STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we hear the case for a Brexit do-over. No top British leader seems quite ready to call for a second referendum in the U.K. But after 2 1/2 years of failure to work out an exit from the European Union as called for in a first referendum in 2016, a former British leader is talking about voting again. David Miliband was once a leading member of Britain's Labour Party and the British foreign secretary. He's now the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee in New York City. He was watching from afar this week as Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plan was overwhelmingly defeated in Parliament. Weeks remain until the U.K. would leave the EU with no deal at all.
What has this week's politics in Britain shown about Brexit?
DAVID MILIBAND: I think that the deadlock that you see in Britain at the moment reflects a couple of factors. First of all, people voted to leave the European Union without any model for what Brexit would mean. And the government has been unable to come up with a coherent definition of what Brexit is. Secondly, there are rising levels of concern that Parliament itself is so split that there is no way of bridging the divide. And that leaves people very worried that Britain might in the end so-called crash out of the European Union without a deal at all, and that would be the most damaging outcome.
INSKEEP: Do you see this as a tactical problem, by which I mean perhaps Theresa May could have negotiated things differently and managed this better? Or do you see a strategic problem that Britain is simply attempting the impossible?
MILIBAND: Well, I think that it would be impossible for Britain to achieve the Brexit that was described by the leave campaign in the referendum. The leave campaign claimed that money would flow into the U.K. and that trade deals would be ready the day after Brexit. None of this has come to pass. And so there is a structural problem relating to the way Brexit was sold, essentially the lie on which it was sold. However, it's also the case that we didn't need to be in the situation 2 1/2 years after the referendum that we're in today.
People like me who opposed leaving the European Union I think would have had to swallow hard. We'd had been sad. But if Theresa May had chosen a more pragmatic course, I think she could have found compromise, which meant that we did leave in a way that was planned and planned for and left people like me saying that it's the wrong outcome but not one that we can object to.
INSKEEP: So what is the case for a second referendum given that you will be told that you simply want a referendum because you didn't like the first one?
MILIBAND: Yeah. The case for a second referendum can't simply be that we didn't like the outcome. I think that the case runs like this. First, the Brexit that people were promised is not on offer. Second, the first referendum had no, quote-unquote, "informed consent." There was no detail that allowed people to know what they were voting for. Thirdly, and I think critically, it's better safe than sorry. And when you buy a house, you put in an offer and then you get a survey done. And if the survey reports that there is subsidence in the house, you can revise your offer or not buy the house.
INSKEEP: Oh, the home inspection, OK. All right.
MILIBAND: The home inspection, sorry. We - what you call a home inspection. So what we're saying - I mean, I'm a supporter of a second referendum, both on democratic grounds but also on economic and social grounds - is that it's better to be safe than sorry. And people should be able to - now that they know what the home inspection has revealed, now that we know so much more about what leaving the European Union means, they should be in a position to affirm their decision or choose not to. And so this is a situation that I think isn't about a retrial or a repeat. It's about a country that should be - famed for its pragmatism, for its maturity, for the seriousness of its parliamentary system of government - able to take the long view.
I mean, it's - I was foreign minister for three years from 2007 to 2010, and I spent those three years fending off voting against, leading my party colleagues against, proposals for a referendum because referendums give power to demagogues and dictators. And they are loved by demagogues and dictators. And a parliamentary system of government has to restore the balance which allows passion to be tempered by reason.
INSKEEP: Although you're getting at some of the complexities here. You're saying a referendum was a bad idea and so what is needed is another referendum.
MILIBAND: Yeah. You're absolutely right, and there's a paradox in this because, well, you can't take away what the people have voted for without giving them the chance to affirm or rescind. But I do think there are bigger questions here about how countries like Britain - after all, you're going through your own trauma of the shutdown yourself - there are big questions here about how the leading Western liberal democracies show that democratic systems of government can mobilize the wisdom of crowds and not fall foul of the screams of the mob.
INSKEEP: David Miliband, thanks for taking the time, enjoyed it.
MILIBAND: Thank you so much.
INSKEEP: David Miliband is the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.