George Orwell coined the term Newspeak to describe the perversion of language for political ends. As our capacity for thought is governed by the language at our disposal, if something is repeated often enough it enters the common currency and alters public perception. Through the alchemy of rhetoric, what was once known as A is magically transmuted into B. Or is it?
A fine example of this is the hijacking of “referendum” by the Newspeak “people’s vote”. It’s gaining traction, and we should be on our guard. There’s a very good reason why a referendum is so called: the meaning of the word tells you that this is something exceptional, so exceptional that our parliamentary representatives feel it necessary to refer the question for resolution by those they represent. Unsurprisingly, it’s a term frequently coupled with the phrase “once in a generation”.
A more cynical view of what’s going on would be that some of our law-makers are seeking to pass the buck. They’ve found themselves holding a very hot potato and it’s burning their fingers. Here, you have it, and if you don’t like the outcome, well you voted for it [or against it]. Nothing to do with me, guv.
Prime Minister May has vigorously come out against any such idea and she’s absolutely right.
Apart from the insidious weasel words – nice, cuddly “democratic” people’s vote as opposed to nasty, tarnished referendum – there are a number of reasons why a second Brexit referendum is a thoroughly bad idea. The first is quite simply dereliction of duty. Parliamentary democracy is a precious thing. For hundreds of years we’ve fought to create it, defend it, and improve it, or at any rate reform it. It might be far from perfect, but show me the institution or organisation that is. All human endeavour is in some sense a work in progress and we have to live with the reality that, while we should strive for constant improvement, perfection is unattainable. Politics is a hard and complex business. Much of it is grindingly tedious. To do it properly, you need individuals who are prepared to devote their professional lives to it. Most of us opt for a different life and so we elect – and pay – others to act on our behalf. If we don’t rate the job they do, we vote them out at the next election. In the meantime, the potato is theirs. As the opinion polls show, the national sentiment regarding Brexit is best summed up as “just ****ing get on with it.”
The second substantive reason is logical inconsistency. Since the second world war no political party has formed a government in this country with a popular vote exceeding fifty per cent [in the 2017 general election, for example, the Conservatives garnered 42.4%]. And, if you believe in the value of checks and balances in the democratic process, probably a good thing too. Brexit, on the other hand, brought out more voters than in any general election, and the result was 52:48 in favour, a classic case of the wisdom of crowds. On balance, and for any number of reasons, most people saw a better future out of the EU than in it. The previous referendum on EU membership produced a majority in favour of remaining, and those who were in the minority accepted that this was the price of democracy. They lost. In the intervening years, the nature of the beast has changed, and so has public opinion.
If the numerical outcome of the 2016 referendum were replicated in a general election, the governing party’s majority would be enormous. The only thing justifying a second general election hard on the heels of a first is if the winner cannot form a parliamentary majority. Otherwise you just have to live with the result of a national plebiscite, and if you don’t like it, tough. As it happens, a former MP who is a friend of mine narrowly lost his seat, thanks to May’s miscalculation, a result he accepted with good grace. Neither of us is calling for a re-run of the election because we didn’t like the outcome. It’s British democracy, my friend. If you don’t like it here, you have a choice.
The third reason closely follows the second: it’s encouraging an alarming “cry baby” tendency for too many adults who should know better to represent themselves as victims. “You’ve stolen our future,” is the refrain from those who put themselves forward as the spokespeople of the under-thirties Remainers, pointing the finger at their elders. It’s hyperbolic rubbish. In advance of an agreement with the EU, how on earth do they know? Is the UK going to be towed out into the mid-Atlantic? Even worse are the likes of Blair and Heseltine. They’ve had their day and, frankly, their say. Every time these proponents of a better yesterday appear on the media you can guarantee the resolve of Brexiteers is stiffened.
The fourth and final reason to oppose a second referendum is that far from resolving the biggest constitutional issue of our time it will prolong the agony. There will be endless squabbling over the framing of the question[s] to be asked, and what is to count as a decisive result. Our European neighbours will look on with astonishment at our political ineptitude. A perfect illustration of this muddled thinking is provided by the proposal put forward this week by ex-Cabinet Minister and self-declared Remainer, Justine Greening. She is advocating that people vote on three options:
– to accept the deal May brings to parliament
– “no deal” – another phrase we should be wary of, since “no deal” actually means reverting to WTO terms of trade. And, no, the sky will not fall in.
– remaining in the EU, that is overturning the expressed will of the majority
A system of voting preferences would enable one of these options to clear the 50% hurdle, which Greening defines as what counts as a win. As things stand, I suspect the most likely outcome will be that either option 1 or 2 wins the day – in which case, why go through this charade in the first place? No one will thank the government for it. But in politics nothing is certain. If option 3 gains majority support, public outrage will surpass anything we’ve seen since the last war. Politicians are already held in pretty low esteem. If they’re seen to be betraying the popular will, that reputation will sink to zero.
It’s not hard to see why Greening is an ex-Minister.
Far more promising is the proposal from Nick Boles MP, like Greening a declared Remainer, who has also this week launched a plan that would allow us to remain in a Customs Union by staying in the European Economic Area, while we attempt to negotiate a “Canada plus plus” deal. It’s a simple, off-the-peg solution that solves the Irish border problem at a stroke. Most importantly, it buys the time we desperately need. But then I would say that, as it’s what I advocated in a piece I posted two months ago. Just a shame it’s two years late in arriving.