The decision to leave the EU represents the biggest political change to the UK in a generation. It requires a moment of profound national reflection, in order for us to decide exactly what kind of country we want to be and how we want to relate to the rest of the world. Even without those kinds of questions, Brexit is simply the biggest administrative challenge that a government has faced in peacetime.
For me this makes the government’s current behaviour intensely frustrating. Beyond the fatuous repetition of the phrase “Brexit means Brexit”, we still have very little detail as to which of the wide range of options ahead of us the government wants to pursue. This applies both to the UK’s withdrawal agreement, and to our future relationship with the rest of the EU.
At one end of the scale is a deal in which the economic impact of leaving is softened, in which cooperation and collaboration with our EU allies is preserved where possible, and in which we work constructively with the EU to find an agreement that works for all sides. At the other end is the hardest of hard Brexits, in which the Eurosceptic forces in the Conservative party (many of them now on the government front bench) succeed in angering our negotiating partners with threats to undercut them and turn the UK into a tax haven, and we crash out of the EU with no agreement at all and take the huge economic hit which that entails.
Sadly, every indication we’ve had in recent months is that the government is edging closer and closer to the latter, and further and further away from the former.
Given the risks involved if this all goes wrong, if I were Theresa May I’d want all the help I could get for the negotiations. Instead, she seems to be cooking something up being closed doors with a team of free market Tory extremists. This week, the minimal Article 50 Bill passed through the Houses of Parliament with no amendments at all – not even one to suggest that maybe, in a country which prides itself on our democratic traditions, it might be a good idea to let our elected representatives have a say on the final deal. Government Ministers have instead made an oral promise that Parliament will get a say – but given that these are the same people who made an “oral promise” that in the event of Brexit our NHS would get £350 million a week, can we really believe them?
The Brexit negotiations are too big, and have implications for too many people, for such a small group of politicians to decide what the outcome is going to be. Demands for more transparency and accountability are not “whingeing” by sore losers. It is consistent to say that you accept the result of the referendum but also want a say on how our country will leave the EU.
That is why I have been calling for a national Brexit Commission to be established – much like we saw in Scotland before the first wave of devolution – to allow a range of stakeholders to have their say on what happens next. This Commission should be genuinely national – it should meet across the country, in pro-Leave and pro-Remain areas – and it should enable contributions from every sector of society: businesses and trade unions; civil society and academia; young and old; community groups and faith groups. That is the only way we can hold the government to account.
Such a Commission shouldn’t be dismissed as a warm and fluffy “nice to have”. It makes hard-headed sense when it comes to negotiations. Imagine if the Prime Minister can put forward proposals to her EU opposite numbers and say that they are the results of wide-ranging consultation and have the blessing of a representative Commission of British society. It would only strengthen her hand.
Involving more people in the Brexit negotiations is the right thing to do both morally and tactically. So what are we waiting for?