17 February 2017

Tony Blair’s denial won’t change the referendum result


It must have been a slow news day. Personally, though I’m not saying the stuff about woolly mammoths being resurrected within two years was the coolest thing ever, I do think it was in the top one. I’d have been happy with wall-to-wall news on that this morning.

Instead, we had live coverage of a speech by some bloke called Blair, who older readers might remember was a reasonably big deal a couple of decades ago.

He was apparently explaining to us why he hadn’t stopped believing that the UK shouldn’t leave the EU.

I haven’t yet worked out whether this was more profound than Donald Trump’s live press conference last night, where he offered the revelation that – and trust on him this; he had a special briefing from top, top experts and it was really convincing – a nuclear holocaust would be “like no other”.

I was quite a fan of Tony Blair in his day. I even voted Labour in 1997. I continue, by and large, to side with him over Iraq. And by the standards of today’s Labour politicians, he’s clearly a giant, even though (fairly or unfairly) he’s now extraordinarily unpopular among voters.

There’s obviously no reason Tony Blair shouldn’t share his opinion on this question any more than any other, regardless of how irrelevant it is or how implausible his notion that the British public will “rise up” when they see the Brexit deal we get with the EU and turn against the whole idea.

It’s less obvious why he gets so much airtime. It’s been 10 years since he was prime minister. Did James Callaghan give speeches in 1989? If there had been 24-hour news then, would we have expected a whole morning to be devoted to what he said?

Folk say “Nothing is every ultimately settled in a democracy”. And of course at some level that is true, but we should be careful about what it means.

There was a referendum. I’m not a fan of them as a means of policy-making, but it was a Conservative manifesto promise to have one, and Parliament voted it through, so we did that and folk voted to leave the EU. So now we must leave.

Later on, after we’ve left, there’s no reason we can’t decide we want to apply to rejoin the EU (assuming it’s still around, and acknowledging that they might not want us back). Just as if we’d decided to remain, we might have had another referendum on leaving later, while remaining in the meantime.

But we must now leave. That’s the whole point of having had a referendum on whether we should leave.

I understand that Blair is disappointed, and hasn’t started believing we should leave the EU. Why should he?

But some battles are lost, rightly or wrongly, and although one can come back to them one day, we have to learn to carry on in the meantime.

Are there any other lost causes which a Tony Blair speech on might justify wall-to-wall media coverage? Perhaps we could have a whole series of them? Next week: “The case for Esperanto”, followed by “Rethinking the Raj”, “The trench – tomorrow’s military tactic” and “The deep oceans are our dumpyard”.

The debate about whether we should leave the EU is over. It’s over. It’s over, over, over. For most of the past eight months, people who haven’t accepted that have frequently distracted and derailed the serious debate on what we should do next.

Once Article 50 is finally triggered, can we please move on from this worthless, empty nonsense and focus properly on the questions of tomorrow, leaving yesterday’s failed arguments behind?

Andrew Lilico is an economist and political writer