Cool and calm deliberation: a case for delaying Brexit

You read about it here first: it now seems very likely that, one way or another, Brexit will be delayed. This will give the country more time to think about our future relationship with Europe. But how?

Getting perspective

We have been so inured to the Brexit process it is hard to see clearly just how pathologically dysfunctional UK politics has become.

Thirty months of procrastination and fudge in a vain attempt to secure the unity of the governing party have resulted in the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom seriously proposing that, a fortnight before a date she arbitrarily set, Parliament should decide to leave the EU without a clear view as to the future relationship.

A significant minority in her parliamentary party in fact prefer to leave with no relationship at all, not even a transitional one.

It is even more astonishing that government officials in one of the richest countries in the world have therefore been seriously considering whether in a few weeks’ time there will be sufficient food in the shops, or medicines in the hospitals.

Meanwhile the official opposition is consumed with its own internal distresses.

So it is hardly surprising that members of Parliament try to take control of the agenda, and the only option now available to them is delay.

Even Mrs. May, pressured by her own Cabinet, now admits that delay is an alternative to a no deal exit. But delay for how long and for what purpose?

Length

Mrs. May suggests only a couple of months, during which she will keep doing what she’s been doing for the last 32 months. More thoughtfully, Donald Tusk is contemplating 21 months, fitting in with the EU’s financial timetable.

But delay measured in weeks or a few months simply invites more of the same: Einstein’s definition of madness was doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

A couple of months’ delay simply implies more brinkmanship by the Prime Minister, continued paralysis in the legislature and increasingly intense division in the country.

Longer delay gives the chance to do something else. But what?

Depth

Distrust and disappointment in our political system is now higher than it has ever been. The public and significant national interest groups have lost faith in the government’s capacity to deal with the Brexit question.

In the absence of radical change in the alignment and leadership of our main political parties, there is little reason to suppose that Parliament can make any better use of 21 months than it has of 32.

Nor is there much reason to suppose a general election would transform the situation: the balance of parties might change, but the essential divisions in British today politics are within those parties.

Many people argue for a second referendum, on the basis that the first was flawed by a notably mendacious campaign and suspicious funding.

It may well come to that, but the divisive effect of a further campaign and quite possibly a vote to reverse the verdict of the last referendum is hard to exaggerate. Talk of betrayal is already rife.

That is why, instead, there is a good case for a measured, careful deliberation process in which ordinary citizens listen to the evidence, consider the options and come to a view.

During a delay of 21 months, there would be ample time to run, say, 10 such assemblies and collect from each the considered views of 100 representative citizens from different parts of the country.

All the evidence elsewhere – notably recently in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, one dealing with Brexit and the other was even more emotive issue of abortion – show that such processes work, and work well.

Citizens can explore the options for our future European relationship, what the underlying issues of sovereignty, trade, jobs, immigration and so on actually are, and the options for dealing with them.

In the end, inevitably, this has to come back to Parliament. If there emerges during this process a broad consensus on a relationship between Britain outside the EU, then government would have to seek to negotiate such a deal.

If the judgement came back that the option of remaining in the EU on some basis is likely to be the best one, then another referendum would be needed.

There will be those who will oppose any deliberative process. Some will wish to deny any possibility that Britain might change its mind. That is clearly undemocratic. Others will want to press ahead and demand a change of mind from the public now.

That is understandable but divisive. It is said that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan kept a well-known Gilbert and Sullivan quotation by his desk:

“Cool and calm deliberation  disentangles every knot.”

Having fruitlessly applied every other method of decision-making to the Brexit conundrum, the time has surely come to try this one.

By Professor Jim Gallagher, former Scottish civil servant and member of the Gwylim Gibbon Policy Unit at Nuffield College, Oxford. 

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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