Thursday 15 February 2018

The call for a 2nd referendum is a millstone for Remain

Nigel Farage has been ridiculed for mooting the idea of a second referendum: “to bury Remain once and for all”, but from his standpoint, this suggestion isn’t completely stupid. He knows that polls suggest the public are now opposed to Brexit – but only just.  In fact, a massive fall in the pound, higher food prices, and the Government’s floundering Brexit strategy have triggered little more than a return to the long-term pattern of a 2-3% majority for membership, which has pertained over most of the past 40 years. Having done it once, he could reasonably argue that with funding from tax-shy billionaires and another avalanche of fake news from the Mail, the Express and the Sun, this majority could be chipped away; just as it was last time. In contrast, many Labour and Tory MPs who in their heart of hearts know any form of Brexit will be bad for Britain could, when the crunch comes, join SNP and Green Party MPs and the handful of their colleagues who’ve put their heads above the parapet and vote to stay in the EU. They could, but they won’t – unless, that is, a clear shift of opinion among constituents convinces them they can do so without jeopardising their careers or causing a mass of ex-UKIP voters to slew across to the other side, wrecking their party’s chances in the next election.

The attempt by some Lib Dem politicians to justify their call for a second referendum as a means to promote national reconciliation lacks any credibility. The wave of xenophobia and violence against people perceived to be immigrants that followed the June 2016 referendum suggests that the truth is just the opposite. Nor does the demand for a replay reflect democratic principle: Parliament could have legislated to make the 2016 referendum binding but it chose not to. In law, it was consultative and this country is governed by laws; not by short-sighted, real politik declarations by David Cameron, George Osborne or anyone else. The reality is that in the last election, Lib Dem candidates took a beating in pro-leave constituencies in the South West as the former UKIP vote melted away to the left and the right, while their former leader, Tim Farron, clung on in Cumbria after announcing he was: “a bit of a Euro-sceptic”.  With Mrs May’s flag nailed firmly to the Brexit mast and Labour resolutely facing both ways, Lib Dem leaders, not unreasonably, saw a chance to hoover up support among Remainers, but they made the capital mistake of trying to please everyone, coupling passionate support for continued membership with a contradictory call to resolve the issue with another toss of the coin.

Not surprisingly, this attempt to combine a principled objective with a means which is little more than self-interested populism has been a complete disaster.  The Lib Dems continue to bump along at about 6% in the polls, while the demand for a second referendum has left worried voters in England without any clear leadership. It’s time for all who accept the importance of EU membership to admit that a second referendum would simply hand the ball back to those who’ve already done us so much harm. We, the public, are trapped – on the one hand, we don’t want our economy, the NHS and our welfare system handed over to the tender care of Fox and Trump in one-sided trade negotiations with America First. On the other, we’re bludgeoned by politicians and the media with the fiction that a consultative referendum trumps the rights of Parliament – an assertion which is only reinforced by the call for a replay. We’re crying out for MPs who voted Remain to stop the clever foot work, say what they really believe, spell out the benefits of EU membership, and shout from the rooftops – Stop Brexit!

Patrick Gray

Secretary, The Radical Party