Next Monday, CUSU Council will vote again on a motion to endorse a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. Last Council, a vote was delayed in order to consult students, which is a welcome concrete step. Now, more than ever, it is vital that Cambridge acts. We have argued elsewhere why it is necessary for our city and students’ union to lead the campaign for a referendum, but it is also worth considering the first principles in favour of holding a vote.
As I argued at Council, the idea that we have ‘already had a people’s vote’ is misleading. To believe this is to subscribe to the fallacy originally presented by David Cameron that this issue can boil down to a simple ‘in’ or ‘out’ choice. Granted, an ‘in’ vote in 2016 would have been concrete, it would have been business as usual. But the alternative was so dangerously vague – a fact overlooked by both major parties and in fact many remainers – that to use an ‘out’ vote as a life-raft justifying the government’s negotiating position is certain to sink any chance we have of truly adhering to the will of the people. Cameron did not confront this problem, because he did not expect to lose.
To elaborate – I know people who voted for Brexit with the hope of securing a Norway-style deal by joining the European Free Trade Association. This would free us from rulings by the European Court, as well as relieving us of our obligations towards European farmers and fishermen. If this sounds boring, it’s because these things are. Brexit was not won on the failings of the Common Agricultural Policy. It was won because the young, the educated, and the liberal voted instinctively against the nastiness and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Leave campaign – but were overwhelmed by an even more visceral collective cry against globalisation, multiculturalism, and, yes, against London as much as Brussels.
Yet, the problem is that, as well as Norway, Britain could also end up looking like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s deepest fantasy. A low-regulation, bargain-basement Britain in which the innate liberalism and tolerance of most young people is overlooked in favour of nationalism – not patriotism, which, incidentally, it is the duty of the left to rehabilitate – and retrograde conservatism. An ‘out’ vote could mean Norway, or Rees-Mogg, or anything in between. It will be determined by the deal that the government comes back with. And who should endorse this deal? The British people, especially the over 1.5 million young people who have turned 18 since June 2016. And if the people don’t like it, we should have the option to remain.
Following the high-profile media coverage and misrepresentation of CUSU’s debate over Remembrance Day, it is understandable that student representatives will be wary about making a statement that is too political, or indeed likely to rile the Daily Mail. But there is a crucial distinction that should be made – this issue is inherently political, but it is certainly not partisan. Labour MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner, is firmly behind a People’s Vote, as is Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire Heidi Allen. The CUSU motion has the support of national non-partisan movement For Our Future’s Sake, as well as Our Future Our Choice. That these organisations both contain the words ‘Our Future’ encapsulates what this campaign is about.
Young people have the most to lose from Brexit. Cambridge is one of the most pro-European cities in the country, and was recently shown in a report to be one of the most liberal. It should be Cambridge students leading this campaign, not just through political societies but through CUSU Council, which at the end of last year was promised a vote in October.
JCRs are already undertaking consultations of the student body. This should placate any concerns about endorsing a political motion. CUSU’s officers did not shy away from taking a firm stance on Universal Credit, the controversial amalgamation of several pre-existing welfare payments that has pushed some families into severe hardship. While political, this is something that affects some students, and CUSU sabbs did not feel the need to make a consultation. Brexit is different because it affects every one of us; therefore, it is a matter for CUSU as a whole to take a lead on. Those of us proposing the motion argued that consultation was not necessary, but it was the option CUSU Council chose. This can only serve to strengthen CUSU’s democratic mandate at a time when some people wonder whether or not their student union represents them. And, of course, if the majority of students in the consultation are against the motion, JCRs and MCRs should not hesitate to reflect that in their voting.
Representatives from over 60 students’ unions have already backed a People’s Vote. Around 700,000 people took to the streets of London to demand one, and were addressed by student leaders such as Amatey Doku, former CUSU President and supporter of the motion. It was the biggest demonstration since the rally against the Iraq War, and like that march in 2003, history will be on the side of those who took part.
Students cared about the EU issue in 2016 – over 80% of those who voted wanted to remain. We can’t rest now. We must stand up to the politicians from across the spectrum trying to tie us down to whatever deal the government agrees, including no deal at all, and, in these crucial final months before we’re set to leave, make our voices heard.