I supported Brexit; I have done in one form or another for at least 44 years. I voted to leave the European Union, remain entirely happy with that decision, and hope that we get around to actually quitting in the future. Some would say it is therefore strange to also want a second vote – but in fact the only way to be a responsible Brexit supporter is to back calls for a Final Say on the terms of our leaving.
I was too young by a few months to vote in the 1975 European Economic Community referendum, but I joined the Labour Party to encourage people to say “no”. I saw the common market as a club for The Man; something that allowed the establishment to exploit even more of us and that was not accountable to me. It was not necessarily worse than Edward Heath’s government, but more monolithic and more distant. I remained in the party until it left me under Tony Blair, and I rejoined in recent years – all because of a commitment to social justice that is part of, not opposite to, my belief in leaving the EU.
Fast forward 42 years to the Brexit referendum and my view had not changed: not because I am an ideological dinosaur but because everything that had happened in the decades in between pointed that way. The EU has failed to care for its poorest members; has not shielded us from global economic disasters; and has failed to be an answer to big issues such as our responsibility to refugees. Remainers seem to bemoan the loss of things that either never existed or could easily be maintained without needing us to be part of a United States of Europe.
I don’t like referendums: the government has never asked me about taking my country to war or about privatising my health service. So, why ask me to decide on something more complicated and which they seem entirely unable or unwilling to deal with? Still, short of pointlessly abstaining, I had to tell them what I thought, even though the question was so limited. I voted with my head and my heart and said “no”. I still think I was right, despite the vilification of many, including some people very close to me.
Much of the criticism of my choice is because it seemed to put me in the same camp as separatist little-Englanders. I was guilty – by association – of being racist. Then politicians started talking about “what the British people had voted for”, though they didn’t seem to be talking about me. As an internationalist and Europhile, I saw other people interpreting my response to a yes or no question in ways that were just plain wrong.
It was as though we had been asked whether we wanted to move house and been allowed only a one word answer. We had ceded control of the next steps to people with no idea of why we wanted change or what we might want instead, and who entered the market with no agreed specification and no idea of what a good deal would be. We had apparently told them that we wanted to live somewhere else, even if that meant being homeless when – with some guts and imagination – they could have led us to a better place.
I have always thought that a second referendum was a necessary consequence of the limited question we were asked last time.
All the first vote did was to give a mandate to the government to find a way out of the mess that is the EU. Perhaps inevitably, given their track record in just about everything else, they have failed miserably. Neither their hearts nor their minds seem to have been in it. Maybe it was too much to ask of any government, even one more competent and unified than ours. If I am wrong about anything, it is in having given implicit support to people who I should never have expected to use it wisely.
Either way, it is reasonable to expect them to come back to us to ask whether we like the new house they have found for us. Thus far, I don’t. Nothing has changed my view about the EU. But my view is not so dogmatic as to believe that any possible future outside is better than staying in. If the best they can bring back is something we choose to reject, then we will have missed a great opportunity. But I am sure that many more than 2 pe cent of the 52 per cent were not in favour of departure at any cost, despite having sound reasons for voting to leave.
I agree with those who oppose a “second bite at the cherry” – but I do so on the basis that the question has to be different; it has to be about what we want to happen next. The government’s infertile approach to that question is what will undermine the hopes and fears of all who voted in 2016. The motive for that referendum was politicians’ cowardice; they should now be brave enough to give us a choice over our future.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.