Brexiters have a long record of preferring personal attacks to policy debate. So let’s play along, for a moment. Who should be taken more seriously? A winner of three general elections who served as Britain’s prime minister for a decade? Or the failed Tory leader and failed work and pensions minister who is also a serial abuser of the judiciary?
It is no contest: Though he is certainly a tarnished figure, Tony Blair is still far more worth listening to on anything to do with politics or public policy than is Iain Duncan Smith, who ritualistically condemned Blair’s speech for the Open Britain lobby group on February 17th as “arrogant and undemocratic”.
Duncan Smith appears to take the same contemptuous, arrogant approach to democracy previously associated with Hamas: one man, one vote, one time, regardless of what happens.
For what Blair said was mere common sense. He said plainly that he accepted the will of the people, as expressed in the referendum. But, he argued quite reasonably:
“the people voted without knowledge of the terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so.”
Naturally, the vote last June could not have been a judgment on the terms of Brexit, for those terms have not yet been determined. The vote expressed a narrow preference to leave the European Union. That is of course important. But it does not preclude public scrutiny and democratic debate about Brexit’s terms.
The terms of Brexit – Britain’s trading arrangements with its biggest export market, the laws governing its commerce, the regulatory arrangements for food or medicines or finance, the controls placed on immigration, the rights of British citizens to live, work and travel in Europe, among many other things – will be the single biggest determinant of public policy and the life of British voters during the next decade.
So how can Duncan Smith, or any self-respecting politician, really look at themselves in the mirror and say that British voters should never have any say over whether they approve or disapprove of those terms? This is not just an issue for the 48% who voted Remain (a far larger share of the electorate than has ever voted for the Conservative Party), but for every UK citizen.
The part of Blair’s proposition to which some may reasonably object is his declaration that “our”, ie Open Britain’s, mission should be to persuade people to change their mind. Such a mission is merely standard political fare. But by expressing it in that way, he was being a tad contradictory. Having pointed out that it is wrong to say that British voters chose Brexit regardless of the terms, he is nevertheless arguing that he, and Open Britain, should seek to persuade them to change their minds, also regardless of the terms.
That is somewhat guileless. But he, like his former colleague Lord Mandelson who is the organizing force behind Open Britain, is a conviction politician. He believes that Britain should be a member of the European Union and is not afraid to say so.
In doing so, he characterized the plans declared by Theresa May’s government as being not “hard Brexit” but “Brexit at any cost”, which showed that the great sloganeer has not lost his touch. Hard Brexit can sound resolute and principled. Brexit at any cost sounds foolhardy.
Blair is right to argue that it is. That said, for the time being, with the negotiations not even begun, working to try to persuade the government to reduce the cost would be a more constructive and currently more credible approach.
Yet his basic proposition is correct. The British people have a right to a say over whether the terms set for the biggest shift in public policy for half a century are acceptable. The only legitimate debate is over when and in what form this should occur.
Boris Johnson, perhaps because Blair skewered so neatly the foreign secretary’s hypocrisy over British membership of the single market, has attacked Blair’s speech as “bare-faced effrontery”. Well, at least it beats bare-faced lies.
Edited by Geert Linnebank