The text of the article written by Sir John Major for the Sunday Times, published on 13 January 2019.
We are at a seminal moment in our nation’s history. First, let me say something about the prime minister. At the referendum she voted — albeit without enthusiasm — to remain in the EU. The nation voted to leave. Yet, despite her personal preference, Mrs May has deployed every ounce of her energy to honour the result of that vote. She does not deserve the personal venom directed at her, nor the bile of fair-weather political colleagues who have turned from supportive flatterers to would-be assassins.
Our country is now in an unhappy state of mind. Far from bringing the nation together — as the prime minister hoped — the divisions unleashed during the 2016 referendum have become ever more bitter and entrenched.
Brexiteers are keen to pin the blame on others. But we are only in this sorry position because of the false pledges and undeliverable promises they made to the British people in 2016. The “leave” voters were marched up to the very top of the Hill of Expectation, and it is hardly surprising they now feel a sense of injustice at having to be marched back down again.
The easy promises made by the Brexiteers have been exposed as the fantasies they always were. All voters — be they “leave” or “remain” — feel cheated, ignored and thoroughly ground down by the whole process.
Those who led the country into this chaos have much to answer for. But, at least, we are now in a better position to judge what leaving the EU will actually mean for the United Kingdom. Even the government has admitted that — under any and every form of Brexit — every part of the UK will be worse off. Our country will also be weaker and less influential; and those in our society who have the least will suffer the deepest deprivation of all. It would be morally reprehensible to allow this to happen.
The majority of MPs know this but, astonishingly, the most diehard of the Eurosceptics still refuse to accept it. To them, the EU will always be the “enemy”, and our nation should be prepared to pay any price to leave. In human terms — as prices rise and jobs are lost — this will be a very high price indeed, and end up being paid by the very people who should not be expected to bear it.
The Labour leadership has added little or nothing to the European debate. Yet, having expressed no clear policy position whatsoever during the negotiation process, Jeremy Corbyn now proclaims that a general election is the only way forward. He speaks of his wish to “heal divisions”, while at the same time using language that can only foster further feelings of social disquiet.
In any event, what would a general election solve at this particular time? As things stand, the Conservative and Labour leaders would both be campaigning for Brexit. So the country would have to endure yet another election campaign — which would no doubt prove even more divisive than the last — before parliament ends up exactly where it started. How would that, by any stretch, serve the national interest?
Crucial decisions have to be made now, not later. But there is no consensus on what they should be. Any government should think very carefully before forcing through a vote that has few real supporters within parliament, widespread opposition from without, and one that would leave the country vulnerable to decisions made by others. The Labour Party has had two years to propose a credible alternative. As we move into the 11th hour, it still has nothing more to offer than political games. The people of this country deserve so much better than this.
We must avoid doing more harm than has already been done. Divisions can only be healed if common ground is sought. And common ground is, now, emerging. One majority view — from parliament, business, trade unions and electors — is that it would be deeply harmful for the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal. I agree. The cost of a no-deal Brexit to our national wellbeing would be heavy and long-lasting. The benefits are close to zero. Every single household — rich or poor — would be worse off for many years to come. Jumping off a cliff has never had a happy ending.
Shrill Brexiteer voices continue to tell us that it would be “disrespectful” to the British people if we do not leave the EU on March 29; that it would be a “betrayal” to propose another referendum. What nonsense they speak — yet another pithy slogan from those who fear that the victory they obtained two years ago, by such dubious tactics, is slipping from their grasp. How can asking the people to make a decision based on facts ever be a betrayal of democracy? Facts that, as each month passes, further disprove the fantasies that were once so shamefully peddled.
Moreover, it must never be forgotten that 63% of those eligible to vote during the referendum either voted to stay or did not vote at all; 37% of the voting public hardly constitutes the overwhelming “will of the people” they speak of: yet another facile soundbite.
The real betrayal and disrespect to the British people is not the prospect of a second referendum — this time definitive and binding — but the promise of leading them to an economic and social utopia that never has, never will and never could exist. During the last referendum, deception was the leave campaign’s weapon of choice: “Win by any means — fair or foul.” And how foul it has been.
Amid the overall confusion, we are now invited to explore alternative options. Some now seek a “Norway” deal, others a “Canada” deal, or even an “Efta” deal — not one of which is better than the status quo.
At the same time, we are told that there are “only two options on the table”: the prime minister’s deal or no deal. But this is yet further obfuscation. There is a third deal on the table, which is the one we currently have. Why would any country — least of all our own great country — accept a “least bad” option, when a far better one is already in play?
In the midst of chaos, it is sensible to pause and think. To review all possible options and seek a majority consensus.
Article 50 was triggered — and the deadline of March 29, 2019 was set — before we knew what we wished to do. Two years later, we still have no agreement on that.
The only sensible course now is for the government to revoke article 50 and suspend any decision on departure. This may be politically uncomfortable, but any short-term political disruption pales into insignificance when compared with the long-term damage that could be wreaked on our country as a whole.
The choice between a “bad deal” and “no deal” was never one that our country should have had to accept. A mature democracy should be prepared to remain with the status quo until we reach as much of a national consensus as possible. No true democracy should deny a considered choice to its people.
But we may need a new process to enable this, and that process needs to go far beyond self-interested party politics.
One option would be a consultative process — led by parliament — to report on the intricacies of our future relationship, which is far more complex than a simple “yes” or “no” about our membership of the EU. Properly organised, this could be completed well within the timescale of a transitional pause.
I accept that many “leavers” will be frustrated by this delay, and suspicious of it. But only a minority of the voting population voted to leave. Unless we seek a more consensual policy, 100% of our present and future population may have to live with the bitter consequences of a bad deal.
I would therefore suggest that, while there remains no consensus in parliament about how best to proceed, the government should, without delay:
● Ask parliament to rescind the European Union (Withdrawal) Act;
● Withdraw the article 50 notification;
● Establish a national consultation process;
● Agree “headline” points on our future relationship with the EU and put that outcome to a binding referendum, with the option of maintaining the status quo. The binding nature of this should be enforced by the confirmation from each party leader that the outcome of this further referendum would be definitive. Only this will provide voters with the facts and reassurance they need to reach a final decision on where best our country’s future — and their own personal future — lies.
The ramifications of the 2016 referendum have led us into a territory way beyond party politics, tribal loyalties and personal ambition.
Across the UK, there are many people who feel unsettled: uncertain and worried about their jobs, about debt, about how they will house their families — and how they will feed them. They are fearful of what the future holds. The dominance of Brexit in our political debate has done nothing to alleviate that fear, and much to fuel it.
The intolerance, belligerence, vituperative language, threatening conduct that this debate has spawned; the families, friends, neighbours and communities that have been fractured — sometimes beyond repair — due to opposing political views, has not only been an unedifying spectacle, but also profoundly un-British. It is not who we are as a nation.
One of the most hackneyed mantras of the leave campaign was that our sovereign parliament should “take back control”. Another absurd slogan, of course, for she has never lost it.
But now is the time for the Mother of Parliaments to exert all the power and control within her means — before it’s too late.
Only then can the healing process begin, and our country be put back on track to the long-term prosperity that promotes social cohesion and national unity.