On how we could have done Brexit, and how we might get out of this mess

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Well, it’s one way out…

Whatever your political position, you probably believe that the whole process of Britain leaving the European Union has been messed up in some way, whether you’re someone who thinks we should have just quit everything with no notice on 24th June 2016, or if you’re someone who thinks it all went wrong when we didn’t sign up for the Euro and Schengen. We’d all probably pick different points of where things went wrong, but we’d agree on the general point that things went wrong.

To try and work out where things get wrong, let’s consider the hypothetical of an ordered and non-chaotic process and how that would have proceeded. The first step, I think, would be an elected government that was committed both ideologically and through a victorious election manifesto to the UK leaving the European Union. Not just committed to a referendum, or considering the issue, but elected on that as an explicit goal.

The second step would be for that government to decide on what the end-state of the process would be. Not just “we will leave the European Union” but what they want the UK’s future position to be, both in terms of having an agreed position within the Government, but also having negotiated (formally or informally) with the rest of the EU over what they would find acceptable, both in terms of the process of leaving and the future relationship between the EU and UK.

Third, they’d then seek to get public approval for their vision and proposals of how they would manage the process and how they would negotiate the exit. Not just on the principle of doing it, but to get public support for a definite way of implementing it. This could be done either by a referendum, or by an election in which that was the key element of their manifesto.

Fourth, having achieved public consent in this way, they would then be free to implement the agreed plan, invoking Article 50 when they were ready to begin the final stages of the process and implementing the plans that had already been made and generally agreed.

If some of those steps, particularly the first three, sound somewhat familiar it’s because I’m basing them on precedent as they’re roughly the process the SNP went through before the Scottish independence referendum. They got elected on a manifesto for independence, they got a majority in the Scottish Parliament, and then they negotiated, agreed and presented a plan by which they would implement independence if it had been agreed by the referendum. That’s not to say independence would have been smooth and plain sailing if Yes had won the referendum, but they’d have made sure they had both a mandate for the principle and support for the implementation of it before going ahead.

Now, compare that to the process we’ve had. Step one was a government with a mandate to hold a referendum on the issue, but no agreed position on which way it wanted it to go. Step two wasn’t attempted and there was no definite plan put forward before they jumped straight to step three and had a referendum on the principle — not the detail — which then meant that there was no plan in place for when it came to enacting step four. What this means is that we’re trying to deliver the fourth part of a four-stage process when we’ve only partially completed stages one and three of the first three. No wonder things are a mess. The 2016 referendum tried to be both partly stage one (establishing a mandate to negotiate an exit) and stage three (committing to a definite process of exiting) without fully discharging the needs of either. It gave a mandate without creating a government that actually wanted and sought that mandate, and also committed to making Brexit definitely happen without defining or agreeing what Brexit actually was.

In short, there’s no way a process that botched the first three steps could ever take the fourth one in a satisfactory way, which is why we’re in the mess we’re in today.

So, what’s the solution? In my view there’s only one. Rather than trying to continue with a botched process, hoping that we can do enough to salvage it from earlier mistakes, we have to terminate it and go back to the start.

The only way to do that is to revoke Article 50 on the grounds that there’s no way that this Parliament can implement a flawed process without causing great harm to the country. This would allow the revocation of Article 50 under the terms of the ECJ because it would be a honest and full revocation within the limits of the power of a Parliament which cannot bind its successors.

This then returns the UK to step one of the process. It doesn’t rule out Brexit, only making that it needs to be done in a much more orderly process. If a government is elected with a commitment to delivering on the referendum result, if it can agree a definite plan for doing so and then get that plan approved, then it can go ahead and invoke Article 50 to implement that agreed plan.

We’re at a position where every way forward from the current position leads to a greater mess, so the only way out of it has to be go back to the start and try again. If you genuinely believe that Brexit is the will of the people, then you should have no problem with doing this. If you are right, and the people are on your side, then you have to be confident in your ability to elect a government that can deliver on stages one, two and three before you get to your dream of stage four and invoking Article 50 again. All you need is some patience and a plan…

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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