“Democracy Didn’t Die In 2016”: Interview with Femi Oluwole, the Co-Founder Of Anti-Brexit ‘Our Future Our Choice’

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‘Our Future Our Choice’ is a recent campaign to demand a second referendum on the Brexit vote. Armed with a battle bus, the campaign made a trip around several Northern Universities, including Leeds, to meet with activists and try and persuade students to support the cause for a second referendum. I sat down with the co-founder to discuss why they were on campus, Brexit, and why it is democratic to call for a second referendum.

Q: “Okay so I just wanna start off by asking you about who you guys are, what you’re doing here and what you’re hoping to accomplish.”

Femi: “Okay, so we’re ‘Our Future, Our Choice,’ a youth movement to get a vote on the Brexit deal because we think its rubbish, we think it’s a bad deal for the future, a bad deal for the country and that Brexit needs to stop. We hope that by touring the country we can galvanise the youth vote and make sure that young people know that Brexit can be stopped. We wanna make their voices heard, especially to their MPs because we need a People’s Vote as it’s the only democratic way to get rid of Brexit.”

Q: “Well the first retort given whenever any talk of a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ arises is “what’s so democratic about overturning the result of the largest democratic exercise in British history?” Are you not concerned that to do so would be to severely undermine public faith in our democratic process? Everybody on both sides of the campaign was very clear that the result of the referendum would be binding and adhered to.”

Femi: “Well, my response to that would be to say firstly that the EU referendum was not the largest democratic exercise in British history as Brexiteers routinely claim. That honour actually goes to the 1992 general election. Secondly, I’d say that in 2016, 52% of the electorate voted for four words “leave the European Union.” Now, with the deal that’s been negotiated, we would leave the European Union but the people who voted for Brexit do not like it.

Now, if we end up in a situation where people who voted for Brexit don’t like the outcome and people who voted against Brexit don’t like the outcome, that would tear the country apart because both sides would be really, really angry with the government and they’d blame each other for why the country was messed up. That is a very bad thing for democracy. No deal isn’t really an option either. In 2016 every single Brexit campaigner said that we’d get a better deal with the EU than we have right now so to suggest that no deal is what people voted for is simply lying.”

Q: “What is your message is to the current party leaders, I’m thinking of Jeremy Corbyn especially here, since I would assume many of you are Labour supporters as I am myself. The latest polling suggests that every single Labour held constituency, as well as the majority of Brexit voting constituencies across all parties including those held by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove, would vote Remain if another referendum were to occur today. Now, in normal times politicians follow the polls, but in this current political maelstrom the rules no longer seem to apply. What message would you like to send to these party leaders?”

Femi: “I’d say that they need to grow some tubes! Jeremy Corbyn knows that his party does not want Brexit, he’s even said: “yes, Labour members and voters both voted overwhelmingly to remain.” So he knows he is leading a party that is anti-Brexit, and so those are the values of Labour that he needs to represent. A public vote is the way forward given that we’ve failed to get a general election. Any subsequent damage to our economy will hurt the people with the least most, and so a Labour party or government cannot allow that to happen.

As for the Tories, they’re supposed to be the party of business, not the party of to quote Boris Johnson “f*ck business.” They need to listen to businesses who don’t wanna see us cut ourselves off from our biggest market. Neither party is gonna help themselves by allowing Brexit to happen, so they need to be honest with the British people and recognise that there is no way of moving forward with Brexit in a way that will make Brexit voters happy. This whole thing was supposed to be about taking back control, but with this deal we’re actually giving up control because we’d still follow many of the rules of the EU with no say over those rules.”

Q: “Speaking of Boris Johnson, he was perhaps the Leave campaign’s most prominent activist. He moved his way through the start of the debate, famously writing a column on each side for the Telegraph before jumping feet first into the Leave camp. Now, I think it’s clear to most impartial observers that Boris never really wanted or expected Leave to win. What’s your message to these “opportunistic Brexiteers” who know they’ve dug our nation into a crisis?”

Femi: “Well ultimately you’ve got three different types of pro-Brexit politicians. You’ve got your Theresa Mays – those that know its bad for the country but want to deliver it because it’s what people voted for. You’ve got your Nigel Farages and Jacob Rees-Moggs who genuinely believe that Brexitis right for the country. Then you’ve got your Boris Johnsons who know it’s wrong for the country but used.hose to use Brexit to ride the wave of nationalism. So you got these political opportunists like Boris who now advocate no deal after saying we should stay in the single market as well as people who actually believe in Brexit. However neither will have to live with the consequences of Brexit.”

Q: “One recurring feature of both the electioneers and the ideologues in a concerted and hypocritical effort to undermine public faith in institutions and conventional wisdom and expertise. Michael Gove was himself infamously warned Sky News’ Faisal Islam the British people had ‘had enough of experts.’ Jacob Rees-Mogg was instrumental in shaping the narrative that Brexit was a big middle finger to the establishment. If they genuinely believe that Brexit would be good for Britain as a whole, why do they need to shroud their arguments in such a thick cloud of misinformation and hypocrisy?”

Femi: “Well, not to get party political but Jacob Rees-Mogg is a hardcore Tory, so he believes if some people in the country can survive and do better, then the country as a whole is doing better. So when he says he believes it’s good for the country, it means he believes that big companies can profit so overall it’s a good thing even if normal working people bite the bullet. The anti-establishment rhetoric was simply a means to an end.”

Q: “Aren’t most big businesses actually against Brexit, though? They keep writing open letters and dire warnings because they know that erecting trade barriers and losing access to the world’s largest common market surely can’t be good for their profit margins.”

Femi: “Well it depends what sort of corporation we talking about. Multinational corporations have bases in different countries so if you’ve got factories in France and in the UK, trade barriers don’t hurt as much. If you’re a small or medium sized business, then you need access to the single market so you can trade easily across Europe. That’s why multinational corporations will have an advantage over small companies when we leave EU. However, like you said big business generally speaking has been anti-Brexit, because it will still hurt them. If you’re a large company like for example Airbus, even if it’ll be more profitable to move to  the other side of the the Channel, it’ll still cost you to get there.”

Q: “They may well have an advantage in terms of being able to absorb the extra costs but wouldn’t they prefer not to incur any extra costs at all? Why is it that someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks that Brexit would be beneficial to businesses?”

Femi: “Deregulation. It’s their main thing. They see the EU as putting in all these protections on environmental rights, social rights, workers’ rights, consumer protection. They see getting out of the EU and leaving with no ties as the best way to get a completely deregulated market.”

Q: “So this is all part of a long-term neoliberalist resurgence on the part of the Eurosceptic right?”

Femi: “Yeah and that undermines ‘Lexit’ argument on far left that EU is neoliberal. We won’t always have a Labour government in this country and when we don’t, we’ll wish we still had EU protections and regulations.”

Q: “That may well be true but isn’t it just part of the socialist DNA of the Labour party to be a bit skeptical of Europe? There was famously a whole uproar in the 1960s.”

Femi: “Yes but remember in the 1960s the unions were anti-EU. Now the unions are pro-EU. You’ve got the GMB, the TUC, all the medical unions, the BMA the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nurses, the Royal College of GPs. The unions, in general, know that Brexit is bad for the country.”

Q: “Don’t the misgivings of these ‘Lexiteers’, for lack of a better term, simply boil down to a belief that a true socialist economy is impossible inside Europe?”

Femi: “There are limits which the EU puts in place but the fact is the 3 percent cap is a cap on running a deficit rather than a cap on spending. One of arguments on the left vs right thing is can we sustain socialism? Are we simply gonna run into debt by investing in state intervention? Brexit would damage the economy making us less able to enact socialist policies without running into debt. If you wanna maintain that solid economic base then we need to stay in EU.”

Q: “What message do you have to the 52%, the 17.4 million voters, many of whom will feel utterly betrayed by a second referendum?

Femi: “Firstly, we’re not trying to take anyone’s vote away. The vote happened in 2016 and we rejected our current relationship with the EU. It’s only logical that we have to have a new relationship with the EU. We negotiated a new relationship and people who support Brexit don’t like it. It would be a betrayal of a vote fuelled by the notion of taking back control if we have a Brexit that leaves us less in control of our country. Right now the UK has three times the voting power of the average EU country. That’s because we have 73 MEPs and there are 750 in total. So to give up that degree of influence in favor of having no say but being bound by the rules anyway would be a betrayal of the British people.”

Q: “If that is the case, is no-deal not then the only logical way of increasing our national sovereignty while staying true to the result of the referendum?”

Femi: “I think it’s a fantasy to suggest that the only way to gain sovereignty is through no-deal. We will either be at the head of Europe or at the feet of Donald Trump. TWe can either set rules or copy rules. We can either abide by EU rules we’ve had a hand in forming or we can copy those of other nations which will make us intrinsically less sovereign.”

Q: “A lot of your reasoning seems predicated on the assumption that we’d undoubtedly vote Remain in a second referendum, have you considered what you’d do if Leave won again?”

Femi: “No, if Leave wins again then we’re still in a better position than we are right now. If we leave right now on whatever Brexit we decide then there’s not democratic approval for that Brexit. When we joined we had an arrangement that spelled out having a closer union with the rest of Europe, the definitions of a customs union. We didn’t see anything in 2016 and Brexit meant a thousand different things. Right now there’s only 2 Brexit options: this deal, which makes us less sovereign, or no deal”

Q: “Do you doubt Britain’s ability to weather a no deal scenario?

Femi: “That’s the thing about ‘belief in Britain.’ This idea that if you don’t support Brexit or no deal you don’t believe in Britain. I believe in my friends but if one of them tried to jump off a cliff I’d tell him to stop because he doesn’t have any f*cking wings! There is a dualism about being British, definitely. Part of us thinks we’re still the British Empire and part of us recognizes our past but also recognizes that we need our allies.”

Q: “And finally do you have any summative statements just to wrap things up? A succinct soundbite for our readers to keep in mind?”

Femi: “Basically, democracy didn’t die in 2016. This is such a permanent thing for our country and we have to make sure that democratic input is as high as possible. People need to be able to see what they’re signing  up to and that means a People’s Vote.”

Hamza Yusuf

Image Credit: Adam O’Malley, On the Road to a People’s Vote: Leeds! event page.