Theresa May's decision to call a snap election has unsettled the UK political establishment - the opposition parties appear confused and rather lost about the position they find themselves in.

But despite the somewhat dismissive rhetoric, the European Commission must surely realise that a Conservative landslide victory in the UK would send out a strong message to the political elites in the other 27 member states that Euroscepticism wins votes, and the question of 'withdrawal' is no longer a subject confined to the political fringes, as it was in the UK until very recently.

The times they are a'changing...
Not only the opposition parties, but the Tories most of all are ‘confused’. And if they are not ‘lost’, they certainly are divided – rightly so. They fired off the most ill-conceived referendum – certainly in view of its scale and impact, in the history of modern Western democracies – solely to preserve a parochial party unity, with no thought to long-term ramifications, let alone to long-term UK prosperity.

Having said that, I joined the Lib Dems in the aftermath of Brexit precisely because they were neither lost nor confused on this issue. Their line has been clear, unified, and by far the most well-reflected in terms of promoting job growth and purchasing power for those least well off – who did admittedly have absolutely legitimate concerns about immigration, although Brexit was a shamefully populist sledgehammer to crack that particular nut.

Of course, the ‘message sent’ is certainly not that ‘Euroscepticism wins votes’. Geert Wilders was soundly trounced in the Netherlands (in demographic terms, a mid-sized rather than a small EU member state), and LePen’s chances are hardly great with the mainstream French political parties now openly declared in favour of Macron, by far the most staunchly pro-European of all the five first-round candidates. Euroscepticism also remains a fringe, albeit a noisy one, in Germany and throughout most of the rest of Northern and Southern Europe. The only ‘message’ we’re sending is that there is no incentive to give Britain a good deal, even if they want to – as economists saw perfectly clearly well before the referendum took place.

I don’t know about ‘the times’, but Britain’s certainly a changin’… it may be a giddy little song for comfortable boys like Boris Johnson to sing, but not for the UK’s most vulnerable nor for family and mid-sized businesses with tight profit margins, increased costs through the falling pound, and European markets to be lost if we leave the single market.
Eric,

I find little to argue with you about other than your comment about an "ill-conceived referendum".

On constitutional matters, however, I would argue that the people should have their say. And the entry of the UK into the then 'Common Market' was carried out on the understanding that there would be no transfer of sovereignty. As this proved not to be the case, then surely the people - and I write as one who was too young to have a say on the matter in the 1970s - should have a say.

I think that the referendum was essential. Or do you you believe that the political elites know better than the people?
Hi Gary

Thanks for your reply. I do appreciate your points, but I'm afraid I'll be remaining fiercely stubborn on each of those issues:

First, on your query as to whether it is the people or the elites who know better, it's a false dichotomy as far as the Brexit referendum was concerned. By the day of the referendum, absolutely no one in Britain "knew better" because no one, public or elite, knew much of anything at all. The most experienced EU specialists were altogether perplexed about what the referendum "meant", as they themselves were openly stating. Nor did anyone in Parliament or in Whitehall have a clue. Farage and Johnson said altogether different things before the referendum than they said afterwords. "The people" were ignorant because everyone was ignorant. Ken Clarke was dead right on this one: it was nothing but an opinion poll, and a flimsy, amateurish one at that.

Second, to avoid that scenario, what should have been put to the people was the specifically envisaged alternative, for example an enumerated list of the four or five key points -- leaving or staying in the single market, etc -- which could each be concretely debated. That would have been democratic, namely, the choice to vote for something knowing what that something is. There's nothing democratic about "I hereby vote for whatever the hell this thing may turn out to mean", no more than there's anything frugal about handing someone a blank cheque.  Of course, no complex legislation is wholly foreseeable in its consequences, but nor does complex legislation ever simplistically reduce to an outright "yes" or "no".

Third, your view that the people were lied to in the 1970s suggests that you do in fact think the elites know better -- or at least that they know more. Any treaty relationship by definition is a sacrifice of sovereignty, e.g., an agreement by a sovereign state to be bound by rules adopted along with one or more other sovereign states. Britain has loads of them well beyond the confines of Europe, as do most modern democracies. Default WTO rules are equally made by treaty and therefore are also sacrifices of sovereignty.  So the only economic question is not whether we sacrifice sovereignty, but which such sacrifices leave Britain best off overall.  Not a single Brexiteer has seriously responded.  It may well be that you were too young to have a say back in the 1970s, but that wrong is not righted by having the same trick pulled on those too young today to vote for something potentially very damaging for their futures.

Yours resolutely!

Eric
Eric,

I agree that on the day of the referendum the electorate knew little of the facts about EU membership, but it is the case that neither side was presenting the full story.

An interesting point.... Along with then MEP Nikki Sinclaire, I helped to write the preamble to petition, in 2010, calling on HMG to hold a referendum on continued membership of the EU (the petition attracted 220,000 signatures, and prompted the subsequent Back Bench Business Committee debate in the Commons).

Once the petition was 'live' I e-mailed the UKIP MEPs, most of whom I knew well. I believe only 2 signed, Farage himself only signed on the day of the debate itself when he was confronted by Nikki outside the Commons in front of cameras. He claimed he had been "too busy".

UKIP's unofficial policy was against a referendum, not least because whatever the outcome it would take away their raison d'etre.
Eric, Gary,

For any of their faults, it is certainly not true to suggest that the Tories are the most 'confused' of all the UK's parties at the moment. The Lib Dems are making a comeback in popularity (quite likely only through the very reasoning that they couldn't have had less of an impact at the last General Election that the only way now is up) and the Greens are doing what they say on the tin; standing up to Conservative laws. But Labour, a party that used to be a great rival to the Tories, that used to keep them on their toes, and that used to propose a real threat to their policies, are in no-man's land.

The very fact that no one within their own party knows where they stand on Brexit, and of course Corbyn himself is at the helm of this wishy-washy confusion, is the very problem with this election. The Tories were right to call it for the sake of their own party strength, but June's polling day has the potential to put the Conservatives in such a strong position, that they will have virtually full control over Britain in little over a month's time.

Brexit has been a shock to some, Trump a shock to many, and two years ago, no one would even consider Le Pen for President. Yet what do these three elections have in common? That those who came out victorious were those who listened to the people. They put their own views aside and listened to what people felt strongest about. They went to the corners of their country that the 'political elite' thought too irrelevant, and helped the 'little man' feel like he had a say.

And so now, we are faced with May about to clamp her fist down on Britain to finish what they all voted for last June 23, and what are the opponents doing? They are ignoring the majority of the British people, and fighting for a second referendum, in the hope of thwarting Brexit and ignoring Britons in the process. Having cast all their morals and party allegiance aside, whilst passing it off as "progressive politics", the Greens, the Lib Dems and Labour are all throwing back the votes of millions of Britons, right in their faces.

I see great dangers in the 5 years ahead; not because I have any desire for Labour or the Lib Dems to gain power, but because if they don't sort themselves out soon, May will be able to walk all over Parliament long after we have left the EU. She is feisty, she is strong, and she is brave. She needs a solid and tough opposition to keep her in check over the next five years.

Thanks Caroline -- interesting food for thought.


Whilst I did note above that the Tories are as confused as anyone else -- and certainly more so than the Lib Dems -- I wholly agree with you about Labour.  Corbyn has done precisely what Cameron and May did, yet with even less credibility.  He has bizarrely waffled on Brexit (first avidly for Brexit, then limply against it, then again avidly albeit incomprehensibly for it), and has wholly sacrificed long-term UK prosperity to a fantasy of party unity even less plausible than Cameron's or May's.  


I also agree with your reference to "the majority of the British people", although I draw conclusions very different from  yours.  Brexit has been a textbook example of wholly confusing, indeed wholly collapsing democracy into brute majoritarianism, into crude populism -- the opposite of how every other mature democracy in the Western world was ever designed to work (as particularly evidenced by the utter slenderness of that "majority", which in no other advanced democracy could ever effectuate such far-reaching change). 


Indeed, if there's a difference between genuine democracy and paltry populism in your account, I hope you'll point it out.  Anyone with a megaphone can be a populist.  You reiterate Gary's original dichotomy between "the people" versus "the elite" which has certainly supplied perky soundbites throughout whole process, but, as I explained in my second posting, have no meaning at all in terms of what the Brexit referendum is or does.   So I repeat: a genuine democratic vote explains what change the voter would be voting for, and not merely some abstraction from what the voter is voting against.


I see no problem at all with a second referendum -- the Brexiters wanted democracy, no?  Since when does democracy say: "Ok, now the deliberation stops!"  What I'd like this time is a genuinely democratic referendum which makes clear to the voters all options in express terms, as opposed to the leap into the dark that was offered last June.


Yours still undaunted,


Eric

Hi Eric,

A second referendum is absolutely not an option, ever since both Cameron and the opposition supported the government's leaflets to every household in Britain that stated the "The EU referendum is a once in a generation decision". It was clear that Cameron would enforce the decision and put an end to the debate. It just so happened that the decision didn't go his way. The Tories and Labour were happy to insist that this was our only chance to get out of the EU, and for democracy to say "Ok, now the deliberation stops!" if it had been a win for remain.

There must come a point when politicians make decisions on our behalf. A referendum was not necessarily the best option; as we all know, referendum reduce complex and intricate decisions down to the tick of a box. But before the vote, very few people kicked up a fuss about having it. Cameron, Corbyn, and Sturgeon presumably thought the British people would vote to remain, so they allowed it to go ahead.

Cameron's arrogance meant that he thought he could send a few propaganda leaflets out and that everyone would believe him and vote to remain. They saw through it, and voted with their heads and their hearts, not through fear of the great unknown. Yes, no one knew what would happen if we voted leave, but similarly, no one knew what would happen if we voted to stay. Merkel would have had our heads on the block before Cameron could even utter his victory speech. If the referendum was indeed a "once in a generation decision" that the EU knew we wouldn't have again, they would take us for every penny we are worth. Deep down, many leave voters knew that not only did they not like the ties to Brussels as it stood, but not one remain campaigner could say what kind of deal we would get had we stayed, and that's what sent them to the polling booths ticking leave.

The bottom line of a referendum is, there are no simple or clear solutions to a simplistic question. What May has done, is what she feels is best for her country. And if that's to call a snap election, to make the best success of Brexit that she can, then that's the best thing for the country at the moment. Of course, she is also strengthening her party in the process; taking advantage of the opposition's disorganisation and lack of unity. But Brexit is not only affected by what goes on in Brussels, but also by what goes on in the UK. The Times recently claimed that more Britons trust May to sort out the NHS than Corbyn. She is also a firm believer in bringing back Grammar Schools. This election is not only about the legal ties to the EU, but it is about taking Britain back to where the electorate wants it to be. Free education for bright yet poor pupils, a better health service that is for the working people of Britain, and freedom from the shackles of Brussels.

If that means democracy, then I'm all for it.

Many thanks Caroline --


One point of at least partial agreement.  You write that,  "before the vote, very few people kicked up a fuss about having it. Cameron, Corbyn, and Sturgeon presumably thought the British people would vote to remain, so they allowed it to go ahead."


Of course, many people did kick up a fuss.  Many pro-Remain politicians and experts signaled loudly and clearly the dangers of populist adventurism at the polling stations, given the incalculable consequences of Brexit.  You're right of course that party leaders ignored those warnings, though certainly not motivated by the country's best interests.  Cameron wanted to unify the Tory Party and Sturgeon was only ever eying independence.  As for Corbyn, would he even know how to manage the budget of your local Frisbee team? 


Also -- only partial agreement on your view about a second referendum.  First, from a legal standpoint, let's be clear.  There is absolutely no way any government can foreclose future legislation simply by tossing around brochures with the inscription "This is your last chance, folks!".   Indeed what is even meant by "generation"?  Does the present "generation" end, say, at 4:36 am on Christmas 2028?  Or 5:28 pm on St George's Day 2043?  Only in British politics could so many people take such a gesture to be anything more than empty rhetoric.  If final and definitive law could be made simply by the government in power passing around leaflets -- phrased in such open-ended terms -- Her Majesty's Stationery Office would be busy indeed.  There is no such thing as irreversible legislation, except maybe in North Korea. 


However, if your real point is about PR, namely, that the public would simply resent it -- "Keep voting until you deliver the result we want" -- then, yes, that's a plausible and a weighty objection.  I'm tempted to propose a Referendum About Having Another Referendum, simply to punish everyone for their stupidity.  


You and I do probably agree, then, on the most important point.  Ultimately, this all remains in Parliament's hands, including what I believe could be a wholly compelling and wholly dignified withdrawal of the Article 50 declaration.  That's why I continue to insist on the democratic illegitimacy of the referendum.  That point needs to be repeated as often as necessary, so that if Parliament does face an overriding case against exiting, then perhaps it can change course with greater confidence of the electorate.


Yours with trust eternal in the forces of boringly sober moderation,


Eric
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