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As Brexit Looms, Katharine Hamnett and Shahmir Sanni Speak on What’s Next for Britain

Should the UK hold a second referendum? Was the first referendum even lawful? Is there a chance Brexit won’t happen at all? These were the questions explored by designer Katharine Hamnett and whistleblower Shahmir Sanni, in conversation with Rohan Silva, on stage at VOICES.
Left to right: Rohan Silva, Shahmir Sanni and Katharine Hamnett | Source: Getty Images for The Business of Fashion

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Katharine Hamnett made her opinion on the UK’s No. 1 issue clear from the moment she took the stage at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with SECOND REFERENDUM NOW, Hamnett began tossing shirts bearing the slogan FASHION HATES BREXIT into the audience.

The designer, known for channelling activism through her signature slogan tees and a vocal Brexit opponent, said wearing the right message is only a start.

“I think T-shirts are great, marches are great, but unless you follow them up with political action, holding your elected representative to account … this is what we actually have to do,” she said.

Joining her on stage was Shahmir Sanni, a Eurosceptic who volunteered for the official Brexit campaign, but came forward in March with evidence that AIQ, a data company linked to Cambridge Analytica, had influenced the 2016 referendum results. He also alleges that the Vote Leave campaign had destroyed evidence that it had illegally breached spending limits.

Despite their differing political opinions, the two were united by their objections to the way the 2016 referendum played out.

“Brexit was an opportunity for a very select few group of people to choose chaos so they could profit off it,” Sanni said. “The referendum itself was not democratic because it was won by the breaking of the law. Brexit was won through illegal means, the referendum was won by cheating the system.”

Hamnett's take: “The referendum we had was deeply flawed, I can’t understand how it wasn’t contested by a judge, a lawyer, even the EU itself. … People were lied to, there was no information."

Vote Leave's narrow victory in 2016 touched off a tortuous process to separate Britain from the EU. After 18 months of negotiations between Britain and the EU, British Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU’s other 27 heads of state and government agreed on an exit deal, which May presented to Parliament this month.

Under the agreement, the UK would withdraw from the EU and all EU institutions in March, but remain under EU jurisdiction through 2020. The UK's future trade relationship with the EU is yet to be negotiated, but the deal safeguards the residency rights of millions EU citizens living in the UK and UK nationals in Europe.

Nevertheless, the deal faces an uncertain future, with opposition from both those who would prefer to remain in the EU and hard-line Brexit supporters who say the agreement doesn't go far enough. President Donald Trump weighed in this week, suggesting the deal could harm future US-UK trade relations.

The referendum we had was deeply flawed … People were lied to, there was no information.

The House of Commons is due to vote on the proposed withdrawal agreement on December 11. Without any precedent to go by, the consequences of a deal rejection are unclear. Experts warn a no-deal Brexit could be devastating for Britain, both financially and politically. A government analysis suggests that the UK economy could contract up to 3.9 percent over the next 15 years under Theresa May’s Brexit plan. A no-deal Brexit would be even worse, leaving the economy 9.3 percent smaller. The Bank of England predicts a recession even under May's plan, and said a worst-case scenario involving a no-deal Brexit could lead to a downturn worse than the financial crisis of 2008.

As her attire hinted, Hamnett is campaigning for a second referendum, where everyone, from British citizens to European expats, should be allowed to decide on whether May’s deal, a no-deal exit or cancelling Brexit altogether is the best way forward.

“The importance of this is so huge, it will affect us for eternity. We should hold a proper referendum with everybody allowed to vote,” she said.

Sanni said the root of Britain's current problems lies within the political system. He pointed to AIQ, Cambridge Analytica, Russia and the “plethora of organisations not from Britain that have their own vested interests in Brexit” as a reason that the 2016 referendum was not a democratic vote.

“The British public is very good at protesting, but they fail to realise the institutional problems [that exist],” he said. He said he doesn’t know what will happen next, but says the future is in the hands of the British people and executives and leaders in all industries — including fashion.

“If you want a second referendum then it is imperative that you get out of this complacent attitude that is entrenched within us,” he said. “You have to take that leap. If you are the CEO make a public statement ... saying we want a second referendum and a public enquiry with what happened with Brexit.”

Hamnett echoed Sanni’s sentiments, imploring VOICES attendees to take action by lobbying their local MPs during their political surgery hours and hand-writing letters of protest calling for a second referendum.

“We have to not only write to MPs, put it in a hand addressed envelope because it’s easy to block emails. The other thing even more powerful is find out when their surgeries are and show up en masse,” she said.

She ended as she started, with a call to action: “Vote remain, it’s up to us, we’ve been apathetic too long.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

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