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Once upon a time, not so very long ago, we might have thought that the implausible claims of the Brexiteers just sounded like nonsense being spouted by desperate campaigners who did not think that they had a hope of winning, and who were making promises to which they were confident that they would never be held.
When Liam Fox said,
“Well, believe me, we’ll have up to 40” trade deals
“ready for one second after midnight in March 2019”,
we might have thought that that was just laughable. Now it is contemptible.
When David Davies said that
or when Dan Hannan said that
“Absolutely nobody is threatening our place in the Single Market”,
we might have thought that some people were threatening our place in the single market, but it is clear now that those who were arguing for leaving the European Union, while being keen at the time to emphasise the benefits of a soft Brexit and maintaining a close connection with the single market, were secretly planning the very opposite.
Then we saw the result. The result was on a knife edge across the UK as a whole, and two of the four nations voted to remain. We might have thought that, when we saw that result—a 52 per cent to 48 per cent vote for leave—that must mean that there would be compromise and reaching out across the dividing lines in order to achieve a soft Brexit.
We might have thought, as Ruth Davidson did, that maintaining our position in the single market and maintaining freedom of movement was the right course to take. If that course had been taken, I suspect that the most committed remainers among us would probably have had to accept that compromise.
However, in all the time since the process commenced, Theresa May has repeatedly refused to face down her extremist wing. We might have thought that the Prime Minister must eventually decide which wing of her party she is on—she cannot keep on pretending to be on both. However, month after month, she has continued to put her efforts to ensure party unity ahead of the national interest, and is apparently deluding herself that everyone from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Dominic Grieve can be held to the same policy.
Then we heard “Brexit means Brexit.” It was a funny line the first time it was used, although we might have been thinking, “She can’t be serious! That can’t really be all she’s got.” However, nearly three years on, all that we have seen is a display of incompetence on an historic scale. As the days tick down to the self-imposed deadline, still no one in this country knows what our fundamental relationship will be with our nearest neighbours in just a few weeks. “Brexit means Brexit” is still all they have.
The leaders of the two main UK parties deny that they are just letting the clock run down, but time after time they have delayed the decisions that we all know must be taken. This chaos must be stopped. I welcome the fact that Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard, as we have heard, are now backing a people’s vote, because the choices are simple: the withdrawal agreement, the cliff edge, or seeking of the people’s consent to stop this mess and stay in the European Union.
The withdrawal agreement has already been rejected, and it is increasingly clear that the changes that the Brexit ultras want to see—to abandon the people of the island of Ireland—will not happen. The Prime Minster cannot get through this with only the support of Conservatives, the European research group and the Democratic Unionist Party. It is also clear that a meagre bung to Labour MPs in leave-voting seats will only alienate opposition even more strongly.
The no-deal cliff edge also cannot be tolerated. Today, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will say so clearly, and we know that a majority of Westminster MPs will say so, as well. The UK Government must abandon its strategy of threatening every part of the UK with that self-destructive path.
We must now choose between delaying or revoking article 50. Many people rightly ask what use a delay would be unless it would open a fundamentally new path. The answer is obvious: a delay would enable us to have a people’s vote to allow the public to cancel this crisis. I am sorry, but I do not think that Jackson Carlaw’s discomfort at the prospect of fighting another referendum campaign amounts to any kind of principled reason to say that democracy ended in June 2016.
In closing, I want to say that I have heard many people say that if a people’s vote takes place and Brexit is cancelled, there will be those who feel betrayed and that that will hand an opportunity to the far right to seek a culture of betrayal and grievance. There is that danger, but that same danger will exist if Brexit is completed, because those far-right forces, which have been so consciously cultivated and unleashed by the leave campaign, will still be there if Brexit is completed, and they will use a sense of triumphalism just as much as they would use a sense of betrayal. That threat exists in our society now. Those who have campaigned for leave are culpable in the creation of that threat. We will have to face it down, whatever happens with Brexit.
In the meantime, we should all unite in supporting today’s motion, so that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly can speak with a clear voice and say extend or revoke. Give the choice back to the people.