Gordon Brown at the LSE in 2014. Photo: copyright LSE.

The Trillion Pound Question: extending Article 50

Decades from now a new generation will look back with stunned disbelief at the chaos that has unfolded with Brexit.

A day away from our most important Parliamentary votes and with only around 400 hours to go until Brexit, the logic of extending Article 50 is now inescapable if we are to avoid an economic cliff-edge on March 29 and prevent an impending national political disaster.

As the Avvaz petition signed in only a day or two by more than 55,000 people illustrates, more and more members of the general public and more and more businesses, trade unions and community leaders–including the former Prime Minister, John Major–are pleading with Parliament to vote for the extension of Article 50 on Thursday.

It is hardly surprising because, disturbingly, jobs are already being lost and money is leaving the country. We have to take seriously one report today that 275 firms – banks, asset managers and insurers – have already moved nearly £1 trillion of their assets out of the UK to other European countries. Sadly this capital flight is the shape of things to come–only a pre-Brexit foretaste of the jobs that will be lost, the businesses transferred and the investments cut.

And despite being utterly fed up with the never ending rows over Brexit, a clear majority of the public reject no deal, the May deal or even a customs union or Norway style deal.

Parliament has, to my regret, proved incapable of resolving Brexit, causing a mounting distrust between Parliament and the people, and entrenching the bitterness that is dividing us as a country. I believe there is now no exit deal that MPs could agree in the next few days that will be acceptable to the country.

In fact, more favour an extension of the negotiating period than favour any of the deals on offer. And there are very good reasons why: our country is being ill-served by an ill-thought-out Brexit that is leaving not just the country desperately ill at ease, but the economy drastically ill-prepared.

So ill-prepared is the economy that if we go ahead on March 29 there is not only business uncertainty, but public confusion–and yet nothing has been solved. There is still no Cabinet agreement on our final destination–whether it is to be similar to Canada’s deal with the EU, or like Switzerland’s or like Norway’s or on WTO terms. As each day passes, reuniting an ever more divided country becomes ever more difficult.

We are so ill-prepared politically that it is practically impossible to pass six Acts of Parliament and 600 statutory instruments by March 29 and in time for Europe to agree the final go ahead.

Last week, I returned from a visit to mainland Europe where I found leaders agree with their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, that an extension, has ‘become almost inevitable’ and that they have to overcome the technical difficulties of British participation in the European elections and ensure an extension substantially longer than three months.

And if MPs vote on Thursday to extend Article 50, they should do so for around a year, not as a delaying tactic, nor just for MPs to rerun the old arguments within the Westminster bubble, but for a positive purpose: to allow Parliament to reflect and listen to the British people. The harsh truth is that the Brexit problem cannot be solved without consulting the British people on the detailed options.

I suggest a series of region-by-region public hearings on the specifics of the current proposals and alternatives to them. They should be conducted on the model of the recent and successful Irish citizens’ assemblies–representative groups brought together–and in televised events. They should learn from the grand débat launched in France by President Macron. Such hearings would allow us to clear the air on the vexed questions of immigration and sovereignty, but explore the advantages and disadvantages of each of the options on offer, including a renegotiation, with the people having the final say. It is not too late to give the people of this country a greater role–and some pride and some hope.


Gordon Brown served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010

This blog was produced for the Dahrendorf Forum blog and the LSE Brexit Blog

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.