If the people don’t want to quit the EU once they know what Brexit means, they shouldn’t have to.
For many, including a large majority of Labour supporters such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, this is a basic principle of democracy. But a few, such as Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary, think we shouldn’t have a People’s Vote because it would tear the country apart. They worry that the people who voted to leave in 2016 would feel betrayed and would then fall prey to right-wing extremists.
There’s no doubt that Nigel Farage and his ilk would do their best to fan the flames of bigotry and xenophobia if we have a new vote. But this doesn’t mean we should appease the extremists by denying the voters a chance to pull back from the brink when they see that Brexit is nothing like what Boris Johnson promised two years ago.
It is not as though we can leave the EU and the country will miraculously come back together. It is much more likely that our nation, which has already been divided by the referendum, will be further torn apart if we don’t stop Brexit.
Many people voted to leave because they wanted money for the NHS and investment in communities that had been neglected for decades. They were seething with anger. But Brexit is not the answer. It will make these problems worse. We will have billions less to spend on public services. Our politicians will be so busy dealing with the fall-out that they won’t be able to address our deep social problems for years.
People are starting to realise this even before can see the detail of any deal Theresa May negotiates. That is why more and more want a final say at the end of the talks. People are also turning against Brexit. The shift in public opinion has been especially strong among Labour voters and women. If the government charges ahead with an unpopular Brexit without giving voters the chance to say no, the public will feel it has not been listened to.
Brexit could also break what the Prime Minister calls “our precious union”. The fragile peace in Northern Ireland will be undermined if there are customs checks either on the land border with the Republic of Ireland or in the Irish Sea.
There will be bitterness and division even if the Prime Minister comes back with some miserable half-in, half-out deal based on her Chequers proposals. These are the worst of both worlds. They won’t protect our economy, which is bad for people’s jobs and public services. But we won’t “take back control” either because we’ll end up following the EU’s rules without a vote on them rather than making them, as we do now.
If we crash out of the EU with no deal at all – as Tory hardliners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg are happy to – it will be even worse. The economy will be clobbered so badly that there will be austerity as far as the eye can see. Society will be torn apart and the recriminations will go on for years.
There is even a risk that a chaotic Brexit – with planes grounded, food stockpiled and ports log-jammed with lorries – will lead to civil strife. Police chiefs are drawing up emergency plans to deal with riots and a crime wave if we crash out with no deal, according to a dossier leaked to the Sunday Times. The Home Secretary Sajid Javid pointedly didn’t rule this out when he was questioned by the BBC’s Andrew Marr earlier this month.
This is not to say that holding a People’s Vote is a magic wand to bring the country back together. David Cameron let a genie out of the bottle and we have to deal with a country that is already divided.
But a new vote offers the best chance to mend the damage, provided we also tackle the root causes of the Brexit vote. We must not settle for the status quo. We must repair our public services and take care of parts of the country that have been deprived of investment. And we must give people more control over their lives. That, rather than pressing ahead with an increasingly unpopular policy, is the best way to heal our country.