Second referendum won’t heal deep divisions

Date: Monday 24th December 2018

Sir, I feel I owe a response to a number of recent letters which have engaged with me on Brexit. Alan Marsden, Adrian Hill and Tom Varley all apparently favour a second referendum.

There are four reasons why I feel this would be a bad idea. First, it would be breaking a contract between the public and the state. All MPs, all parties and the Government itself promised to respect the result of the referendum, whatever the result.

Second, there is still no evidence that the majority of the British people actually want a referendum to rejoin the EU. (Those opinion polls that have been conducted include people who only want a choice between the Prime Minister’s deal and no deal).

Third, referenda are inherently unpredictable and Remainers in particular should be aware that they run a significant risk of losing the vote and ending up with a no-deal Brexit, which would be significantly worse than the deal on the table.

Fourth, asking people again about Brexit would resolve nothing. We don’t need a second referendum to tell us that Britain is deeply divided over this issue — or to tell us that whatever the result almost half the population would bitterly disagree, and that even those who agree on principles would disagree on details. We can see that in our own families. You can’t overcome these divisions through a second or even a third referendum.

Instead, the Government and Parliament needs to get away from these black and white debates and begin focusing on the details of a pragmatic, moderate Brexit deal.

The PM’s deal acknowledges the result of the referendum by leaving the political institutions of the EU (and any talk of ever closer union), and it ends free movement of people. But it also acknowledges the concerns of Remain voters by remaining closely linked economically and diplomatically to Europe. It is not just a deal that seeks to heal divisions in British society, it is also a good strategic move for Britain.

This withdrawal agreement allows us a measured, safe transition in which to think through the challenges of trade, immigration and foreign policy at a time when the EU itself is changing very fast. As we continue to negotiate the political agreement, we could ultimately decide to co-operate with Norway, Switzerland or other states that want to be part of market arrangements but not part of the inner political circle of Germany and France — or we could decide to reach out to emerging markets instead. The choice would be ours.

But the alternatives — no deal or no Brexit — do nothing to resolve the fundamental issues that have compromised our relationship with the EU in the past. They seem neat and tidy, but they would only deepen the divisions in British society, and remove our ability to engage flexibly and sensitively with a changing Europe and a changing world. Yours etc,

RORY STEWART

(MP for Penrith and the Border)

By email