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Professor A C Grayling | October 7, 2016

It is one thing to make a mistake, another to pretend that you did not make it and therefore to keep on making it. There have been two egregious mistakes, two terrible errors of judgment, in the UK’s recent political history that threaten the derailment of our country, and its redirection into something less – and increasingly less – than it has been for half a millennium.

Those two mistakes are Ed Miliband’s new mechanism for electing a leader for the Labour Party, and David Cameron’s even more important mistake of having a referendum on EU membership.

The probable outcome of these mistakes, if not corrected, is that the UK is on course to becoming a diminished, marginal, increasingly unpleasant place – unpleasant because of its introspective xenophobia, its collapse into the small, closed, nasty mindset exemplified by the Daily Mail, Express, UKIP and the point where the extremes of Right and Left meet in forms of populism and not-so disguised racism. I say ‘UK’ but there is an increased likelihood that the UK will disintegrate; Scotland and Northern Ireland both wish to remain in the EU, and each has its own reasons for no longer being shackled to an England which, if it continues to be hijacked by these mistakes, will be socially and economically regressive. In the event of the insanity of ‘Brexit’ not being stopped I would not blame Scotland and Northern Ireland for leaving the Union.

Miliband’s ill-considered Party leader election mechanism has delivered the Labour Party into the hands of activists and infiltrators from places on the political spectrum where ideals – many of them very admirable – have no connection to reality and certainly not to electoral reality. The result is that the Labour party is no longer an Opposition, at a time when one is desperately needed, and it appears to have no prospect of ever becoming one under current conditions. Miliband dug a deep pit and the Party has duly been swallowed by it. This is a great pity for more reasons than that we are in a moment of crisis where imaginative and bold leadership with a Europe-wide maturity of grasp is needed, to oppose the immense harm being done to the UK and to the EU project itself by the ‘Brexit’ madness.

David Cameron did even worse. His fatal error of calling a referendum on EU membership is a mistake of historic proportions. He called it to shut up the Eurosceptic wing of his own Party, and to try to defuse the risk to a few of his Party’s seats from UKIP. He failed to understand the folly of a referendum at a particularly difficult juncture in the development of the great European project, which is very much a work in progress – with flaws and problems, yes; but developing a superb ideal of unity and cooperation that has already delivered peace (think of Europe’s shockingly scarred earlier history) and incremental prosperity, great advances in labour rights, environmental protections, scientific development, and much more. Almost anywhere in Europe a referendum would likely reveal skepticism and dissatisfaction, just as would happen if the builders had not finished their work on the house you occupy.

The decision to call a referendum was foolish, ignorant and dangerous, and so it has proved. It does George Osborne credit that he tried to dissuade Cameron; it does no-one any credit that the error of calling the referendum was compounded by lazy drafting of the 2015 EU Referendum Act, and inattention to its detail by MPs who seem to have passed it without reading it, because so many of them now appear to take it that a small majority in a purely advisory referendum is somehow binding. This in itself is a dismaying fact, suggesting various forms of of impoverishment of constitutional grasp among our representatives: where is the political maturity that would see how plainly silly this would be if it were not far, far worse than that?

There is now a constitutional scandal afoot. A small majority in an advisory-only referendum has been taken by the government to both require and mandate removal of the UK from the EU. It does no such thing. It comes nowhere near doing any such thing. The implication of ‘advisory’ is that Parliament should debate the referendum outcome. The constitution, in which Parliament is supreme, requires that there be Parliamentary deliberation on a matter of such constitutional importance. It appears from the best legal opinion that a process leading to the UK quitting the EU requires repeal of the relevant 1972 Act, or new primary legislation, or both. Yet the government led by a Prime Minister who was not leader of her party at the last election, and who therefore has no personal mandate, is bypassing Parliament, and behaving as if ‘Brexit’ is a done deal. It manifestly is not.

There are further points. In the campaign leading to the 23 June vote such scurrilities were said and done, almost all by the Leave side, that questions arise about accountability for deliberate falsehoods and misdirections in the course of a process leading to a vote – there should now, frankly, be prosecutions for fraud on the voters. A grave question arises about the forty years of persistent lies and distortions about the EU and immigration perpetrated by the Mail and Express, who appear to be immune from any remedy against their behavior. We learned yet again that pollsters are unreliable, and we see now that betting on voting outcomes should be banned; one of the undermining features of the 23 June vote was that the bookies made a Remain outcome a betting certainty. Because ‘there are no don’t-knows in a betting shop’ and all the ‘smart’ money was on Remain, many might not have bothered to vote as a result. Moreover, important consitutencies for the 23 June vote were disenfranchised, most significantly 16-17 year olds, expats, and our fellow EU citizens who live in the UK, work here, pay their taxes to it, bring up their children here, and contribute hugely to UK life and prosperity.

For half a millennium our country has flourished and achieved because it has had partners: an Empire, then a Commonwealth, then participation in a co-operating and mutually supportive European project. For three decades after the Second World War an isolated and struggling UK nearly tanked, its national wealth and its international influence declining rapidly, its political culture and its society stagnating. After joining the European project the UK has increasingly flourished again, and with the special position it negotiated with its European partners has been benefitting hugely from being in the EU. That is all now at risk: the damage already being suffered by the economy is a rapid and dismaying foretaste of the other diminishments promised if ‘Brexit’ is not halted.

Stopping ‘Brexit’ is the great cause of this present moment. It is heartening to see many individuals and groups starting to come together to fight for the UK’s continued membership of the EU. It is a fight we must win.

Professor A C Grayling

Master of New College of the Humanities