So, then with four days to go until Brexit Day – 29 March at 11pm remains the legal position – and Great Britain, cradle of democracy, home to the enlightenment, inventor of the jet engine, penicillin and the internet hasn’t quite been able to determine:
- What the House of Commons wants, or;
- How the House of Commons will decide what it wants, or;
- When we are going to leave the European Union, or;
- Under what terms we will leave the EU, or;
- If we are going to leave the EU at all, or;
- Whether the people will be given their “final say” on Europe.
It is sometimes said that the British have a special talent for improvisation, and are at their best when they have their backs to the wall, the Dunkirk spirit and all that; but this is ridiculous. It’s bad for business too; the reputation of the country is sinking every day.
A series of “indicative” votes by MPs this week are unlikely to resolve anything. The MPs, a sophisticated electorate, are even having trouble deciding how they will be making their decision – the voting method, system of counting and so on. One of the hallmarks of the Brexit process is how much of the wrangling has been procedural – boring but vital. As with Speaker Bercow's decisions on tabling amendments or “meaningful” votes that are meaningless – though they’ve been very important. They are, however, also another symptom of a chronic level of deep and bitter division that reflects the one we see in society as a whole. It is that division that people are tired of.
The answer to all of this is perfectly clear. We do need more time to think, though I’m not sure we’re going to take it. The only sure way to buy this time is by revoking Article 50, which incidentally means electing members of the European Parliament in the summer. Millions of people have signed a petition in in record time to achieve just that.
Revoking Article 50 – a unilateral act that could be done in minutes by Ms May via an email to Donald Tusk – may not be thought to be politically possible now – but it may also be one of the very many unthinkable things that eventually have come to pass. Another example of the unthinkable becoming quite real is where we are now – being a few days away from a legal Brexit date, but not actually knowing when, if or how it might actually occur.
When people say “the Brexit we voted for” I think we can all unite around the current situation as being the stuff of no one's dreams in June 2016: not even their nightmares, in fact.
Given the choice between crashing out of the European Union with Theresa May, or staying in under virtually anyone else, very few would take the first option, either in the Cabinet, the Commons or outside it. We are coming, perhaps to a conclusion that there really is no such thing as a “soft Brexit”, because all the drawbacks associated with the May deal, the Norway and the Canadian option leave the UK worse off – less sovereign and poorer – than if we stayed in the EU and retained our votes and decision making powers.
There’s a case for hard Brexit – but only if it is supported by a huge amount of preparation and policy-making to mitigate the ill-effects and to capitalise on possible benefits.
Anyway, in the end, whatever the commons comes up with and agrees with the EU – and it will take time to re-start and fix Brexit – the final decision should not be for MPs to take. In 2016 the nation, quite absentmindedly, ended the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and substituted it with the sovereignty of the people.
That was what Ms May was driving at, clumsily, in her “I’m on your side” intervention last week. It is true, too – which is why we need a final say referendum to give public approval to the terms of Brexit, whatever they turn out to be and whenever they get decided. We could still leave on May’s deal; we could leave under other UK-EU agreed “soft Brexit” terms; or on “hard” WTO terms; or we could remain in the EU. Those are all realistic options to put to the voters. It is the people who should be making their choices now.