Whatever you think about leaving the EU or staying in, Brexit doesn’t seem to be going well. MPs in the House of Commons don’t seem to be able to agree about much. The government can’t get their deal through. Deadlines loom, go past, and don’t necessarily concentrate minds. People talk past each other, without a meeting of minds.
Brexiteers insist that Brexit is “the will of the people” because there was a narrow majority in favour of leaving the EU in the referendum on 23 June 2016. OK, it was a majority, but 52-48 is hardly a convincing win. It leaves almost half of those who voted aggrieved. (Of course if it had been 52-48 the other way, Leavers would be equally aggrieved.) It is sometimes said that the “Remoaners” should shut up and lump it – they lost, and that’s how democracy works.
But losing a referendum like this one is rather different from losing a general election. After an election, the “losers” can try again next time. But Brexit is once and for all. If the losers feel that it wasn’t a fair contest, or that it wasn’t a decisive result, they will feel aggrieved. Telling them to shut up and lump it will not lead us all out the other side united and happy.
A fair assessment of the referendum result has to be that it was a close run thing, rather than an overwhelming endorsement of leaving the EU. It is not clear that the people spoke with one voice, and they wanted out. Leavers and Remainers both feel strongly. We won’t come out of this well if either side feels that it has not been listened to.
There’s a famous book on the art of negotiation called Getting to Yes. I don’t have a copy to hand, but one of its principles that I remember is to focus on interests not positions. In other words, it’s not just a question of you want to leave and I want to remain, and our heels are dug in. What do you want out of leaving? What do I want out of remaining? We are more likely to agree a way forward that we can both live with if we understand the outcomes that we both want. Maybe what really motivated one person to vote Leave was exasperation with red tape. Leave or stay, what they really want is to be able to get on with building up their small business without feeling constrained by over-regulation at every turn. Another (a Remainer) voted that way because they have family both in England and France, and are afraid of difficulties being put in the way of readily seeing their grandchildren. We need to try to find a way of allowing one person to get on with their business, and the other to be able to keep up family connections. If we don’t understand and address each other’s concerns, we will be a divided and angry society whatever the final outcome.
We are not there yet. We need to feel that what motivates us is understood and listened to, and politicians must try to construct a way forward that takes account of that, and meets our aspirations if at all possible. If that needs more time, let’s have a reasonable amount of extra time. And in the end, why not ask the people again whether the solutions that are found are ones they can live with? A second referendum is painted by some as a betrayal of the will of the people. But if the people still feel the same way, they are free to vote the same way. Or if, having seen more clearly what leaving would be like, they decide that it is not what they hoped it would be, they may change their minds. It strikes me as being a bit like a couple wanting to divorce. As they go through the process, their desire to separate may increase. Or, once they see what the consequences would be for their finances, or their relationship with their children, they may decide that it is better to find a way of making their marriage succeed, and working for reconciliation. The only objection that I can see to a second referendum is the fear that the people may have changed their minds. But it’s not like University Challenge, with Jeremy Paxman saying, “Sorry. I can only accept your first answer.”
Let’s keep trying for consensus, and find an outcome that brings us together instead of driving us apart.