UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

This article is dedicated to the memory of the recently late Denis Norden, star of radio panel game My Word.

“Fog in Channel, Continent Remains Isolated” (or “Fog in Channel: Britain cut off”), a British headline supposedly once read. They might have rolled it out again with the latest Brexit disaster. But they were too busy turning designer-suited prime minister Theresa May into Churchill, after she’d been told that the proposed “Chequers” version of Brexit was not acceptable in any way, shape or form to the Salzburg EU meeting. Since selling the Chequers deal to her own party has almost cost her the leadership, she may have a right to feel miffed. That doesn’t make it any more likely that she’ll survive, but even so.

The Chequers deal had the UK leaving the customs union and single market — which they could have stayed in post-Brexit — but keeping a “common rulebook” on a whole series of specific arrangements. In other words, UK law would remain conformed to EU rules, and move with them. This was exactly what the anti-EU Tories objected to, and so the Eurosceptic inner party group — sinisterly known as the European Research Group — has rejected it, and members have freely briefed the media on her imminent demise.

The UK right-wing media swung behind May — a rare event in recent times, but Johnny Foreigner was involved. Besides, EU president Donald Tusk had posted a photo with a birthday cake (for the EU), saying “sorry, no cherries” — because the Brits were trying to cherrypick, y’see — and this was not well received. Funny, it’s usually Johnny F accused of having no sense of humour.

The latest disaster in the Brexit process has strengthened calls for a second referendum on the matter, with 700,000 signatures on at least one petition calling for a second referendum. The leadership of the Labour Party, currently in conference in Liverpool, has committed to a second referendum if the membership votes for it.

But what Labour is now arguing for is yet another full election — effectively about nothing other than how Brexit would be handled. They would have been buoyed by scuttlebutt that Number 10 strategists had been putting out feelers about a November poll. That turned out to be a beat-up, and no wonder. The sweet paradox for the Tories is that they might just squeeze a win out of an election — but the one thing that would make a loss likely is calling it.

Quite aside from the sheer pleasure of watching the Tories screw it up so badly that a socialist-led Labour Party might form government — it needs another 25 seats on top of its 260 for minority government, 60 for outright majority — Brexit does something else of use: it makes visible the undemocratic nature of democracy. Which is more democratic: to grant or refuse a second referendum?

One answer would be that there was a vote on a simple option — Leave or Remain — and that should be adhered to. But is it implicit in the vote to “leave the European Union” that it is to “leave at all costs”? Or is it “leave, based on the assumption that it would not be an utter disaster”? To insist that it is the first option is simply bloody-minded, and contrary to how we make decisions in our lives, which is dynamic, in series and drawing in new information. I’m released from my oath to bungee jump if the person in front of me plummets to their death.

The “no new referendum” push claims that a second vote would undermine the authority of any single vote, nullifying the referendum principle. But the wording and terms of the first question were set by parliament. And the whole claim to legitimacy of a referendum is that it is more democratic than parliament. So if there is now an overwhelming public clamour for a second referendum, based on vastly more information about what the decision would prompt, then is that not a genuinely democratic referendum?

The point is that the creation of a democratic moment usually involves a set of rules, definition and assumptions imposed by fiat, and often by a body that is really an elected dictatorship. But here, through sheer chaos, something else has happened: a second referendum no one expected has appeared, and in doing so, has allowed for the retrospective debunking of the arguments that gained the Leave vote in the first place.

Had they known there would be a two-vote referendum, they would have tempered their message — no claim that £350 million a week would be repatriated to the NHS for example — for an under-the-radar victory. Now what has been exposed is the deep truth of Brexit: that it is a product of internal contradictions of the Tory party, the political projected out as the democratic, to legitimate the movements of power. I’m 50-50 on remain/leave myself, but it would be fantastic to see the desperate May lose both the deal and power. “Flog in Chanel. Conned to date, Remainers delay it.”*

*For readers who never listened to 3AR, My Word bent versions of stock phrases and justified them with anecdotes, a la the Inuit love triangle: “You Can’t Have Your Kayak And Heat It Too”.

Should there be another referendum on Brexit? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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