We must not allow Remainers alone to dictate the terms of Brexit

We must not allow Remainers alone to dictate the terms of Brexit

Today, Parliament will discuss whether to invoke Article 50 to leave the European Union. The debate in Westminster Hall is the result of a number of well-supported e-petitions demanding that the Government immediately invoke Article 50. Leaving aside the absurdity of needing a petition to highlight that the mandate to leave the EU – as promised by the Government – has not yet been honoured, there are other things going on in relation to Brexit about which we should all be concerned.

At the same time as the debate is happening in Parliament, the High Court will continue hearing a legal case that could delay Brexit. The case is being brought by a group of claimants who are arguing that invoking Article 50 can occur only after receiving parliamentary approval. The Government is contesting the case, arguing that Article 50 can be invoked using the Royal Prerogative. The claimants seem unmoved by the irony of their use of legal process to attempt to subvert a democratic outcome voted for by over 17 million people.

The wider context for the debate and the legal hearing is that the vote to leave the EU was a massive shock for our political leaders. The fact that the Government doesn’t appear to have anticipated a legal challenge to the constitutional process involved in leaving the EU further indicates they weren’t prepared for the outcome. Their reaction is now causing confusion and uncertainty and runs the very real risk of undermining the popular vote’s clear and democratic instruction.

Nearly four months after that historic vote, and despite the Prime Minister announcing that Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March next year, it appears that there is widespread anxiety about and opposition to doing so. As is becoming obvious from the events of the past few days, there is growing resistance to it being triggered without a parliamentary vote and it is not only some of the many Conservative MPs who voted Remain who are dragging their feet.

Most Labour MPs voted to Remain, and last week Labour released their 170 questions for the Government about how Brexit would be undertaken. Some Labour MPs, like David Lammy, have called for a second referendum on EU membership, as has the neither-Liberal-nor-Democrat leader, Tim Farron.  Even UKIP, whose number one objective prior to the referendum was for Britain to leave the EU, appear nervous about the prospect of leaving given that they are unable to agree on a political programme for Britain outside of Europe.

And now, Theresa May – who despite having voted to Remain but on becoming Prime Minister stated ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – is adding to the confusion by confirming that there will be “no running commentary” on negotiations after Article 50 is triggered. But by second-guessing the public’s intentions and getting it wrong, and by incorrectly linking the Leave vote with particular policies – like Amber Rudd’s plan to demand tallies of foreign workers, which confused wanting control over immigration and borders with anti-foreigner sentiment – ministers aren’t helping themselves.

In other words, the Prime Minister and the Government are acting like they want to dictate to Parliament which trade and immigration policies an independent Britain hopes to agree with the EU. However, that is clearly something in which Parliament should be involved, in consultation with the electorate – the ultimate source of their authority and power – once Article 50 is invoked. For us it is clear, it is for the Government to decide when to invoke Article 50. And once invoked, they should involve Parliament in debating the specific policies.

Yet another area of confusion created by those wanting to Remain relates to questions over what the public voted for on 23rd June.  The term ‘hard Brexit’ has been adopted by concerned Remain voters, to describe a Brexit deal that involves leaving the single market and ending free movement. On last Thursday’s Question Time on BBC1, both Labour MP, Emily Thornberry, and former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, were booed by members of the audience for suggesting that the public had not voted for ‘hard Brexit’. The nervousness around this has been met with intransigence by EU leaders.

Last week, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said that Britain would have either ‘hard Brexit or no Brexit’, and that retaining free movement was essential for access to the single market. Yet there is no ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit to work out. The critics are confusing the act of leaving the EU (which is what the electorate voted for) with the policies the country should adopt once it has left.  Leaving the EU, solved by triggering Article 50, makes Britain an independent country again with full, parliamentary sovereignty and democratic control, and no commitment to any particular policy whatsoever. Any policies and agreements that a newly independent Britain wants with the EU then have to be negotiated for and worked out. This is an extremely important distinction that is being muddled by both Theresa May and her critics opposed to leaving the EU.

Many who voted to leave the EU did so because they saw Brexit as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ‘take back control’ and to start to shape our own destiny as an independent and outward-looking nation. This chance will be missed if we continue to let anti-Brexit campaigners and politicians such as Labour MP Sir Keir Starmer to continue to shape public understanding of the issues at stake. Although Brexit received a huge mandate, those who voted to Remain appear to be dictating the terms of the debate right now. Brexit is increasingly being described as a problem to overcome, an interruption to business-as-usual, and a type of faux democracy that can be somehow ignored. Despite winning the vote, Brexit now risks being shaped by people who campaigned for the status quo, and whose ambition is to remain in the unaccountable EU, by hook or by crook.

Through the people we have met through our public meetings, Invoke Democracy Now! has pinpointed a number of key issues that the Government and Opposition are failing to understand. This failure reveals their own assumptions and prejudices about the British electorate. Brexit is being portrayed as a problem that needs to be managed. It somehow gets grotesquely caricatured as anti-foreigner and inward-looking; that it will create long-term damage to our economy and make us all poorer. Our experience across the country, before and after the referendum, is that Britain is a tolerant and friendly nation, and that a desire to control our borders and immigration is not motivated by racism. Brexit is being seen by too many of those in charge from a perspective of pessimism and fear, and that it is somehow anti-European rather than solely anti-membership of the EU.

We mustn’t assume that Brexit is going to happen. The attempts to undermine and call it into question reveal that there are powerful forces at play, working to delay or derail Brexit. We must now make it clear that the British public knew what it was voting for. They voted to end the UK’s membership of the European Union, to leave the single market, to end free movement and not be bound by the laws and policies imposed on them by the European Union. The attempts to distinguish between so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit are merely a ruse to hijack the result of the referendum.  It is a means to try and allow Parliament to prevent Brexit from happening.  The Government won’t invoke Article 50 today. Parliament seems unwilling to invoke it at all.  That is why it is vital that democrats of all persuasions remain vigilant to ensure that the result of the referendum is carried out.

Invoke Democracy Now! is an umbrella group of progressive voices who believe the demos and their decision to leave the EU must be respected. The campaign is open to everyone irrespective of political background or how they voted in the referendum and holds public debates across the country about the type of Brexit people want, the policies that can transform our country and how to best tackle the challenges we face.

Invoke Democracy Now! is chairing a debate at this weekend’s Battle of Ideas at the Barbican, Are Political Parties Over?, with Douglas Carswell MP, Emily Barley, Miranda Green, Michael Fitzpatrick and Jhanelle White.