It is hard not to admire Donald Tusk and to wish that our own politicians could be as succinct, understated – and right.
Courage is certainly needed.
Let us suppose for a moment that in 2016 ‘the British People’ really had ‘voted overwhelmingly’ to leave the EU: would we have arrived at the place we are now?
Would the Prime Minister have just seen the deal she had laboured for two and a half years to put together rejected by parliament on an unprecedented scale?
Would she really have felt the need, in 2017, to call a snap election to test her authority, then lost her majority as a result, leading to the reliance on the DUP that has ultimately proved her downfall?
Would it have taken court action by a courageous private citizen – the redoubtable and admirable Gina Miller – to compel Parliament to actually exert its authority in terms of a ‘meaningful vote’ as it did last night?
Would Mrs May’s constant theme in the lead-up to the vote have been about healing division and bringing the country together at a critical time?
Above all, why would she persist in opposing a second referendum which could only (if things were as claimed) confirm the result of the first?
Surely, if the position really was as the likes of Mogg and Jenkin represented it to be (and a supine press accepted without question), then Mrs May would have been swept triumphantly on a tide of popular feeling towards a Brexit that all would embrace as the best deal for the country? There would have been no divisions in the Conservative party, no succession of cabinet resignations, no ground on which ‘project fear’ could find purchase. The British people would have stood foursquare behind the government in pursuing the course they had voted for ‘overwhelmingly’.
Last night’s vote, and the pattern of events leading up to it, make no sense at all if the ‘British People’ really did, in 2016, express overwhelming support for leaving the European Union.
On the other hand, they are entirely consistent with the view that the 2016 referendum has been misread, misinterpreted and misrepresented from the outset. What it actually showed (as I first pointed out here) is that the nation was deeply divided on the matter and that only a minority actually wished to leave the EU (as considered here).
In catholic theology, one interpretation of ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness’ is that it is the refusal to accept the known truth. Whatever you may think of that, it has certainly proved to be a grave and damaging error for most politicians and political commentators to acquiesce in an interpretation of the 2016 referendum that is directly contrary to the truth.
The divisions that the 2016 referendum revealed certainly cannot be healed by continuing to pretend that Brexit is something that most people in Britain actually want.
What they do want is worth asking – but this time, we should pay attention to what they say.
In conclusion, it is worth reminding ourselves of how, in this country, a referendum is supposed to work – it is intended to be advisory, informative; it does not bind the government, but should enlighten it in choosing the way ahead:
‘It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’
– Commons Briefing Paper 7212, giving background on the European Union Referendum Bill
Who will have the courage?