The UK is due to give notice of withdrawal to the EU by the end of March. I’m not deluded; I don’t expect Brexit to be revealed as one massive prank on April 1st. I know that Brexit is well in motion and that a lot of people are “over it” by now – so what is the point in moaning about it? Well:
“Brexit means Brexit,” said Theresa May in one of her more brilliant speeches. It’s not hard to understand why people are confused about what will come of this pantomime of a negotiation process, seeing as not even the government has a solid plan. I know a lot of people are switching off from the news because it’s tiring, maybe boring. What we can do is hold onto what we do know amidst the uncertainty and I’m going to start with democracy and the mandate for withdrawal.
Leavers and Remainers have found tentative common ground in complacence. They are either crowing or mourning, but the words are the same and they are something along the lines of well, we have to respect the will of the people. The general idea is that Brexit is what the people wanted and it is what we will get.
The mandate for Brexit cannot legitimately exist. While the referendum was open to British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens (including Britons who have lived abroad for less than 15 years), European nationals were not allowed to vote despite many having residency rights and paying taxes here. I have lived here since I was 5 months old; I couldn’t vote in the election that kept the Tories in power and when they called a referendum on the EU, I couldn’t vote either. How we talk about the democratic mandate for Brexit matters because you have to consider who did not vote. Had the 2.9 million EU residents in the UK voted, the vast majority would have voted to remain.
I’ll interrupt myself quickly to address the question: wouldn’t EU citizens be too biased to vote? Firstly, bias is simply another word for having an opinion and EU citizens are no more biased than anyone in what people are calling the most significant decision voters have made in decades. Secondly, a decision made about us should involve us. In recognition of this, the Scottish Referendum allowed a wider pool of people to participate, including EU nationals and anyone over 16. So, if you think that Brexit is the will of the people, you can’t believe that your EU friends and colleagues – who make up 5% of the population – have a place within the democratic process.
There is even less of a mandate for “hard Brexit”, the cringe name given to Theresa May’s stance in which the UK plans to be vaguely “tough” in EU negotiations. Turnout to the EU Referendum was 71.8%. Leave won 51.9% over Remain with a very narrow margin of 4%, which will now set the tone for the rest of our lives. 4% of Leave voters (which would make up approx. 2.1% of all voters) polled by The Independent said they thought Brexit was the worst thing to have happened in 2016 and regretted their decision. Many said that they had cast thoughtless protest votes and many others placed genuine trust in the now discredited lies told by the Leave campagin, most notably the promise to divert £350 million to the NHS.
When we say that Brexit was democratic, we make it seem sacrosanct. When Brexit is sacrosanct, it moves further out of reach for the possibility of scrutiny and becomes untouchable as a topic of debate. Anyone who criticises any part of the process is smeared or made out to be a tantrum-prone child. People are told off for being “sore losers” which is a fair comment to make about etiquette at a sports competition, but considerably less fair to tell an EU citizen who has spent 8 months watching squabbling clowns try to make decisions in heightening states of anxiety about what their life might look like soon.
Supreme Court judges were not ruling on Brexit itself; they were ruling on the correct procedure in constitutional terms on how to trigger Article 50 yet they were declared “Enemies of the People” by the Daily Mail. This attitude means that people will become very cautious about critiquing government because it is too easy to be painted as anti-democratic. When Parliament passed the Article 50 Bill last month which enabled the government to proceed with the withdrawal from the EU, lots of MPs, even those representing Remain areas, voted it through. They did this because they had to respect the will of the people which all sounds very commendable until you realise that they have effectively given free reign to Theresa May’s government to do what they like with the withdrawal process.
Concerns over the “blank cheque” nature of what MPs were being asked to endorse was the main reason for why rebel MPs opposed the Article 50 Bill in Parliament last month. Catherine McKinnell MP who voted against the government said that whilst respecting the outcome of the referendum, she remained “hugely concerned about the lack of transparency around this monumentally important and historic process”; voting without clarity would not be responsible. It is worth noting that MPs were given just 5 days to scrutinise the draft Bill for withdrawal in comparison to the 40 days that MPs spent on the enactment of the European Communities Act 1972 which saw the UK become a member state in the first place.
The House of Lords defeated the Article 50 draft legislation this week and proposed an amendment which would require the government to ensure that EU citizens have the same residency rights they expected before the vote, citing the unfairness of using this population as a “bargaining chip” in negotiations. Government ministers plan to resist any changes to the draft legislation, and will be able to remove the amendment when the Bill comes back to the Commons.
I’m unsure of what will happen next but I would urge you all to stay on top of the news and to keep talking about Brexit because it is the only way that Theresa and her pals will feel any sort of pressure to act in our best interests. The decisions being made about our futures are not inevitable truths but instead political choices so accountability is key. The UK voted to leave the EU but the “hard Brexit” terms that the Tories are working with are not endorsed by the public.
Frame the issues appropriately; we’re already fucked by virtue of Brexit and the last thing I want is for the government to take it to extremes under the false premise that we asked for them to do so.