Funny how the Welsh politicians demanding a second Brexit referendum didn’t want a re-run of the 1997 devolution vote

Funny how the Welsh politicians demanding a second Brexit referendum didn’t want a re-run of the 1997 devolution vote

My European election campaign began at 7.35 am on 26th April in a debate between four of the main parties on Radio Five Live.

I had, of course, listened to endless Brexit debates, but it was the first time I found myself participating as a frontline protagonist.

When the Plaid Cymru representative started to re-run arguments from the referendum campaign about why we should Remain and suggested the time had come for a ‘People’s Vote’, I was (even though I had of course heard such arguments before) deeply troubled.

As I reflected more on this afterwards, I concluded the reason I felt quite so strongly about this was that the Plaid spokesperson had effectively sought to diminish a core part of my identity and I suspect that will be true for many others, regardless of whether we regard ourselves as first British or first Welsh or first English etc.

In order to explain why, I need to back up a bit.

Some years ago, I listened to an Argentinian speaking to a group of Brits about our national character. It was quite a tough call for him, but the truth is that, while these exercises inevitably involve crude generalisations that are not true of everyone, they can be quite insightful, especially when coming from someone who is not British – looking in from the outside.

Our South American friend was very honest, and not everything he said was complimentary, but what he said about our positive attributes really resonated with me. He said (and this was particularly striking given that he had lived through the Falklands War) words to the effect: you Brits have a very keenly developed sense of fair play and because of this you are very good at performing the role of an honest broker.

I think this generalisation contains within it a lot of truth which has been exhibited on numerous occasions during our history, including in the aftermath of the September 1997 Welsh devolution referendum in which the Yes vote won with a majority of less than a third of a single percentage point.

If ever there was a time to suggest that perhaps there should have been a second referendum, that was surely it.

In truth, however, the rules had all been set out in advance and everyone knew them. They clearly stated that if either the Yes or No vote got over 50%, they would be deemed to have the majority and have won, be it ten or twenty percent, or just 0.3% as was actually the case. It was because of this that the result was accepted and the Assembly established a year and a half later. There was never a second referendum for the purpose of just checking that people hadn’t changed their minds, even though it would only have taken a tiny fraction of people to change their minds to create an entirely different outcome.

In this context, the decision of Plaid, the Lib Dems and now Labour to entertain the possibility of a second referendum on our membership of the EU, even when a) the 2016 referendum secured a majority more than 9 times that of the Welsh referendum and b) each party accepted the Welsh referendum result, constitutes the manifestation of blatant double standards.

As I have reflected more on this, it seems to me that what is proposed is not only wrong, but it also seeks, in a very real sense, to disinherit us from a key part of who we are – kicking our keen sense of fair play into touch. To the extent that Brexit itself is an attempt to regain control, to re-inherit, if you will, what it means to be British, the fact that this tactic of disinheritance from a core national characteristic is being deployed by those advocating remaining in the EU is surely fitting?

I am, of course, keenly aware that in seeking to defend their position, advocates of another ‘People’s Vote’ state that inaccurate claims were made during the 2016 campaign. That is probably true of both sides. We all remember, for example, the emergency budget we were told would be needed to follow immediately after a Brexit vote. It never materialised.  

The truth is, however, that if making an inaccurate claim in the context of a democratic vote invalidates the result then, sadly, many votes should be invalidated. The 2017 General Election is a case in point. The 2017 Labour manifesto resulted in the election of an additional 30 Labour MPs to Parliament on the basis of a huge programme of additional public spending, amounting to £49 billion, to be delivered by increasing the tax burden on just the top 5% of earners.

The respected Institute of Fiscal Studies, however, produced a report pointing out that Labour’s proposals would necessitate taking money from many working families, not just the top 5%. Moreover, the IFS also made it clear that the proposed tax regime would not raise anything like £49 billion.

The additional 30 Labour MPs secured on the basis of this manifesto have had a direct impact on Brexit. Without them the Yvette Cooper Bill would never have passed. Should that vote now be deemed invalid?

The truth is that the 2016 referendum was the biggest democratic exercise in our history and the people of the UK voted by a majority of over 1 million people to Leave. Some people may think it OK to ignore this. Some people may think it OK to call for another referendum in the hope that we get a different outcome. At the end of the day, however, what is required is a reality check. The keen sense of fair play that many Britons feel won’t allow it and any attempt to squash that sense of fair play will diminish us and disinherit us from part of who we are.

The forthcoming European election provides a great opportunity to signal our opposition to those who would question the 2016 vote, and to support those candidates who really believe in Brexit.

This, however, is not the only relevant consideration in this election.

We also need Brexit-supporting MEPs who are connected directly with Brexit-supporting MPs at Westminster – where key decisions must be made – so they can work together to secure Brexit as quickly as possible. That simply won’t be possible if we elect Brexit-supporting MEPs from a party with no representation at Westminster, like the Brexit Party. In this context it is also important to appreciate that the chief consequence of any weakening of Conservative representation in the European Parliament, from a Westminster perspective, will be to strengthen the hands of Jeremy Corbyn even if he isn’t the overall winner. Given the centrality of the Westminster Parliament to our exiting the EU, that would actually weaken our Brexit negotiating position.

It is for both these reasons that as someone who campaigned for Brexit and voted for Brexit, I am pleased to be standing in these elections as the lead Conservative candidate in Wales at the European election.