is, in fact, a cliff edge. What sort of driver/leader would I be if I carried on regardless?
Theresa May is very fond of telling us that she’s staying the course, making the tough decisions, seeing through what the people have asked her to do. And with the absolute shower of lazy, arrogant, responsibility-shy ministers she’s been surrounded by (at least until they all resigned when the going got tough, of course), it’s easy to be lured into thinking that she is, indeed, a bastion of calm and clear-headedness. But she’s not, no more than the Swedish Chef in The Muppets is the capable one because he’s not as bad as Beaker.
No, Theresa May is not a good leader. Because a good leader would not be driving us towards that cliff edge. A good leader would be stopping the car, turning to the passenger, explaining what they’ve discovered about what lies ahead and asking: do you really still want me to drive you there? They’d be reaching out, discussing, listening. And yet Theresa May – and the arch-Brexiteers – dismiss the 48%, dismiss MPs on their own side, dismiss the experts and business leaders expressing their concerns and making their forecasts. Blaming anyone but themselves for any obstacle they hit en route, May et al simply put their fingers in their ears while yelling “blah blah blah!” (or rather: “Project Fear!” “Stop talking down the country!”) and drive on regardless. Drive on in a clown car, with a new wheel falling off every day.
A People’s Vote is a chance, if this country wants it, to drive away from the cliff edge. And it would be different from the referendum because – unlike the unlimited unicorns and rainbows and free trade deals with Wakanda that the British public were led to believe they’d get the first time – we would all have a much clearer idea of what exactly we’re voting for. Now, we have specifics. Now, we know how Brexit would impact our country. Now, we know more about the benefits of staying in the EU. Now, we know exactly how much vibranium there is in Wakanda, thanks to the documentary Black Panther. Most importantly, we know more about what Brexit would entail – whether in the form of the government’s deal or leaving the EU with no deal. In a People’s Vote using preferential voting and giving three options (leave with the government’s deal, leave with no deal, don’t leave) we’d be giving the public, knowing what we all know now, over two years down the line, a fair chance to choose between all the options on the table right now. Now that’s what I call democracy (Vol II).
I’d hope, too, that both sides will have learned from the referendum and that the tone of the campaigns in a People’s Vote would be different. Because I’m not angry at the people who voted Leave in June 2016 – I’m angry at the politicians and people in power who fed them lies and false promises and racist rhetoric (and broke electoral law while doing so); the people who promised them the earth, or at least £350m a week for the NHS; who made them believe that it was immigrants and the EU who were to blame for their long hospital waits, their low wages, the fact that their children can’t get on the housing ladder, and so many more issues – which are real and important issues facing people in their daily lives, and (spoiler!) not, in fact, the fault of the Brussels Eurocrats who want to ban our bendy bananas.
And I’m angry at those who led the Remain campaign for allowing the Leave campaign to capture people’s hearts and minds like that, with slogans like ‘Take back control’ and the promise of a shiny different future which – even if it’s based on lies – is of course going to appeal if life in this country for you and your family is really not great these days. I’m angry that Remainers didn’t realise we – all of us, whether left, right or centre – tend to vote with our hearts not our heads, and that we had no emotional messaging equivalent of ‘Take back control’, instead merely murmuring something along the lines of ‘Or, erm, everything could kind of stay as it is..?’ and patronising people with Monty Python skits (and then, after the election, insulting Leave voters even further with slurs that they were stupid and/or racist). When I spoke to my 80-year-old mum on the day of the referendum – catching her literally as she was about to step out of the house to vote – I ultimately managed to change her perfectly sound, intelligent mind from years of anti-EU brainwashing by the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, not by appealing to her intellect with facts and figures about the benefits of being in the EU (although I did try that first), but by appealing to her heart. We spoke about her grandchildren – my niece and nephews – and how Brexit would not affect her future, at her age, but how it would irrevocably change theirs. She immediately got this – and decided to vote Remain.
I firmly believe that it can be a sign of great strength, not weakness, to change your mind about something. To hold up your hands and say ‘I got it wrong’ or ‘I feel differently now’. Indeed, I think it’s human to change, learn and grow. But it can take guts to do so – and it’s a sign of real leadership if you’re able to give others a space and process in which they’re allowed to change their minds, too.
As John Maynard Keynes famously said: “As the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” If Theresa May was any kind of leader she’d reply: “I give the nation a chance to express its views again.” And she’d turn her clown car away from that cliff edge while we’ve still got a chance.