A growing number of my friends, distraught at the prospect of Britain leaving the EU, are clinging to the idea that somehow or other the process can be reversed, leaving us back where we started, as if Brexit was no more than a bad dream.
It’s not just people I know who feel this way. There are any number of liberal pundits, and not a few MPs, who believe it is time for true heroes to stand up and save Britain from its folly.
Who can they possibly mean? Ken Clarke? Ken is a fine man but, to borrow from Clive James, he is like an extinct volcano that these days contents itself with occasionally blowing out holes in its sides. Vince Cable? Please. I would buy a second-hand car from Vince, but I wouldn’t look to him to stiffen the sinews or summon up the blood. Keir Starmer? The former head of the Crown Prosecution Service promised much but has delivered little. He’s a plea-bargainer, not a rabble-rouser. So who does that leave? Russell Brand?
I have every sympathy for Remourners. I am one myself. The sense we have of impending loss is the political equivalent of the dread felt by someone whose husband or wife is about to slip away after a long and painful ilness. Bereavement is a terrible thing. A chasm opens. But those left behind have to deal with it and rebuild their lives.
The referendum, certainly as it was presented to voters, should never have happened. It was a fatal miscalculation by David Cameron intended to put paid to Europhobes in the Tory Party who were making his life impossible. Cameron’s legacy is our misery.
But the vote did take place, and to ignore the outcome, even given that Leave won by the narrowest of margins, would be to risk the kind of civil unrest that we are now seeing in Catalonia. Voters would know that their elected leaders couldn’t be trusted to keep faith with the people. Extremism would flourish. What passes for the British constitution would be out the window, along with democracy itself.
It is, I suppose, possible that if a general election were to be held in which, by common consent, the only issue at stake was Brexit, something could be cobbled together that would at least appear constitutional. To enable this to happen, the existing House of Commons would first have to vote down whatever deal Theresa May and her team manage to squeeze out of a reluctant Europe. In other words, the mother of all crises would already be unleashed.
Assuming that a hundred or more newly returned Conservatives subsequently felt able to back Remain, the Tory Party would disintegrate. It would be like the Repeal of the Corn Laws, only worse. Labour would also be divided, with Jeremy Corbyn leading the charge for a sovereign (and in his case, Socialist) Britain in unholy alliance with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and – God help us – Nigel Farage. The new House, after the most divisive campaign in history, might well be more outspokenly pro-Remain, but there would be nothing like a consensus. The House, like the country, would be divided against itself.
Outside of Parliament, how would public pressure for a replay assert itself? There would be massive demonstrations across the country, met by equally large counter-demonstrations. Chaos would be the inevitable consequence, with the risk of violence spilling onto the streets.
And what would happen if, following an agreed re-run of the referendum, Leave won a second time? What would that occcasion? The financial services industry, fearing the hardest of hard Brexits, would flee the country, along with a million or more East European immigrants, adding to the pressure on the NHS and services generally. Europe would shake its head in disbelief and turn away from a society clearly bent on its own destruction.
Conversely, what if Remain won? What then? Be under no illusion, if the EU agreed to re-admit Britain – a serial troublemaker – via the side door, it would require from it a commitment to join the Eurozone and Schengen within five years and to forego the Thatcher rebate. That would be fine with me. But millions of Britons would be affronted. The UK’s credibility would be zero. Do you honestly think the 27, led by Merkel and Macron, would simply say, “Welcome Back, no harm done”? A price would be exacted for the damage we had unleashed on the European project. Until we demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that we had learned our lesson, we would effectively be excluded from Europe’s inner councils.
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I hope I’m wrong. Maybe I should start to believe in miracles. If there are real heroes out there ready to raise Europe’s banner, they should stand up now. Failing that, I am convinced that the June 23rd vote will not be countermanded and that Britain will leave the European Union in 2019 with or without a transition period. The best we can hope for, always assuming that the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and the Irish border question get sorted, is that we come away with a Canadian-style trade deal that somehow – and this would be the real miracle – includes passporting rights for the City of London.
The pro-Brexit camp was wrong about almost everything. George Osborne’s Project Fear, though it came across like a trailer from the Hammer House of Horror, was right on the button, just with a due-date that was two, or four, years premature. But none of that matters now. What matters now is how we crawl out of the hole we have dug for ourselves without falling back in.