First let’s ponder some numbers: more than one million people on the streets of London, the biggest demonstration in support of the European Union in any country, in any period, ever. Nearly five million signing a petition asking Parliament to revoke Article 50. A YouGov opinion poll recording, for the first time, more than 60 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU.
Meanwhile Nigel Farage addresses 150 people in a pub car park, and Leave marchers marching to London from the North call it a day at, err, Sheffield.
The ever sceptical will probably dismiss these numbers as mere ‘optics’. But it is impossible to deny that opinion has shifted and the mood changed. The Leave cause is floundering while the Remain cause has wind in its sails having been offered a possible way forward courtesy of President Tusk and the European Council.
What an irony that it is the allegedly undemocratic European Union that has thrown a lifebelt to the United Kingdom’s stuttering democracy. Meanwhile Prime Minister Theresa May languishes in the ante-room of political oblivion.
The last week has given us some stark contrasts.
In Brussels Mrs May dining alone in a separate room, with food being brought to her from the high table where 27 other leaders – ranging from the sad to the embarrassed to the irritated – were deciding what comfort they could offer this country. Brexit’s vision of the future balance of power and influence.
And then on Saturday in Parliament Square, Lord Heseltine, rising above his riven party, to remind the crowd of the realities of this dangerous world:
“We are here now on the right side of history in a shrinking world of global terrorism, international tax avoidance, millisecond communications, giant corporations, superpowers, mass migration, climate change and a host of other threats. Our duty is to build on our achievements and maintain our access to the corridors of world power – to keep our place at the centre of stages of the world.”
In what topsy-turvy world does the Brexit imagination conceive that turning our back on the ‘central stages of the world’ is the way to the ‘global Britain’ of the ERG’s imagination.
But let us not forget that Michael Heseltine’s challenge was not only to the government but to all parties in Parliament, not least to the most notable absentee from Saturday’s platform, Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, otherwise engaged that momentous day campaigning in local elections in Cumbria.
Government and opposition have urgent decisions to take. The EU has given this country a choice: either Parliament accepts the negotiated agreement, with all its faults, imprecision and open-endedness, in which case we will have until 22 May to dot some ‘i’s and cross some ‘t’s; or, by 12 April, we come up with a credible alternative plan that would buy us more time but also require us to take part in the European elections in May – a democratic opportunity that we should embrace.
The opening up of the longer extension to the Article 50 period is a lifeline to the UK.
The negotiated agreement is a friendless document, accepted by some on the basis that any stake in the ground is better than none. It has already been roundly defeated twice in the Commons and it is inconceivable that it could be imposed on this country without the imprimatur of another referendum. And that cannot be done by 22 May.
That leaves a Parliament up against the clock hunting for the bones of another more acceptable solution by 12 April at the very latest. Conventional wisdom this weekend believes the Norway solution, otherwise known as Common Market 2.0, is coming up fast on the rails. One of its principle advocates is Stephen Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon.
To date it has seemed that the advocates of this plan see it as a compromise – leaving the EU but staying firmly within its economic orbit, and its regulatory framework. But it is a very strange response to those who seek to ‘take back control’.
We would still be left outside the decision-making chambers. We would still have to contribute to the EU budget. We might become a favoured bystander, or even a privileged rule-taker, but we would not be a decision taker. Quite a few Norwegian politicians have never liked the situation that Norwegian electors put them in. I fancy it would prove even more irksome to British politicians and the British public.
Surprisingly, on BBC Wales’s Sunday Politics programme yesterday, Stephen Kinnock, admitted that if it did come to another referendum and he was faced with a choice between this option and Remain, he would not vote to remain. This would seem to be a perverse decision as, by that stage, his more plausible worries about a new referendum would presumably have had to be put aside. It sounded as if he would actually prefer the Leave option.
His stance exposes the more general concern that, by extension, if any alternative to Mrs May’s deal is arrived at, it might be more acceptable to the Labour Party than the current agreement. That is, that in a straight choice the leadership would recommend support for the new alternative rather than for continued membership of the EU.
Perhaps this is why at Saturday’s rally, Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, was ready support Mrs May’s agreement as long as it was subject to a confirmatory referendum – it posits a clearer choice not only for Labour supporters but also for his own leader.
On Saturday Michael Heseltine warned us against ‘the lowest common denominator of reluctant compromise’. It is natural that in a difficult polarised debate compromise is seen as a good thing. But it is not necessarily the best outcome.
It would be a black day for our democracy if such compromises were supported solely for fear of holding another referendum. In the current climate the strength of the democratic tradition needs to be asserted.
And if you regard resisting compromise as extremism, I would say this. If more than a million people of all ages and colour, young and the old, people of all parties and none, and from every corner of the kingdom are to be labelled extremists, then something has clearly gone awry with the political compass.
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