The non-binary answer to Brexit

The problem with Brexit has always been that the people of Britain were presented with a binary choice. The depth of thinking seemed to go no further than the second line of that Clash song.

The consequences we’re now facing were always inevitable. What does leaving mean? ‘Brexit means Brexit’ we were told, which is a purile circular argument. If Brexit means Brexit, what does the second Brexit in that sentence mean?

We should never had been given such a binary choice. We needed to know what we were voting for.

In 2015 New Zealand had a dilemma, in some ways similar to Brexit, except they wanted to leave Britain. More specifically, they wanted the Union Jack off the top left corner of their flag. Like Brexit, they had no idea what the alternative was. If they agreed to change the flag, would they end up with a new flag that nobody liked.

Rather sensible, they held a two stage referendum. First, a working group shortlisted a few designs. Then the first referendum was held to determine, if there was to be a change, which flag was preferred. Then, a separate referendum asking, ‘now we know what we’ll change to, should we change flags?’ 57% of the people voted to stick with the existing flag. A smart approach because people were voting on a known outcome.

Sadly, the Brexit referendum didn’t apply the same logic.

In a sensible world, where politicians and their advisers had more than a little nous, and a focus beyond political survival, we would have dealt with the Brexit conundrum in the same way as the Kiwis.

We would have negotiated with the EU before the vote. From the European side, they’d know that the outcome would determine the extent of our future cooperation, with the threat of a no-deal withdrawal if they didn’t give some ground. With a final deal in place then, and only then, we could hold a two-stage referendum.

But it needn’t have been two separate trips to the polling booth – just two questions on the one paper:

  1. If Britain is to leave the EU, on which basis should it leave?
    • Under the terms agreed by the government
    • With no EU deal, defaulting to WTO regulations


  1. Should Britain leave the EU?
    • Yes
    • No

If the majority vote YES to question 2, then the majority from question 1 applies. If the majority vote NO to question 2, then article 50 is rescinded.

The same two questions could be asked now, when we eventually realise that another referendum is the only way out of the current mess. Let’s go back and ask the questions we should have asked in the first place.

We should be wary of following another antipodean example – how Australia voted on becoming a republic. There the question was, ‘if we cease to be a constitutional monarchy what form of republic should we have?’ A hand-picked group of representatives held a Constitutional Convention.  The big question for them was,’if Australia become a republic who should choose the President, the public or Parliament?’ The people did not like the idea of Parliament making the decision, so 55% voted against it. Australia remained a constitutional monarchy – if the Convention had chosen the other model it’s very likely the vote would have swung the other way. They voted against a republic because they were presented with a bad deal.

We have followed the same course. A small section of the government has chosen the model and very few people seem to like it. Like the Australians, politicians voting next week are being presented with a Hobson’s Choice: ‘vote for something people are against or vote for something far worse’.

Having got into this inevitable mess there’s no choice but to return to the people, with a referendum that mirrors the New Zealand approach: choose what form of Brexit then ask if we still want to go ahead with it.

If the vote is delayed till summer, the EU can help influence the outcome. They could offer some of the concessions that we sought before the vote. In fact, I can’t believe all of Europe wouldn’t benefit from a clear understanding that freedom of movement should be restricted to the movement of labour. In other words, you can move countries for work, or on a self-funded basis, but you can’t access welfare. Thing went wrong with Maastricht and it’s not just Britain that would want to revisit it. I am sure most Europeans would like to revisit the concept of Freedom of Movement of People can be watered down, so it’s not so incendiary.

So, isn’t this the best way forward: delay Article 50 then hold another vote.  Present that two-stage referendum to the people in the summer of 2019. In the meantime, Theresa May can work on expanding the 27 pages of what happens after we leave to a more thorough, legally binding, ongoing plan.

It means people are voting on a known outcome and Europe has an interest in playing a part. They would have a chance to question their modus operandi, asking themselves why Britain wanted to leave and what they could change to encourage more to stay.

If we leave, so be it. If we stay, perhaps we’ll stay in an improved EU.

Is there any other option?

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