The ‘Whether’ and the ‘How’ of Brexit

Earlier this week, the House of Commons seized control of the parliamentary timetable, and passed its own piece of legislation through the chamber. The House of Lords then passed it without amendments, and the European Union Withdrawl Bill (No. 6) will become law early next week.

The law forces Prime Minister Johnson to ask the European Council for an Article 50 extension, if an exit deal has not been agreed by 19th October (a few days before the scheduled departure on the 31st). It is a way of legally binding the government from proceeding with a No Deal Brexit.

Since then, there has been a constant refrain from supporters of the PM’s policy (call them Leavers, or Brexiteers or whatever) that parliament’s actions are thwarting the will of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU. The Prime Minister said:

It is a Bill designed to overturn the biggest democratic vote in our history, the 2016 referendum. It is therefore a Bill without precedent in the history of this House, seeking as it does to force the Prime Minister, with a pre-drafted letter, to surrender in international negotiations

The implication here, parroted by people up and down the country, is that ‘leaving the EU’ is synonymous with the May/Johnson vision of ‘hard Brexit.’ That is, a ‘how’ founded on a sheaf of red lines and the threat of No Deal.

Depending on who says this, it may be an uniformed mistake, a ‘category error’ or a deliberately misleading piece of propaganda. Either way, it’s wrong… and it’s another thing that needs to be debunked succinctly, over and over again.

In the past few days I have posted a variation of the following argument on several Facebook walls and Twitter feeds:

  • The referendum of 2016 was on the question of whether we leave the European Union. That question is settled in my view. We will and should leave.
  • The referendum had absolutely nothing to say about how we leave. That question is not settled—not in parliament and not in the country at large.

There’s actually a Leave.eu meme doing the rounds on social media that makes a supporting point.

The Leave.eu meme makers are right: ‘A Deal’ was not on the ballot. But neither was ‘No Deal’. That question is still open for debate.

Many Leaver voters seem to think that because they won a vote on ‘whether‘ they also have a right to determine ‘how‘. “Why should I listen to you?” asked an angry Facebook commenter of me recently. “You lost!”

Nope. My side lost the whether vote, not the how vote. There was no how vote.

I repeat: The question of whether is settled. We must now come to an agreement about how and the opinion and ‘will’ of those who voted Remain is just as important as what Leave voters want. The mandate from the referendum doesn’t carry over to the new question, and anyone who says that it does is pulling a fast one.

Had a clear ‘No Deal’ roadmap been set out during the 2016 campaign, we might have been able to conflate the two issues. But it wasn’t, so we can’t. In fact, the Leave campaigners presented a range of possible options in the expectation that there would be further discussions after the vote.

Back in the autumn of 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May made the same mistake as the frothing keyboard warrior above. Or, it might have been a deliberate attempt at a sleight of hand on her part. Either way, she sought to dictate the ‘how‘ for the whole country. She did not even consult her own cabinet, let alone her own party, let alone the rest of parliament, let alone the country at large.

We should have had more deliberation, debate and discussion. Democracy is not only about voting, but about the conversations and compromises that edge us towards a consensus. It is an ongoing iteration, not a set of infrequent, discrete votes.

Mrs May tried to short-circuit the democratic process, and right now Boris Johnson is trying to do the same. They behave as if they have achieved a consensus on ‘how‘, when in fact there is none.

The various sides in this debate talk, occasionally, about their preferred vision of Brexit. The House of Commons once held a series of confusing ‘indicative votes’ on MPs preferences. But in all the Tweets, blog posts and open letters to constituents, no politician has set out a plausible process for how a consensus could be reached.

This is the practical effect of political polarisation. No plan for a discussion where you might expect to concede something. In a way, polarisation is antithetical to democracy because it sacrifices the ongoing processes that surround formal plebiscites – discussion, compromise and incrementalism.

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