24 October 2017
Brexit is a disaster. We’re seeing consistent antagonistic leaks from the negotiating room, economists predicting extreme headwinds and continued delay of the withdrawal bill in parliament. A smooth transition of any sort was always a pipe dream – and we’re now facing the very real prospect of a “no deal” scenario. The prime minister might yesterday have been hailing progress in the talks, but the truth is that the whole process is a giant tragedy playing out as a daily farce – and it is young people who are likely to suffer its worst effects.
More than 70% of voters aged 18 to 24 voted for Britain to remain in the EU, as did 62% of those aged between 25 and 34 and 52% of 35 to 44 year-olds. Those who will live the longest with the country’s decision were – just – outnumbered by an older generation who have enjoyed the benefits of EU membership for many years.
Perhaps what’s most ominous for younger people in this country is the fact that Britain isn’t just set to leave the European Union but that the government’s hardline approach means we’ll do so on terms that are deeply damaging at best and catastrophic at worst.
The government may be trying to reach out to younger voters with half-baked proposals on tuition fees, but their actions on Brexit make clear that they only respect the “will of the people” if such a term can be used as a mask for post-referendum priorities aimed at placating Tory backbenchers. The Brexit cliff-edge is approaching, and young people are being strapped to a barrel to be hurled off into the unknown.
I believe we need to start thinking about how we might halt Brexit, if – as some polls are already suggesting – Britain’s opinion on the issue changes as the facts do. On a practical level this would mean withdrawing the prematurely dispatched article 50 letter, but Brexit has become a joint process, and the legal issue is much less important than the political reality of what both sides are willing to agree to. If we were to remain in the EU then surely our European partners will reject an arrangement that merely stores up a further damaging Anglo-Saxon assault on the legitimacy of the EU – they will rightly want us to show our good faith.
With the Tories in power, showing good faith seems remote. Their leadership of the country has utterly unravelled, and their arrogant insistence that “Brexit means Brexit” and repeated refusal to rule out a “no deal” scenario shows that they have been hijacked by the hardliners.
Labour’s position continues to be confusing – quite possibly deliberately so. They believe that the electoral maths requires them to “accept” the referendum – but to continue to reject continued membership of the single market (which would require freedom of movement to be retained) is to condemn the country to economic pain. Sadly the official opposition simply aren’t offering young people real hope on this issue – especially since they refuse to countenance giving people a say on the final deal in a ratification referendum.
What is the way out of the mess? One of the answers up for debate features in Anthony Barnett’s The Lure of Greatness. The book attempts an explanation of both Brexit and Trump including popular resentment at military frustration, economic precariousness and the undemocratic nature of the EU.
But when it comes to Brexit, Barnett adds an unusual twist. Great Britain is a 350-year-old multinational entity with an informal, uncodified constitution. It seeks to preserve itself in this form, which Theresa May describes, with some passion, as “our precious union” and Barnett as our “empire state”. The EU is also a multinational entity. One that is young, much larger, growing and codifying itself. The two entities, he suggests, are incompatible. Great Britain as it is constituted cannot but feel threatened within the EU, which is about sharing sovereignty. While the United Kingdom, as its name suggests, is about absolute sovereignty.
If we’re serious about potentially remaining in the EU then we need to be looking closely at the way Britain is ruled, not by the EU but by Westminster. The best way to start to “take back control” is to rid ourselves of a winner-takes-all politics and an outdated electoral system that systematically shuts people out. Maybe by embracing a modern politics we can become better suited to be compatible with Europe?
The referendum should have been the start of a democratic dialogue, not simply the end of a demoralising campaign. There’s no doubt in my mind that a ratification referendum on the terms of any deal is a democratic necessity – and that the demographic shifts in Britain suggest the outcome could see us staying in the EU. Such a decision is absolutely ours to make as the facts change; indeed as Brexit secretary David Davis said so eloquently in 2012: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”
The challenge to those of us who want to stand up to the Tories’ disastrous Brexit goes beyond a ratification referendum and our daily resistance: it must mean imagining a better kind of Britain that could function within a reformed EU.
When it comes to many of the major challenges of today, Britain must act together across the continent to make our influence felt around the world. The best way to help achieve this is for us to be part of the EU – and we now need to think about how we might make that happen.
These febrile times don’t just require a practical argument about cooperation. We must also explore how we can become a contemporary European democracy, capable of negotiating our future with and not against our neighbours by sharing sovereignty with them. That’s the kind of future that young people in this country deserve.