It would be divisive, it wouldn’t be pretty, but with Parliament officially at gridlock, I’m more convinced than ever that giving the people the final say on Theresa May’s deal is the only way forward.
24 hours after the referendum in June 2016, I called for a referendum on the final deal – a call that didn’t immediately meet with a groundswell of support. I am a liberal. I am used to losing elections. I have never called for one of those elections to be re-run. I am not a bad loser, I am a very good loser, I have had bags of practice.
But on 23 June 2016 we had just begun the process of departure from the EU with democracy, and it became instantly clear that we must also be democrats when it came to our eventual destination, and after Parliament’s overwhelming rejection of the Government’s deal, I’m more convinced than ever than putting the question back to the people is in the only workable way forward.
After two and a half years, the Prime Minister has given us a clear view of what leaving the EU will look like. She has earned our gratitude. But she has not earned the right to impose what is effectively a stitch up between Whitehall and Brussels upon the British people without their say.
Whatever I think about the matter, leaving the EU is of course a plausible project, but it was always going to require detailed preparation. Instead, it got a line in the 2015 Tory manifesto and a single sentence on a ballot paper.
I am a democrat, so I am of course prepared, though it saddens me, to see the UK leave the EU. But I am not prepared to rubber stamp a deal that the British people have not had the chance to express their view upon. This isn’t for five years, this is for the rest of our lifetimes. It maybe for our children and grandchildren’s lifetimes too. I will not foist it upon them without their say.
When the government’s own assessment of the cost of departure implies severe recession and large price rises, I cannot shrug and rubber stamp this deal. I grew up in Lancashire in the 80s, I saw what happens when a government chooses a path that leads to half of the kids in our class living in workless households, people losing their homes, people’s dignity trashed, their hopes trampled their children’s hopes trampled. Those memories will haunt me as long as I live. That’s why, above all else, I refused last night to vote to repeat that horror.
Referendums are an awful means of sorting out any issue, they are divisive and they are dangerous. I hate the division, the poisonous identity politics that this issue has unleashed on this great country. I apologise for any part I may have played in the spiteful, judgemental language from all sides that has become part of our vocabulary. That’s why I go out of my way to spend time soaking up the views, the anger even, of many who voted leave. It is time that we left our comfort zones, left our echo chambers, put down our megaphones and opened our ears and our minds.
That said, the only democratic, legitimate, peaceful and consensual way through this appalling mess is to give the people the final say. Let our future not be one that anyone can claim was foisted on us by politicians. Let our future be one that is owned by the British people, that was endorsed by the British people that has the legitimacy that only a final say can bring.
Tim Farron is a former leader of the Lib Dems and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale