So we’re not leaving the European Union tomorrow after all. As the Brexiters cancel their street parties and put away the bunting the rest of us should think carefully about what to do with the reprieve.
This week started with parliament voting to take control of the process from government. A move without precedent. In truth, we were forced into it. What else can you do when faced with a government welded to a deal nobody wants and unwilling to change one dot or comma. Someone has to find a route to a majority. So now we’re starting to see what a majority of MPs can agree on. A process that should have started two and a half years ago.
Instead, Theresa May hijacked the Brexit referendum result for her own ends. She ignored any view outside of her own minority governing party – save for the extremists in the DUP. She set ridiculous red lines and set about negotiations with the EU without any reference to parliament.
Now she’s come a cropper and only has herself to blame. That parliament felt the need to take back control is a massive indictment on her government – and on her.
So now there’s a breathing space. We should use it to confront some of the mythology of the Brexiters.
Not for the first time I heard MPs Owen Paterson and Jacob Rees-Mogg tell parliament last week that Brexit represents a rebellion by the ordinary people against the political elite. They go on to suggest that anyone who questions the Brexit catastrophe is by definition against the “people” and siding with the establishment. Really?
Both these men are multi-millionaires whose private earnings make their parliamentary stipend look like pocket money. In fact, pretty much all the leaders of the anti-EU campaign are rich and powerful white men. Their main concern is that the EU will constrain their ability to get richer and more powerful. Their faux patriotism lasts just as long as it takes to transfer their millions out of the country in search of higher profits.
True, they have succeeded in mobilising an army of working class people resentful at decades of being marginalised and excluded from the benefits of the global economy. Ironically it’s the likes of Paterson and Mogg who have been doing the excluding.
They have nurtured and fueled the darkest notions of the human imagination, building a fear of others, demonising those who are different. They have taken these fears and given them credence and legitimacy
Those who oppose any rethink on Brexit continually recite the mantra that 17.4 million voted for it and not to leave would be to betray them. This is nonsense. Firstly, in a democracy people have the right to change their minds. Each democratic vote is qualified, updated and often changed by the subsequent one. Otherwise the government would never change.
Secondly, it’s clear that many did not vote for this. Not only does May’s deal not command public support, a hard economic split from the EU wasn’t what voters were told would happen.
Thirdly, the only people who can change the 2016 referendum result are those who took the decision in the first place. Not the Prime Minister, not the government, not parliament, but the people. This is a matter of reviewing the referendum result, not ignoring or disrespecting it.
The Brexiters are now clinging on to a narrow - and increasingly distant - mandate. They are using it to deny the people any chance to change their minds. That is anti-democratic.
Article 50 should now be revoked. It should never have been served in the first place. Starting the clock on a journey without knowing the destination was one of the stupidest of many stupid decisions in this process. Revocation would allow the UK to assess and decide without conditions. It would create time and space for other possibilities to emerge, and most importantly, for the people to be given a final say on what should happen.
All of this won’t get done by the 22nd May. So, yes that means we will need to elect representatives to the European Parliament. Where’s the harm in that? We may end up staying or leaving the EU but for as long as we are there – and during any transition period – people have the right to be represented in the European Parliament. Those who thought we’d be out of the EU by now should dry their eyes and grow up. We aren’t, so the elections must take place.
Indeed, elections on the 23rd May will give us all the chance to express what our opinion is now. I make two predictions. One, the turnout will be a lot higher than the 35% last time. Two, UKIP will get gubbed. Bring it on. Elections will give the anti-Brexit majority to chance to assert themselves.
And in Scotland I look forward to allowing people to express a desire to be done with all of the disrespect we’ve been shown since 2014 and support the proposition that this country should become a modern independent nation in its own right. One capable of establishing its own relationships with the rest of Europe and that has its own voice in the world.
A shorter version of this article was written for Edinburgh Evening News - 28th March 2019
Four weeks ago I was worried about writing this column on the eve of the last major parliamentary debate on Brexit. Anything could have happened, rendering my speculation obsolete by the time you read it. I shouldn’t have fretted. Anything could have happened but nothing did.
Here I am again. Groundhog day. It’s Tuesday. There’s a big debate tomorrow.
Tuesday. Another day spent discussing Brexit. Another day of my life I’m not getting back.
We are no further forward. As the clock ticks down to exit it’s only fair to ask: What the hell is Theresa May playing at?