It was only to be expected that the hard-line Brexiteers – the people who lied about the cost of European Union membership, fraudulently claimed that Turkey was about to join the EU and invented stories about the imminent creation of a European army – would insist that the vote on 23 June was binding and irrevocable. Yet the endorsement of that prejudiced conclusion by members of parliament who supported the Remain campaign would be absurd.
MPs are not under a democratic obligation to rubber-stamp a referendum decision that, in their opinion, damages the interests of the men and women who elected them. Indeed, they have a constitutional duty to oppose measures that they judge would injure the people who sent them to the House of Commons. That would still have been the case even if the referendum had been devised with a purpose more noble than the protection of David Cameron from the wrath of the Little Englanders and imperial recidivists of the 1922 Committee.
For more than 200 years, MPs have accepted the definition of their role that Edmund Burke set out in an address to the electors of Bristol in 1774: “Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” That magisterial declaration might have been designed to stiffen the backbone of MPs who know that their constituents will suffer if Brexit goes ahead, but who accept the recently invented principle that requires them to vote for what they know to be wrong. Perhaps they believe that the decision cannot be reversed. It can.
The decisive battles have to be fought in the House of Commons. The passage of constitutional legislation provides endless opportunities for a long rearguard action and the government’s entire programme can be disrupted by the opposition of no more than a determined minority. Parliamentary tactics can help to achieve a withdrawal package that includes some concessions to Labour’s priorities. Yet the real objective must be the abandonment of the whole process. That requires the resuscitation and reinvigoration of the pressure groups that prepared the way for entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 but did very little to popularise the EU, which it became.
Their task will not be to prepare for a rerun of the referendum but to propagate the truth that the dire consequences of the result need not be embraced with meek resignation. Nobody believes that the Leave campaign would have accepted a 4-point majority for Remain as the final word on the subject. Those of us who know that leaving will, or would, be a disaster must replicate the Leavers’ tenacity.
Soon, the consequences of withdrawal will make it obvious enough that the British citizens who voted Leave made an epic mistake. The dire warnings of economic deterioration will be replaced by hard evidence of a fall in national income, abandoned investment plans, reductions in advertised job vacancies – and the effects on standards of living that will follow. It is notable that while the Prime Minister has promised that there will be no tax increases, she has remained ominously silent about cuts in the welfare budget. The damage that even the prospect of Brexit is bringing about provides irrefutable evidence of the catastrophe that would follow the execution of the withdrawal plan, whatever this may be.
During the referendum campaign, the choice before the British public was between the shortcomings – real and invented – of the European Union and the fictional bliss of independence, which the Brexiteers never thought it necessary to describe or define. Reality will now set in and the exit package will not seem so attractive when it becomes clear that the “regulations” from which our sovereign nation is to be freed include parts of the Jacques Delors package of rights at work. Sooner rather than later, the Brexit strategists will have to choose between agreeing to the free movement of labour and losing the economic benefits of the single market. We know that 60 per cent of voters believe that referendums are not the way in which great decisions should be determined. It should not be difficult to demonstrate that their judgement was confirmed in the summer of 2016 and that the time has come for MPs to take responsibility for determining where the UK’s future lies.
The Labour Party has, or should have, a special part to play in rectifying the mistake. The families that would suffer most from Brexit are, or should be, its first concern. Highly paid journalists and wealthy peers can afford to argue that a reduction in gross domestic product is a price worth paying for the restoration of Britain’s freedom from the rulings of the European Court of Justice. The bargain is less attractive to those who live at, or below, subsistence level and will be pushed further into the depths of poverty in the name of the amorphous notion of national sovereignty.
There is also a political bonus that Labour could win if it leads the fightback against the rejection of Europe. The parliamentary party, in desperate need of a cause for which it can unite, will – with the exception of a couple of political deviants – respond to a call to fight against the right wing of the Tory party and what is left of Ukip. And, for once, Labour can become the visibly patriotic party.
Membership of the EU is, and will eventually be seen to be, in the national interest. Labour must help to ensure that the realisation does not come after the catastrophe of withdrawal has been confirmed.
Roy Hattersley was the deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992 and is the author of “David Lloyd George: the Great Outsider” (Abacus)
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge