Britain should set up a citizens’ assembly – as Ireland did to consider abortion – to come up with an alternative Brexit, according to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Mr Brown – whose intervention was more nuanced than simply suggesting Britain should abandon Brexit because of the terrible mess it has got itself in pleasing neither those who wish to leave nor those who wish to stay – said voters here might be asked to re-join or stay out.
His entry into the debate means that he joins former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major in criticising the government – and Opposition’s – handling of the most important constitutional issue for generations.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron – who called the Referendum to pacify Eurosceptics in his divided party and then fled Downing Street and politics when he lost – remains conspicuously silent on the issue.
Mr Brown singled out Ireland’s citizens’ assembly in which the hugely divisive issue of abortion was examined in expert detail and Irish people were informed of all aspects of how the law might be changed before being asked to vote in a referendum as a model example of how best to proceed.
In a rare public intervention and a major speech Mr Brown – who with Tony Blair led Labour in government from 1997 to 2010, then of those years as Chancellor of the Ex-chequer – said Cameron’s referendum had divided the country.
“We have to deal with the very real concerns raised in the referendum and since by the British people and not yet answered.
“We cannot reunite a divided country without talking to the country, getting outside the Westminster bubble, entering a dialogue with the regions and nations and engaging the people in an open, outward-looking conversation about our future in a more systematic and constructive way than is happening right now,” he said.
He called for a Royal Commission not of ‘the great and the good’ that would take years and years but more of a citizens’ assembly.
“I propose a new kind of royal commission – not the usual royal commission of the great and good to ‘take minutes and spend years’ but what I call a royal commission of the people, a platform that is designed to enable, encourage engage and empower voices and concerns over the way ahead.
“It would enable us to hear views and opinions in all regions and nations and in all sectors and involving all stakeholders in industry.
“It would encourage a national conversation by organising deliberative hearings around the country that listen to the concerns of the public about the causes and consequences of Brexit and their aspirations for the future.
“It would engage us in a dialogue about the difficult issues from migration to sovereignty and our long-term economic future, empowering all voices to be heard,” said the former Premier.
It was not clear whether Mr Brown meant this to happen after Brexit on 29 March with a view to considering rejoining or if he envisaged suspending Article 50 for the deliberations to take place.
But, he did say, there is a “strong chance” of the UK rejoining the EU and if he were Prime Minister he would certainly be talking to the EU about “keeping the door open”.
“If Britain has to leave the European Union, I still believe there is a strong chance of coming back.
“I think the one thing we’ve got to tell, voices from Britain to our friends in Europe, is that this is not over, the door should be kept open, lines of communication should be kept open.
“I don’t want to sound defeatist by saying that we are going to lose, because I’m not saying that but I am saying if … I believe that one of the issues would be what terms the Euro-pean Union would be prepared to offer [if the UK wanted to rejoin], and I think that’s got to be thought through.
“If I was in a position of authority I would be talking to the European Union exactly about what understanding we could have on these kinds of issues.
“I have always said that I think there will be a second referendum. I believe that in the end the situation will have been seen to have changed since 2016 and that the people should in the end have the final say.
“I also believe that we have got to find a far better way of listening and hearing the voices of people,” said the former chancellor and Prime Minister.
The British government had ample scope under existing freedom of movement rules to address people’s fears about competition for jobs and benefits, he said, but never used them unlike other European countries.
“You could be still part of the single market and register jobs when they become vacant at local job centres, the Swiss require jobs in high unemployment areas to be registered at job centres, so in effect local people have the first option of getting those jobs.
“When someone comes to the country in Germany, they are required to register as being there. “When someone doesn’t get a job after nine months in Belgium, you are required to leave.
“When someone is in France and they are subject to the laws in France, you cannot be paid lower wages simply because the wages in the country you are coming from are lower. You’ve got to be paid French wages.
“Now, all these things could change the attitude that people have in this country to what they believe was a situation that was not properly controlled but the government has not put these forward – they could still do so.”
Even if the UK keeps to its original Article 50 timetable and leaves the EU at the end of March it will have not decided its future relationship with Europe, he said.
“Normally in a negotiation, you set your long-term objectives and work out how to achieve them.
“Whatever the deal is and -with or without a deal – the long-term questions about Britain’s future will remain unanswered and unresolved.
“Even with a deal our end-point, Canada or Norway, is unresolved. Our long-term relationship to the Customs Union is unresolved, our long-term relationship to the Single Market is unresolved – and the scope to sign trade deals is unresolved.
“We will have, at best, a short-term fix in the absence of an agreed end-point – a short-term fix because the Cabinet cannot agree on an end-point.
He unfavourably compared Prime Minister Theresa May, her Cabinet and the Conservative Party to the Neville Chamberlain government before the Second World War and used Winston Churchill’s withering description of it: the government was “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”
MPs should have the right to vote to instruct the government to return to Brussels to try for a better Brexit deal.
“If the next two years of negotiation as dominated and driven by internal Conservative politics as the past two years, we will become an even more divided country – more divided than in the ’70s during the three-day week, than in the `805 during the miners’ strike and in the early ‘905 because of poll tax.”
“We have to look back to the angry debates on the Corn Laws in the 1840s and on Ireland in the 1880s – before the advent of a full democracy. The government must change course or leave both sides feeling betrayed, he said:
“Millions of young people who want to remain, feeling betrayed that their future is being mortgaged by an older generation.
“Remain voters feeling betrayed because the European referendum was won, in their view, on the basis of dishonest propaganda and in the view of the Electoral Commission by corrupt electoral practises.”
Leave voters would also feel betrayed because the promises made to them cannot possibly be fulfilled, he said Mr Brown also said he believes the Scottish government should be able to sign deals with the EU on devolved matters: “I don’t see why the Scottish parliament shouldn’t be able to sign a treaty with the European matter on a devolved matter, not on non-devolved matters but on devolved matters.
“I don’t see why even if we’re outside the European Union that would be prevented. “We’re an internationalist country, we’re outward-looking because we’re a trading [country], the channel is not a moat, it’s a highway to the world. And these are the views we’ve got to get across,” he said.