Sunday, 10 July 2016

How do we solve the #Brexit divisions?

So the dust has settled to an extent on the Brexit vote, and we are where we are. Now that that referendum battle is over and the campaigns are no longer trying to push their points home in the same way, hopefully a somewhat clearer picture of what it all means, and the choices we now have, should be emerging for people.

What is clear is that a decision was made, but that it was not a clear decision about the way forward, and nor was it the kind of clear margin of victory that could be said to reflect the 'settled will' of a 'large majority' of people. It was a very close result - almost half of the people who voted did not vote for the declared result. That is creating huge divisions. Aside from it driving the kind of chaos we are seeing in the two largest political parties, it is also creating a situation where some parts of the different 'sides' are becoming entrenched and radicalised to resist each other almost at all costs. That is really not a healthy situation for us to be in as a democracy, and we really need to find a way of getting through this.

Either side telling the other to 'put up or shut up' is not the answer. Those saying that we should simply have a parliamentary vote to override the referendum result (without an election) are, I believe, wrong, but so equally, I think, are those saying 'we've had the vote now we must just do it'. We don't even know what the 'it' is that we are supposed to be doing - there were many competing Brexit visions, and many different reasons expressed for voting to leave the EU. The binary option offered did not actually make a decision about what the people felt that the future should look like. You cannot simply ignore 48% of the population and drag the country out of the EU against their will, particularly without even knowing what you are doing. It is far too large a majority to just ignore. At the same time, of course, you cannot ignore the 52% who voted to leave either. We can't pretend the referendum didn't happen, and nor can we just keep holding the same referendum until we get the 'correct' result.

We are now in a situation where the country is split pretty much down the middle, and we have to find a way of dealing with that. The only way, in my opinion, is to do so democratically, in a way that really gives the people a realistic choice of the alternative visions of the future. I have already, in a previous post, mentioned the need for a General Election, and my opinion on that still very much stands. We might well be better to go even further than that, though, now that the precedent has been set for this particular issue to be specifically decided by a referendum of the public.

There are three problems with the initial referendum, as I see it:
1. It only asked part of the question that needs to be answered.
2. The result is so close that it really doesn't demonstrate any kind of 'settled majority decision'.
3. The campaign was so confused, and riddled with half-truths and downright lies, that the public can't possibly be said to have all made an 'informed decision'.

In the wake of that (knowing what we know now, so to speak) aside from the entrenched groups each telling the other where to stick themselves, there are also some people who are changing their minds. We can't assume that they are all now deciding to change from 'Leave' to 'Remain', either - there are some remain voters saying we should now leave, and some of those might decide to change their vote accordingly in a future decision making process.

This is such a massive decision for the country, with such huge implications for the future, that we really can't afford to go steaming ahead on the basis of assumptions about what a single snapshot vote means in that context (and without knowing exactly what direction we are going to try to go in).

So, what else can we do? How can we heal this rift in society, and make a clear democratic decision about exactly what we are going to do, or at least what we are going to try to negotiate? Well, we do have the General Election option, of course, but that doesn't necessarily completely solve the problem either (especially since so much of our political world now seems to be in meltdown anyway). So we get to the idea of 'EU ref II' - that's an option I had really rejected, to be honest, since I don't think re-running the referendum until I get the result I want is either reasonable or democratic, and I don't see how re-running the referendum would help to either heal the division or solve the problems we've been left with.

However, having seen where we have got to, and thought about it further, I think there is a possibility. While I don't think that the first referendum didn't produce a definitive majority vote that denoted the 'settled will of the people', it did certainly prove that there is so much dissatisfaction with the EU that about half of the country is more than willing to at least strongly consider leaving (even if they have changed their personal decision as things have emerged since the vote). That is obviously extremely significant, even if it doesn't conclusively prove that 'most people really want to leave'. Now we really have to explore the decision further, I think, in a democratic way, and there is a way of doing that via a different kind of referendum that should produce a result that really defines a way forward, that gives all the different views an opportunity to be expressed, and that I think should allow a result that people will be much more able to accept as a firm democratic decision (even if they disagree with it).

That option is to hold a second referendum on a multiple option, preference-expressed basis. Rather than a binary Yes/No choice, a choice between the main different options for Leaving or Remaining, such that people could express their first preference, second preference, and so on, via some variety of STV-like (I don't want to define it too precisely, obviously). This, I think, should be done to determine a negotiating position before triggering Article 50, rather than simply be a post-negotiation 'do we accept this or not' scenario.

Without wishing to define the Leave position for them in advance, there could, for example, be several clear options offered, perhaps along the lines of:
1. Leave The EU, but remain within the Free Trade area (accepting costs and Free Movement).
2. Leave The EU and FT area, negotiating a separate broad agreement without Free Movement.
3. Leave The EU and Free Trade area, and negotiate any deals specifically and individually.

People could vote for the preferred option first, and so on. Obviously there could be other options, including the option to leave jurisdiction of the ECHR - those were just examples for illustration purposes (it doesn't have to be limited to 3 options).

There could also be different Remain visions offered, remembering that this is about choosing a negotiating position. For example:
1. Remain in the EU under the current terms.
2. Remain in the EU and join the Eurozone (unlikely to be popular, but let's answer the question!)
3. Remain in the EU ONLY on condition of certain reforms being agreed by the EU.

This could not only give us an initial choice of negotiating position via the usual system of 'knocking out' less popular options and going to 2nd preference votes until one reaches the threshold for success, but could also give us defined future 'fall back' negotiating positions (assuming the ballot results were all stored in detail, which should certainly be possible).

Let us say, for example, that Remain option 3 was the initial winner - the UK government would then go to the EU and say tell them that we had voted to remain on condition that you are prepared to negotiate out these particular kinds of reform (with specific regard to the UK at least). That would put the ball in in the EU's court, and leave them to decide just how much they want us to stay (with the added pressure of it having been the public who have spoken directly, rather than just the 'government of the day') - it might obviously be that others would be supportive of the kind of reforms we might be talking about anyway, and would see that as an opportunity both to gain the reform that they want and to head off their own Eurosceptic lobbies. It may be, however, that the EU isn't forthcoming about those reforms - at that point, that option being 'off the table' (and therefore 'knocked out' by default), then those votes would be re-allocated according to their next preferences.

Were that option to be offered, I strongly suspect that some would vote for it as a first option and have a second option of 'Leave', while others would vote for that as a first option but have a second option of 'Remain anyway' (so Remain option 1, as listed above). The balance of those votes, and re-allocation on that basis, would tell the government where they need to be going in the next part of their negotiation (obviously, subsequent preference results would have to remain 'secret' so that the EU wouldn't be faced with a request for reform negotiations knowing that the next step would be 'we will still stay anyway'!).

Of course, there is every likelihood that hardened 'Leavers' would vote for their favourite 'Leave' option, followed by their second favourite, and so on. Same with hardened 'Remainers'. In a way that is the point. If the original referendum campaign shows us anything, it is that many people are 'on the fence', and undecided about the best way forward. It's entirely possible that a number of people would have a first choice on one side and a second on the other, rather than being committed 'Remainers' or 'Leavers'. That is really important, and it is vital, I think, that that group is able to express their views in a way that isn't just a forced choice between two absolutes that they might not want to support 'no matter what'.

This might all seem a bit of a strange suggestion, of course - to have a referendum without a single, definitive result that is announced the following day and that doesn't ever change. Perhaps it is, but it does allow for the people to decide a very clear set of negotiating positions and guidelines that can be followed as a negotiating process. It prevents the need to have referendum upon referendum as negotiations produce different circumstances. It also allows for each option to have its own individual 'campaign' that puts forward its argument on a clear and consistently agreed basis, which should make the debate a whole lot clearer than the one we've just had, when it was clear that nobody on either side really agreed with anybody else's ultimate vision (even on the far more coherent 'Remain' side, there were different expressed angles on 'reform', but it's quite clear now that the 'Leave' side had all kinds of different competing visions of the future).

Perhaps most importantly it would, I think, allow a way forward for the country that is based on a democratically expressed variety of views that would be proportionally taken into account, and one after another as a process if they become unachievable. It would actually answer the question in a way that is far less divisive. For example, a 'Remainer' who believes in reform (and chose option 3) is less likely to find it hard to accept a decision to leave if their option has been explored and found impossible, even if, on balance, they still wanted to remain anyway. Likewise, a 'Leaver' might well find Remaining more palatable if it included a serious attempt at putting some real pressure on the EU for some serious reform. Of course, some will ultimately end up unhappy with the decision, as it always the case in a democracy, but this time it would be a real decision that sets the way forward on the basis of more than a simplistic (and potentially unrealistic) binary choice.

It would be, of course, something of a radical departure from the way things are normally done in UK politics. We are where we are, though, and perhaps we need to look at some more radical ideas to get us out of the current situation of being a thoroughly divided country from top to bottom, with no real idea of where we are heading, or how to get there, or how to even begin to heal the divisions we've managed to produce over this whole debate.