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25 January 2019

The thought of another referendum terrifies me. Maybe we should just go all out for Norway

I’m not happy about it. But at this point, the alternatives are starting to seem really rather frightening.

By Jonn Elledge

The night after the EU referendum, I went for drinks with a Dutch friend and then, somewhat the worse for wear, changed my Twitter avatar to the EU flag. The next morning I awoke with that foggy sense of having embarrassed myself in some way the night before, and quietly changed it back.

Still, though, I have kept rooting for my side of the referendum to somehow come from behind and stop this shitshow. I’ve written umpteen angry columns, and ten thousand and one umpteen angry tweets. I’ve cheered on groups like For Our Future’s Sake and OFOC, and found myself annoyed by suggestions that they’re nothing more than astroturfers out to stop Jeremy Corbyn.

I’ve subscribed to the Remainiacs podcast. I’ve appeared on the Remainiacs podcast. I’ve pored over polling looking for evidence that the will of the people has changed enough that ministers might tell the ERG to go fuck themselves. I even, this morning, awoke to discover that Jolyon Maugham has launched a new anti-Brexit campaign using a slogan I came up with independently, and which I am still pathetically proud of: Just Make It Stop. (Honestly, I think it has legs.)

So please believe me when I say that it hurts a bit to be writing this, but: I really don’t think we should have another referendum right now, or, quite possibly, ever. I think maybe some variant of the Norway option is our best hope.

And even though it is the softest plausible version, Norway is, you’ll recall, a form of Brexit.

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I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Here’s my thinking. I don’t, in all honesty, think we can just make it stop. I don’t buy the argument that simply cancelling Brexit would lead to violence on the street – Britain lacks the French penchant for such things, and even if it didn’t the food and medicine shortages brought about by no-deal Brexit would be far more likely to take us there.

Nonetheless, however close the vote, however dodgy the referendum, the result was clear. And ignoring election results seems like a pretty nasty habit to get into.

So: overturning the referendum would need an electoral mandate. A majority government elected on an anti-Brexit manifesto might be enough, but that clearly isn’t happening any time soon. That leaves another referendum as the only option.

But we aren’t likely to get one: even Remainer MPs have spoken out against the idea, and the awkward show of support from the Labour backbenches last week just served to indicate quite how weak that support was.

Even if it was stronger, there’s no consensus whatever over what the question should be: Remain vs May’s Deal? Remain vs No Deal? All three at once? All three in two rounds? What?

And even if we knew that, it’s very far from clear we would win. Support for Brexit has not collapsed in the way I hoped it might, and “tell them again” has the uncomfortable ring of a winning populist slogan. There is a risk that a fresh referendum would deepen the divisions created or unmasked by the events of the last few years, only to end up providing a clear electoral mandate for a genuinely catastrophic no-deal Brexit. As much as I wish we could stop this, I’m not convinced that’s a risk we should take.

The Norway option – remaining tied to the economic structures of the European Union, while pulling out of the political ones – is very far from perfect. It is demonstrably worse than what we had before, since we’ll be spending a lot of cash on remaining bound by European rules while no longer have a seat at the table when they are written. Notably, it’s not a deal that even the Norwegians seem to like very much.

But it would discharge the result of the referendum without wrecking the economy, or setting fire to what is left of our political culture. It would keep us close to the European decision making that will inevitably affect our lives, even if we no longer had the influence over it we used to have.

And, though I hate to say it, Britain being the largest country in the outer ring of European decision-making makes a certain sense. I’m quite up for being part of a European superstate, eventually, but even among Remain voters, such views have never been held by more than a tiny minority: it feels significant that even the most committed Remain campaigners have never really attempted to appeal to British voters’ sense of European identity. If there is going to be a country called Europe, most Britons would rather not be part of it. Maybe economic links, without political ones, is the logical outcome of that.

I don’t really want to be right about this, to be honest with you. I want someone to persuade me that the public are rising up against Brexit, that it can be stopped, that a referendum is in any way a good idea.

But right now, none of those things seem true. Norway – however flawed; however unlikely – still seems possible.

I’m not happy about it. But at this point, the alternatives are starting to seem really rather frightening.

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