"I checked it very thoroughly" said the computer "And that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."
The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy
I have almost nothing to say about Brexit. And here it is.
To start with, it's a silly word. So let's put quotation marks around it. "Brexit".
Foreigners sometimes ask "Why are you doing it? Why is Britain -- England -- seceding from the European Union? Why would a tiny little country say that it doesn't need the great big continental mainland and can do perfectly well all on its own?"
I reply "We are doing it because the bin-men all went on strike in 1979."
That isn't the whole truth, of course. We are also doing it because the leader of the opposition made a poor decision about his wardrobe on a cold Autumn day in 1981. And because a South American dictator launched an expedition against the last few acres of the British Empire in 1982.
The suicidal 2016 European referendum was simply the logical end point of a right-wing slope which Britain has been sliding down since before I was allowed to vote. There have been individual progressive victories since 1979, of course, but all the ideological ground has been conceded to the Right. I do not think that The People are any less socialist or any more conservative than they were in 1945. Many of The People think that paying taxes to pay for hospitals is a good idea. But then they always have done. They don't call it Marxism, they call it Fairness or Sharing. On the other paw, many of The People don't see why they should give so much of their hard-earned wages to the Government to fritter away. But many of the People have always thought that, too. God knows, no-one ever won an argument. We simply all agreed to take it for granted that The Left were funny and unpatriotic and silly. It would be political suicide for any politician to talk about socialism or the redistribution of wealth or anything more radical than Sure Start nursery schools. That kind of talk will bring the country to a standstill (winter of discontent, winter of discontent) and anyway it's insulting to our glorious dead (donkey jacket, donkey jacket.)
"Brexit" is simply the latest move by the Right to wind back the post-war-Liberal-Consensus. "Brexit" is not a political theory you are persuaded of, but a holy mystery you are initiated into. "Brexit" is "Brexit"! Question ye not the details of "Brexit"! Have faith in "Brexit"! For the faithful, the endgame is not trade deals with former imperial colonies outside of the European free trade zone. It is not even bendy passports and blue bananas. The prize which is now within reach is a gallows in Wandsworth prison, a cane in every classroom, and the Black and White Minstrels on the television.
That is the answer to your next question. I do not think that Tony Blair was no different from Margaret Thatcher. I do not think Tony Blair was no different from David Cameron. I do not even think that Centrism leads necessarily to egomania and wars fought on the basis of personal intuition. The fact that we had a crazy Centrist Prime Minister doesn't prove that Centrism drives you crazy. Blair did some liberal things and some illiberal things. But I do not support Centrists even when they come bearing gifts. Centrism doesn't halt the slide to the right. Centrism doesn't want to halt the slide to the right. Centrism says we're moving in the right direction but going a bit too quickly. I support Jeremy Corbyn because he is the first politician in my lifetime who would, in power, start to move things (slowly, tentatively, sensibly) back to the Left. I would not follow some hypothetical Centrist Messiah because he happened to be an Anti-"Brexit"-Centrist-Messiah. Those kinds of pacts are never a good idea. Christopher Marlowe wrote a very good play about that kind of thing.
I do not think it is possible to stop "Brexit". I think that the best we can hope for is a "Brexit" that does as little harm as possible; a form of words which allows us to tell the referendum cultists "You see, we did come out of Europe; 'Brexit' did mean 'Brexit' after all" while retaining some semblance of a functional economy. "Brexit" in name only, as the fellow said. That appears to be what both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are working towards. Because neither of them are lunatics.
I do not support a second referendum. The best option would be not to have had a referendum in the first place.
The second best option would have been for the sane side of the argument to have said "We deny the legitimacy of this Referendum. Referenda are not how parliamentary democracies work. We regard Referendums as purely advisory. We will not necessarily abide by the results."
The third best option would have been for the sane side to have fought a decent and compelling referendum campaign and put the issue to bed for another 43 years. But that's a problem because the sane side is always going to feel boring and wriggly and evasive where the mad side is always going to sound dynamic and exciting and committed. The sane side will always come out sounding like that slimy lawyer who keeps saying "Objection, your honour" and trying to introduce pedantic little facts into the argument, where the mad side is quite free to shout "Millions of Turks flooding through the channel tunnel! Give us back our conkers."
But we decided not to go with any of the sensible options, and we are where we are.
Once you have jumped off a cliff, your options are severely limited. This is the main reason that jumping off cliffs is widely regarded as not being a great idea. The choice, as I see it, is between growing a pair of wings and reversing gravity, or facing the fact that we are going to be hitting the ground relatively soon and doing something to mitigate the bump.
Jeremy Corbyn is a sensible man and sensible people sometimes change their minds. He is also a sensible politician and sensible politicians sometimes do what the majority of their party want them to do, even though they would rather have done something else. So it is possible that, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow (the day after that would be a bit too late) Jeremy might say something like this.
"As you know, I supported 'remain' because although I think that the EU is flawed, I think that we should remain members and try and fix the flaws. And as you know, when 'leave' won the referendum by a small majority, I said that we should abide by the result but work towards a 'Brexit' that does as little harm as possible. But I have listened to you members who elected me, and I am very happy to change my mind and say that we should try and halt the whole process. Accordingly, we will fight the next election with a clear manifesto commitment to reverse article 50, and with a clear set of principles about the reforms and improvements we want to push for."
This would be sensible, pragmatic and democratic. It would also be politically suicidal. The press would crucify him. The Labour leavers would defect to UKIP. The Labour remainers would say that he didn't really mean it. The BBC would say it was all about the Jews. Labour would lose the election; the cause of socialism would be lost for the next 40 years; and the Tory hard right and the Labour Centrists would see themselves as vindicated.
Scenarios in which Corbyn steps aside and Chuka Umunna fights the next election on a Remain platform; or in which Tony Blair returns from the Isle of Avalon in a swan-shaped barge crash into the same rocks. They wouldn't win.
I would very much like a socialist Labour Party to fight the next election on an anti-"Brexit" platform and for them to romp home with an overwhelming majority. I would also very much like a unicorn.
So then: the last best hope is a Second Referendum.
I don't believe in The People; I just believe in people. I don't believe that there is such a thing as The Will of the People; I just believe that people have opinions, different ones, some good some bad, some sensible, some silly. I don't believe that a vote taken on one particular day can possibly have the kind of Scriptural force that the "Brexit" fundamentalists ascribe to it. But if you treat referendums as really, really, big, really, really, expensive opinion polls, then they are obviously of some value. They force the government to engage with what Public Opinion actually is, as opposed to what they think it is or would like it to be.
The really, really big opinion poll which we had on 23 June 2016 told us that slightly less than a third of the population agreed with Europe, slightly more than a third of the population disagreed with Europe, and slightly less than a third of cats who expressed a preference didn't express a preference either way.
The People Spoke, and The People Said "We don't know."
If the referendum had been about abolishing Prince Charles, it would certainly have come out with seventy or eighty per cent saying "Gawd Bless Your Royal Highness" with the balance split between "Orf With His Head" and "I'm sorry, why are we even talking about this?" When the Irish asked the people about legalizing abortion, it went two thirds "Yes we should " and one third "No we shouldn't" which might not be overwhelming but is pretty decisive. The Irish wrote into their Constitution that you have to have a Referendum to Amend that Constitution; and they know exactly what Amendment they are voting on before they vote. We haven't even got as far as having a Constitution yet.
Please, please don't call it a People's Referendum. That makes it sound as if the last one was a kangeroos' referendum. It also makes it sound as if we believe in the daft idea that there is a thing called The People who have a thing called a Will, which is what got us into this mess to begin with. Let us rather call it the Purely Advisory Referendum Which Will Allow The Government To Accurately Gage Public Opinion Before Making Their Own Decision Which They Will Take Full Responsibility For.
Having had one Bloody Stupid Referendum, there is no objection in principal to having a Second Bloody Stupid Referendum. The True Believers will say "I suppose you are going to ask over and over until you get the right answer?" To which I reply "Yes, and if the first answer was manifestly stupid, then asking again and again until you get a sensible one is obviously the right thing to do."
"Do you want sausages or dog poo for your supper."
"No, listen, I am going to ask you again, sausages or dog poo?"
"I am going to ask you one last time, do you want sausage or dog poo?"
"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" is not a ridiculous question to ask before making a big decision. I believe that is how they treat euthanasia patients in jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal. They don't say "I am sorry, you have booked your ticket to Switzerland, now we have to kill you." They, say, at each stage of the process "Are you quite sure about this?" I believe about a third of people get as far as the clinic and then decide to carry on being alive after all. I am sorry to have used such a morbid metaphor. If I need another one I will go back to the dog shit.
So, the question is, what is the question?
We could rerun the 2016 vote and see if The People have come to their collective senses. (Clue: They haven't.)
"Three years ago we asked you if you wanted to Leave the European Union or Remain in the European Union. Because this is such an important question, we are giving you the opportunity to change your mind:
𐄂Carry on as we are and LEAVE the European Union.
𐄂Revoke article 50 if they will let us and REMAIN in the European Union."
But we already know that the country is split down the middle on the issue, and the result will be 50/50 plus or minus 5% either way. If Leave gets 55% again, we're stuffed. If Remain gets 55% this time, then we have two advisory votes, one narrowly saying "Jump" and another one narrowly saying "Don't Jump". I suppose we could average them out and do nothing. (Do you remember that bit in Dune where Paul can see all the possible outcomes of all his actions, and all the possible outcomes of all those outcomes, on to infinity, and decides to do nothing at all, and realizes that that's still a choice, with its own consequences?) Those of us who enjoy political schadenfreude would get to see the Leavers saying "But the vote was too narrow to mean anything" and the Remainers saying "You lost! Get over it".
So, then: we must be voting on the actual Deal; whatever compromise Mrs May eventually comes up with. So the Question looks something like this:
"Mrs May has cleverly worked out a damage limitation exercise, in which we leave Europe technically, but agree to stick to some of their rules and get some of the trade advantages we would have had if we had stayed. Do you vote to
𐄂ACCEPT Mrs May's Clever Compromise or
𐄂REJECT Mrs May's Clever Compromise and..."
...and what? And leave with No Deal? That is what the Incredibly Far Right have wanted all along: Britain as a mighty island with no tax, no welfare state, no pesky human rights. Singapore with chips instead of noodles.
Or is the idea that we might reject Mrs May's Chequers compromise but ask her to go back to the negotiating table and start all over again? And what then? A third referendum on the third deal?
Which leaves us with the only remotely sensible possibility:
"Chequers. It's bad, but it could be worse. What do you reckon?
𐄂LEAVE under the terms of the Chequers Agreement
𐄂LEAVE with no deal at all! Go it alone! This fortress built by nature for herself! Cry ho for England, Boris and St Cecil!"
𐄂This is a stupid idea. Let's give the whole thing up and REMAIN if they will still have us, which frankly, I wouldn't if I were them."
I do not think that it is a foregone conclusion that, faced with a choice of Bad Deal / Terrible Deal / Remain the majority of people would chose to Remain. All of the press, most of the Tory party, some of the Labour party and that nice Mr Putin want us very badly to leave. The populist press and Nigel Farage will represent anything less than No Deal as a betrayal as bad as the betrayal when Judas Iscariot betrayed Robin Hood to William of Orange at Runnymead. I think that a three way referendum is the shortest possible path to No Deal, which is the worst possible outcome.
Rest assured: if we have Another Referendum I will do the Decent Thing. But I think that "Brexit" is now inevitable, that negotiating the least worst deal possible is the least worst strategy available and that playing Fantasy Referendum has a very high chance of making things considerably worse.
And yes, I know what the gentleman in the third row wants to say. "Brexit" will be so disastrous that it doesn't matter whether Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson or Alan Sugar is the next Prime Minister. Once all those lorries are queued up in the English channel no-one in this country will be able to have nice things ever again. My English teacher used to tell me that we didn't need to worry about our exams or our career very much because there would certainly be a nuclear war before the millennium. (Do you ever wonder how I got to be where I am today? That is how.) Hadn't we seen Threads? Apocalyptic thinking has its appeal. Eat drink and be existential because we are all going die. I think it's still worth talking about having the least worst apocalypse possible. But if I were going to Armageddon I wouldn't start from here.