The Opposition parties were left flat-footed by Boris Johnson’s Brexmas deal. Too many had believed his propaganda about being content with a No Deal and were therefore left with little to complain about when one materialised. Not a bad deal, either, that ensures tariff and quota free trade in goods and (probably). services.
It’s not the best deal that could have been struck, Nicola Sturgeon was right about that. But she shares the blame for this deal being less than it could be, and for the disruption and unpleasantness that has debased UK politics over the past four years. Much of this could have been avoided if the opposition politicians had accepted the result of the 2016 EU referendum, instead of devoting their energies to overturning it.
Before Christmas, the left-wing Guardian columnist, Owen Jones, provoked apoplexy amongst his pro-EU readers by claiming precisely this. “Hard Remainers”, he says, tried to reverse the 2016 vote instead of pushing for a softer Brexit, “Now we’re all paying the price”.
I think Mr Jones has a point. And it wasn’t just Labour and the Liberal Democrats who lost the plot. As I argued at the time, it was bizarre for Nicola Sturgeon to be demanding a repeat referendum, a Peoples Vote, on Brexit when she wouldn’t dream of accepting a “think again” referendum on Scottish independence.
She made this clear when the former PM John Major called for an Indy Peoples Vote last month. He said that Scottish voters should have the right to vote, not just on the principle of Scottish independence, but on the actual separation deal that is negotiated after it. Oh no, said the SNP – that would be an abuse of democracy. A vote’s a vote…
Yet Nicola Sturgeon was eager to march arm-in-arm with Alistair Campbell for a repeat vote on Brexit in London in March 2019. This puzzled many nationalists since she was refusing to appear on Scottish independence marches back home. A vote is a vote, it seems, unless it is the wrong kind of vote.
Various unconvincing arguments were offered to deny the validity of the 2016 Brexit referendum. People didn’t know what they were voting for did they? They can’t be allowed to destroy the economy just because they hate foreigners. They were duped by the Russians and Cambridge Analytica. “The Great Brexit Robbery: how our democracy was hijacked”, claimed the hyperventilating, Carole Cadwalladr in her infamous Observer articles in May 2017.
Forget Qanon, this was the Great Brexit Conspiracy theory. American billionaires, we were told, had used Cambridge Analytica’s sinister algorithms to pervert the Brexit referendum in the interests of, er, Vladimir Putin. #FBPE supporters on Twitter still believe this, even after it being dismissed by two Commons reports and an exhaustive investigation by the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham.
The Brexit vote was not a Russian plot, and the chancers of Cambridge Analytica had nothing to do with it, said Denham. The 2016 referendum was what it was: a people’s vote to leave Brexit. Mr Jones is right that a more constructive approach by the left, one that accepted the validity of the referendum, might have avoided hard Brexit.
This isn’t just the wisdom of hindsight. Many argued, myself included, that Britain could have remained broadly in the single market through the the European Economic Area and EFTA, of which we were already a member. This was called the Norway-plus option and was offered, off the peg, by Brussels in June 2016.
There were problems with it, not least the Irish border, but they were manageable. Brexiteers would, and did, claim that it wasn’t Brexit because Britain would still be subject to single market rules. But even after January 1st, we will still be subject to many “level playing field” rules. The EEA at least honoured Brexit by taking Britain out of the political institutions of Europe. The European Economic Area was originally designed in 1995 to accommodate Norway, which had voted against the European Union. It provided trading continuity and a safe space for the UK to sort itself out.
If the opposition parties had united with Tory Remainers, Theresa May could and undoubtedly would have kept the UK in the single market. That, after all, is what she tried to do in her Withdrawal Deal which attempted, disingenuously, to use the Irish backstop as a means of keeping the entire UK, not just Northern Ireland, within the rules of the single market.
The opposition parties failed to agree on any of the soft Brexit options in 2019. They were more interested in trying to undermine a weak Tory government. Intoxicated by hectic, late-night parliamentary victories that actually meant nothing. Seduced by the delusion that the Brexit vote could be reversed. All that did was infuriate Brexit voters who then turned the 2019 General Election into their own Peoples Vote, delivering a near landslide majority to Boris Johnson.
Is it worth going over all this again? Probably not. But as a second Scottish independence referendum looms on the horizon, there are lessons clearly to be learned from Brexit. The first being that referendums are rarely just about the issue on the ballot paper. Brexit was also about inequality, immigration, industrial decline.
Second, that it is hard for countries to leave voluntary unions, unless the parties involved are very clear about what leaving actually means. Third, that half a loaf is better than none. And finally: if you hold a referendum you’d bloody well better accept the result.