An Open Letter to the country - our proposal
8 June 2018
Dear fellow citizens,
Today, one year on from the 2017 General Election, uncertainty is as great a threat to the UK as Brexit itself. As a country we face the prospect of this extending for years through opaque negotiations and a protracted process, with which those outside the Westminster bubble have already lost patience. Whatever side you voted for in the 2016 referendum, the overwhelming feeling in the country today is let’s get on with it.
People from all walks of life and all sectors of our economy want clarity. Our health service, home builders and farms are experiencing shortages of labour. Our industrial and service sectors are unable to plan ahead, affecting our jobs and prospects. Whether it is the car industry, pharmaceuticals, financial services, the creative industries or others, the need for certainty about our future trade arrangements is getting urgent. Every day it becomes increasingly clear the government has no plan.
The government is hanging on in the negotiations by a thread. At such a time of crisis, other voices would usually speak out and help the country change course. A few brave politicians are doing this publicly. Meanwhile, the rest stay silent or peddle tribal lines.
Our political system is only just starting to challenge the government’s approach. This is the most important national decision for decades, and the government’s ship is rudderless. On the opposition benches, Labour is dithering.
There is no clarity, no deadline and no certainty on Brexit. No debate on the facts, just manoeuvring around the process. Brexit is taking longer, costing more and dominating our politics to an extent no one envisaged. People are sick of it, and with every delay and misstep by our government, the process is delayed further.
Just under two years ago, the referendum result gave the British establishment a kick in the teeth. Brexit divided the country in two. But the dreams of the vast majority of people had been shattered years before. The tilting of the nation’s economic growth towards London, the withering of the welfare state, and the rise of mega corporations left your average Briton vulnerable, sometimes exploited and often feeling poorer than previous generations.
There remains an awkward stigma associated with the referendum vote. For many of us it’s still difficult to broach a conversation about Brexit with loved ones who voted a different way - a societal wound that has yet to heal. But beneath the surface, more and more people simply want to do what’s best for the UK and for Brexit to be dealt with as quickly as possible so we can move on as a country.
Brexit tore us apart and we need to mend. Yes, more than 17 million people voted to leave, but almost half of those who went to the polls opted to stay. Around 28% of the electorate did not vote at all, and the demographics of the vote expose how divided we are. This was primarily a generational divide. For many who lost, it seemed to pit the future against the past, as under 45s voted in similarly overwhelming proportions to stay as over 65s did to leave. At Best for Britain we believe that our current membership arrangements with Europe are the best platform from which to build a common future, and the majority of young people agree. Polling evidence highlights this demographic divide ever more widely. However, we understand and respect that many others hold a different view: they believe that a form of leaving the EU would leave us better off.
But if the present chaotic politics continues unchecked we should agree, whatever our view of Brexit, that Britain’s future is in jeopardy. There is a risk that the entire establishment sleepwalks the country over the Brexit finish line in March 2019, thinking that any small mitigation of the government’s Brexit is a measure of success. Because it will take years for the real arrangements and their effects to kick in, the British economy will just bleed out over time. Theresa May cannot unite her party; Jeremy Corbyn has not yet embraced full opposition to the Brexit project.
This great uncertainty comes at a time when there are crises within - and also outside - Europe. Putin’s cyber-attacks undermine European cohesion. Trump’s imposition of tariffs and clumsy diplomacy with nuclear powers create new instabilities. Relations with China, dependence on Russian energy and European rearmament are issues where the UK’s voice should be heard at the European table.
After March 29 2019, our option to stay in will disappear. It is only right that the people get to decide whether to forfeit our current deal after having the opportunity to compare it to the Brexit deal. It’s simple: may the best deal win.
We need a decisive answer, quickly. Brexit must not be allowed to hijack our country for a generation. We believe the Brexit process is distracting from the many reasons people voted to leave: a kick back against Westminster to wake up to the reality of life in modern Britain - an industrial wasteland in parts of our country and the loss of good jobs, a weakening health service, unaffordable housing, and rising student debt. None of these problems will solve themselves. With technological change and rising global political risk the need for new ideas to address our national problems has rarely been greater. Yet we are stuck in the Brexit cul-de-sac.
At Best for Britain we believe these problems are far harder to solve from outside the EU than within it. Keeping close to our neighbours helps, not hinders us, in addressing our challenges. But we recognise and respect that others think differently. That is why we are proposing a national conversation leading up to a people’s vote on the final Brexit terms intended to resolve our disagreements about Brexit decisively and restore certainty to our national life.
This is our six-point proposal to bring the Brexit deal home, to provide for a people’s vote and to deliver
clarity and certainty for the future of every UK citizen and resident:
1. The Prime Minister needs to lay out her proposals for leaving. She also needs to hear that delay and confusion are no longer available as a strategy. Parliament will deliver its input into the Brexit negotiations in a series of votes next week. The country needs to challenge Theresa May to come back in the autumn with a clear proposal that both parliament and the people can vote on. Her internal cabinet and party divisions can no longer be allowed to hold the country hostage.
2. The Prime Minister’s deal must be clear about our relationship with the EU, including on the customs union and single market. The government should present their proposals for:
- which sectors will or won’t enjoy frictionless trade and for how long
- safeguarding the vital importance of public services to the British economy
- maintaining integrated EU supply chains in our important manufacturing sectors such as the car industry
- the freedom of movement of people
- further changes to our EU budget contributions
- our participation, or otherwise, in EU specialised agencies and programmes we haven’t yet declared we are leaving
- both safeguarding our access to clinical trials and to vital medicines and treatments
- outlining the specialised arrangements that will govern Northern Ireland’s trade with Ireland in a manner that protects the Good Friday Agreement
- our participation in European defence technology and cyber security projects
- which specialised agencies, programmes and sectors will be allowed to come under jurisdiction of the ECJ
- what visas and other arrangements will cover sectors such as frontline NHS staffing, teaching
and social care.
Comparing the government’s position on these issues to our current arrangements will enable the British public to understand the choice in front of them – the first time a vote would take place with detail attached.
3. The Prime Minister’s deal must have the backing of the EU and the UK must still have a choice. The Prime Minister must seek and secure the support of the EU27 fellow leaders before putting her deal to parliament and the people even though the approval of their own parliaments will necessarily follow our people’s vote. If the government decides that no deal is the ‘Leave’ option it would like to put to parliament, then the vote should be between that and our current EU membership status.
4. In the autumn, parliament must vote on the deal and agree to a people’s vote. Government and parliament should introduce a people’s vote to take place before the end of the negotiating period. In addition to parliament’s vote on the deal, citizens would then have the right to decide between the government’s deal and our current EU terms. The people’s vote needs to take place within the current negotiating period, before the end of March 2019 in order that the government would have the chance to withdraw from the Brexit process before March 29 2019. The EU should signal it would be flexible to accommodate the outcome of a people’s vote. If the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill or another parliamentary vote were to precipitate an election, all major parties should commit to putting the Brexit deal to the people in their manifestos.
5. In 2019, a different kind of people’s vote campaign must learn from the mistakes of 2016. Both sides of a people’s vote campaign must respect voters – and be subject to much more stringent policing of campaign rules - in a way that was absent in the 2016 vote. No Project Fear, no false claims on the side of buses. No lack of policing of digital campaigning. Rather an urgent national enquiry into the trade-offs and pros and cons of a deal that will decisively shape our national future. Campaigners on both sides must make their case around a real vision of our future, in or out of the EU. This would be a national conversation held in village halls, market stalls and school gyms, with debates and citizens’ assemblies, not just chatter on the political shows that feed Westminster gossip. Real facts should be presented to voters about the government’s deal compared to the existing deal we have as EU members. The decision to hold a people’s vote means everyone, whatever their view, can have a fair say on the final terms – their voice can be heard.
6. A people’s vote must be held before March 29 2019 to decide our country’s future. Whatever doubts many harbour about referenda, and particularly another vote on Brexit, the vote in 2016 triggered the Brexit negotiating process, so the people must now have the final say two years later. The vote will decide whether the terms negotiated by the government are better than those we already have. In the opinion research we, and others, have done among those who were neither hard core remainers or leavers, the persistent complaint has been that we have not yet been told what we were voting for. The Prime Minister must tell us. Then she must put her deal to the people for their final say on the biggest issue for generations.
What we want is a vote for the people by the people on what leaving the EU will actually mean. To call for such a vote is not idealistic. Our ask today is for people to support this plan as a clear choice with detail attached, with a timeline that allows our country to look before we leap, and if we want to, take a different path.
This path is not without risk – a growing majority of people now want to stay in the EU, but it’s not yet decisive. The greater risk to our country is the continued uncertainty undermining our society and economy at home, and our political standing abroad. A people’s vote need not be the fractious, painful, and dishonest experience it was two years ago. The recent case study of Ireland shows how an emotive debate with radically differing views, also along generational lines, can be successful and delicately handled, even in the full throttle of a campaign period.
Through a series of national conversation events we will unite people in debate, in telling the human experiences behind the dry policy choices on the table, and in discussion with each other. By forging a link between the people and the MPs who represent them, we will bridge the chasm that has for too long existed between the rulers and the ruled in the UK – particularly in the poorest areas. By telling it straight we will ensure that people can make up their own minds on what they want for Britain.
As the deadline for the final decision approaches, the public’s opinion is shifting in favour of having their first real say on the facts of what Brexit will actually mean. This decision is too important to leave to the politicians alone. For all our sakes, closure is needed, and so we appeal to those on all sides of the argument to join us in promoting this way forward to get us Brexit clarity as soon as possible. We must end the chaos of Brexit and focus minds on bridging the divide in our country and repairing our society.
Handled carefully, a people’s vote can help bring us back together. It’s time to trust the will of the people with the terms of Brexit.
Mark Malloch Brown, Chairman
Eloise Todd, CEO
On behalf of Best for Britain