I joined the march for a so-called People’s Vote through Central London yesterday as both participating citizen and journalist observer. When it was over, I made my way back home to E5 a little stronger in my growing belief that although a second referendum has its attractions, the ideal solution to the poisonous quagmire Brexit is simply to junk it immediately.
An abuse of democracy? A betrayal of the 17.4 million who voted Leave? Look at it this way. The referendum took place nearly three years ago, and was won by a narrow margin – less than two per cent – with the help of dirty and legally questionable campaigning. Since then, the electorate has changed and public opinion has shifted. The referendum was advisory and the United Kingdom government can cancel it.
Most important of all, the Brexit saga is tearing the UK to bits. That is terrible and frightening, especially as formal withdrawal from the EU would be only the beginning of years of further destructive wrangling. Brexit fatigue is already taking a ruinous toll in parliament and everywhere else. There is a mood in the country for getting this business over with. I sympathise. We should free ourselves right away from a situation created by David Cameron, worsened by Theresa May and exploited by Jeremy Corbyn before it gets any worse. Parliament should revoke Article 50, bin Brexit for good and get on with trying to deal with the national fractures and failings the referendum has so unhappily exposed.
London’s MPs could play a big part in this, starting with next week’s series of votes on, well, whatever they exactly they will be able to vote on. Already, a cross-party group of MPs from various parts of the country is looking into how it can cancel Brexit amid concerns that May will fall in with her party’s “no deal” wing at the eleventh hour if her own deal is rejected yet again. London MPs of every political party and none should do whatever is in their power to thwart such an outcome and to impede Brexit in whatever ways they can. But whether they succeed or fail in those goals, their work on rescuing the UK from isolationism, division and decline will have only just begun.
A part of the Leave vote was a subliminal rejection of various versions of “London” that have attracted increasing dislike and resentment in recent years: the London of a cloth-eared Westminster and Whitehall village; the London of greedy bankers who crashed the economy and got away with it; the London of street crime and terror attacks and “too many” immigrants; the “rich London” that “gets everything” while other regions go short. All of these are populist misconceptions, but they are powerful and they are symptoms of a relationship between the capital and the rest of the UK’s regions and nations that is genuinely problematic and needs to be bravely and generously addressed.
This is as much a job for London MPs as it is for its Mayor, who, to his credit, has made a start on the task of building better relationships with counterpart “metro mayors” and others leaders of other big UK cities. Not every London MP is a Remainer and they vary widely in ideological disposition, including within parties. But maybe there is bigger role to be played by the all party parliamentary group for London in forging productive ties with MPs and groupings representing other parts of the UK.
Common ground, already identified, in recognising that London-bashing is counter productive, that public investment is not a zero sum game, and that London would benefit from other cities and regions thriving, should be firmly occupied and built on. A shared theme of much fuller and far bolder devolution of powers and resources to cities, regions and local authorities should be taken up, forming a cross-party platform which London MPs can enthusiastically occupy alongside fellow parliamentarians from up and down the land and fellow politicians working in different layers of government.
One of the gloomiest and most regressive things about the programmes of the UK’s two largest national parties has been their feeble kow-towing to anti-London feeling and their failure to strongly embrace and champion the de-centralisation of government. Brexit was sold on a promise of taking back control, yet we see every day that the other EU nations already have more control over the UK’s destiny they did before and, meanwhile, the UK government’s capacity to govern the UK is being chronically reduced by the Brexit shambles and will be for a long while to come.
Yes, cancelling Brexit would cause a backlash and some of it could be ugly. But it has already legitimised plenty of ugliness, with the prospect of plenty more to come. This damaging debacle should be stopped as swiftly and decisively as possible and a process of national listening, healing and democratic invigoration begun. By-passing their backward, moribund national leaders, London’s MPs of all parties should join with colleagues across the country and help it to Remain, recover and renew. Go on, do it. Do it now.