It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but there is a context in which it is worth asking. That context is Brexit, writes Geoff Kitney.
When a narrow majority of Britons voted in June, 2016, to leave the European Union, Donald Trump was a candidate for the US Presidency whom few expected would win.
What is the link between the two?
One of the important arguments in favour of leaving the EU was that, freed of the shackles of its European Union membership, the UK would be able to do bespoke trade deals with whomever it chose. At the top of that list – by a big margin – was a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the UK and the US.
It was at the top of the list because, as a go-it-alone trading nation, and with the United States still the world’s most powerful and dynamic economy, a US-UK free trade agreement was the foundation stone on which the Brexit dream of Britain as a prosperous, global free trade leader had to be built. Walking away from the European single market was not going to be a problem because it would be replaced by an even bigger trading partner, the US.
Never mind that then President Barack Obama warned that the UK would be at the back of the queue for a trade deal and that the European Union was at the front. Brexiters knew that Obama would soon be gone and that, post both the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, it would be a completely new ball game.
And it is.
But it’s a very rough game in which the big guy – the US under president Trump – is throwing out all the rules and creating potentially the most serious upheaval in the global trading system since the 1930s. Trump has created chaos and it is impossible to know from one day to the next what his next move will be.
But the idea that the traditional deep ties between Britain and America – forged in blood in two world wars – will guarantee that the UK gets a gold plated Free Trade Agreement with the US is little more than wishful thinking.
Even as an EU member the UK has a healthy trade surplus with the US and is vulnerable to President Trump’s America First policy.
Among the many things that have changed in the calculations made ahead of the Brexit vote about what opportunities would be open to Britain, once free of its membership of the EU, the prospects of a US-UK Free Trade Agreement is one of the most important.
Of course, it is doubtful that, when they went to vote on June 23, 2016, many of those who voted to leave the EU would have been thinking about FTAs. Barack Obama’s intervention in the campaign and his warning that the UK would go to the back of the queue was arguably only significant to the extent that it was seen as outside interference. If anything, it probably helped the Brexit cause.
For a decision which was going to have momentous consequences for the future of the UK, it was beyond reckless for the Cameron government to ask the people to make such a poorly informed choice.
But it can be seen in hindsight that this was an issue which deserved much greater attention than it got in the Brexit campaign. This goes to a critical point: the simple “yes or no” question on which British voters were asked to decide their country’s future was absurdly inappropriate.
Few who voted on that day could have been expected to have made anything but a seat-of-the-pants choice between yes and no. For a decision which was going to have momentous consequences for the future of the UK, it was beyond reckless for the Cameron government to ask the people to make such a poorly informed choice.
This is not to say that the decision was wrong. But it is to say that the chances that it would be wrong were greatly increased by the way it was conducted.
The deep complexities that the decision to leave the EU has revealed subsequent to the vote should have been known and deeply debated before the vote.
And this goes to a fundamental question as the deadline for finalising the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU rapidly approaches – should there be a second referendum?
For democracy’s sake, voters must be able to make a final decision based on having all the cards on the table which patently was not the case in June 2016.
The calls for a second referendum are growing louder as Brexit day looms closer.
There is ample evidence to suggest that a significant cohort of voters – and people who chose not to vote in June, 2016 – would make a different choice at a second referendum.
A second vote would certainly be better informed than the first.
Those advocating a second referendum argue that it is a democratic necessity. They argue that ploughing on regardless of the risk that Brexit might prove to be catastrophic for Britain would not only be madness but deeply undemocratic. For democracy’s sake, voters must be able to make a final decision based on having all the cards on the table which patently was not the case in June 2016.
But the notion of a second vote is deeply divisive.
Brexiteers even talk of “treason” at the mere suggestion that the issue should be sent back to the voters for a second opinion. They argue that the choice in 2016 was clear and it was a simple choice for a future as a sovereign nation, independent of the European Union.
They argue that the vote was a rejection of the EU and its fundamentally undemocratic nature.
This reveals starkly what Brexit was really all about.
It was a choice between a deeply philosophical view of independence on the one hand and a pragmatic view of the pros and cons of shared sovereignty. These are fundamentally irreconcilable positions, which is why the Brexit divide is impossible to bridge. This divide continues to split the body politic, as it always has in the case of the Conservative Party. Trying to overcome this divide in his own party was the reason David Cameron called the referendum in the first place, a foolish choice because that divide was never going to be bridgeable.
A second referendum would not close this divide either. It would probably deepen it.
But with the invidious choices that the May Government is now struggling to make – and with the monumental consequences that could result from the choice it makes – there is an arguable case that a final decision should go back to the people.
But as an outsider looking in and seeing one hell of a mess, I would say to the UK: “Good luck with that!”
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