On 17 February, Tony Blair spoke out against Brexit in a long, considered speech. The British people may have voted to leave the European Union on 23 June last year, he said, but: “It is their right to change their mind.” That it took an intervention from a former Labour prime minister greatly diminished in standing to restate this democratic truth is a mark of the vacuity of the Brexit debate so far. In truth, Mr Blair was performing a role for which he was never designed: the reluctant counter-revolutionary.
One did not have to agree with him to respect his right to make an anti-Brexit argument. Those who lose free and fair elections – or, indeed, binary plebiscites – are entitled to go on making their case. Mr Blair respects the will of the people. On the question of leaving the EU, that will is settled, even though Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. But so far, there has been little serious public discussion of Britain’s terms of exit. As Mr Blair told this magazine in November, the British people were “agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house”. Theresa May, however, has said that she is prepared to walk away from the negotiations with the EU27 without a deal. She may yet come to regret this gambit. To allow Britain to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms would be self-defeating and foolish.
The passage of the Article 50 bill through the House of Lords, therefore, is a crucial juncture. It is a supreme irony that the anachronistic, undemocratic second chamber could secure amendments that ultimately inject renewed accountability into the process. Peers could achieve a meaningful vote for parliament on the final deal, something that the Prime Minister has resisted. This, as the former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell told peers, would spare Britain the indignity of watching the Belgian province of Wallonia having its say on a Brexit settlement before its own parliamentarians.
Unedifying for our democracy though it may be, the Lords is proving to be an effective check on the executive’s harmful impulses. In 2015, many Britons had reason to be thankful for Europe’s only fully unelected upper house when its rejection of George Osborne’s planned cuts to tax credits forced the then chancellor to rethink his misguided plans.
Having won the referendum, those on the Eurosceptic right ought to show some magnanimity. Their stridency and dogmatic certainties impede constructive debate. Iain Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary, said that Mr Blair’s intervention was “arrogant” and “undemocratic”. One would expect such banalities from one of the least successful leaders of the Conservative Party. Would Mr Duncan Smith and his fellow Eurosceptics have remained silent if the majority had rejected Brexit? Of course not.
By the time the Article 50 negotiations are concluded, it could have been almost three years since the referendum. For this reason, those opposed to a “hard Brexit” are entitled to keep making their case. And, should they want it – and should it be necessary – the British people are entitled to have their say again.
This article appears in the 22 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit