A lot of Remainers read this blog and I consider that a compliment. This is not because I agree with them, but rather because it tends to suggest a level of objectivity on my part. Maybe some of them do it purely to extract information out of me for use against both me and other Brexiteers. I am renowned for being pessimistic and can't bring myself to blindly defend either liars on my own side or the handling of every step in the withdrawal process.
Some, I am glad to say, take genuine interest in my thoughts and this is always nice. It is good to have a mixed readership because otherwise I would be left with what amounts to not much more than an echo chamber. In this respect I am lucky to have built up a Twitter following which is surprisingly diversified and mixed in terms of political beliefs. This can be extremely difficult to achieve, as any active user will know.
Many of those who favour EU membership will no doubt feel a sense of spirited encouragement when they hear high profile figures such as Lord Kerr recounting the ability of the British government to legally reverse Brexit. I have always admitted that we are able to backtrack on leaving the EU, though would in any event fight back against it. What most surprises me is the way this is seen as some kind of shocking admission.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, he said:
"At any stage we can change our minds if we want to, and if we did we know that our partners would actually be very pleased indeed. The Brexiters create the impression that is because of the way article 50 is written that having sent in a letter on 29 March 2017 we must leave automatically on 29 March 2019 at the latest. That is not true. It is misleading to suggest that a decision that we are taking autonomously in this country about the timing of our departure, we are required to take by a provision of EU treaty law.”
Then, in a speech to an Open Britain event earlier on this morning, he added: “One should bear in mind that it is always possible at a later stage to decide that we want to do something different.”
He has said nothing especially significant or anything most did not know already, so the media buzz around his comments is more than a little underwhelming. The question of whether we can reverse the process of leaving is more one of political will and mandate than ever it is legal scope. I don't think there will ever be that political will, in part because not enough Remainers are enthusiastic enough about mobilising to stop Brexit, and in part because it simply isn't clear that the 52-48 divide has in any profound way changed since the referendum. We have all seen and heard from conversions on both sides of the debate.
Lord Kerr is today being painted as the man behind Article 50 but a far more important influence, naturally unobserved, is Altiero Spinelli, who perhaps stands as the main reason why Article 50 was not drafted in any reasonable or constructive manner. I have expanded upon this elsewhere for any who are interested in the details. Both Kerr and his comments are far less important than advertised, and what is more, his views have been reported on by the BBC before, such as here, back in June. This issue of political will is very important. It is undoubtedly true that a democracy, if it is truly a democracy, should be able to change its mind. But there is no objective evidence of the country having done this.
Another referendum on the final deal is a possibility, but I suspect many simply would not have the appetite or energy for such a vote. I don't suppose turnout would crawl past 65%. If Brexit were to be reversed in absence of a clear demonstration of political will, faith and trust in our democratic institutions, from parliament to our media, would be left in total disarray. We are talking about a scar left on a country by an establishment too weak and incompetent to follow orders. Divisions of unparalleled anger and hatred would solidify into pretexts of all kinds of political action. This is not something which is characteristic of a functioning democracy, and is therefore a question to which Brexit reversal has no answer.
Furthermore, the hidden element to all of this appears to me to be that Brexit was always inevitable. How much integration would have been intolerable, given that the coalition government legislated for a referendum on any further European constitution? In this context, a reversal looks rather like kicking the can a little further down the street. It might well look good for the strength of the pound, but I doubt it would achieve anything longstanding. I think in some respects we confronted leaving earlier than we were perhaps prepared for, but then again, how does one prepare for something the magnitude of Brexit?
The next major treaty would have been a major stumbling block for our electorate, who have grown increasingly wary of the lengths to which ever closer union will travel. I noticed back in my campaigning days quite a large number of Remainers were critical of it. The democratic case against the European Union, which forms essentially the bedrock of euroscepticism, has always been a very powerful core argument for us. With it we can build from an intellectual base which is both progressive and thoughtful.
A Brexit reversal sees a return to a 'status quo' as being the tonic for an unhealthy democracy. But this is a false trail and does not address any fundamental questions about the future of our democracy. It is the political equivalent of putting our fingers in our ears and pretending all will be steady and dandy if we give up on that which is difficult. The Stop Brexit circles can be heard loud and clear in concentric Twitter bubbles, but ultimately they cannot yet, or ever, demonstrate adequate reflection of public opinion. This I see as worth remembering as Lord Kerr does his rounds in the media.