Brexit. What Now?

People hold banners during a 'March for Europe' demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the European Union, in Parl
People hold banners during a 'March for Europe' demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the European Union, in Parliament Square, in central London, Britain July 2, 2016. Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU Brexit referendum. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Writing shortly before the referendum, I argued that this vote was far more important for the future of our country than any general election.

It seems that a lot of people didn't see it that way, casually voting Leave despite the overwhelming evidence that doing so carried immense risks and in the complete absence of a plan on the part of the Brexiteers for the morning after should they win. Waking her husband Michael Gove early on Friday morning with the news that his Leave campaign had won, columnist Sarah Vine reprised Michael Caine's line in The Italian Job: "You were only supposed to blow the doors off."

They have done a great deal more than that. Leave have now conceded that they didn't really mean that Britain would get back the £350 million they wrongly said we were paying into the EU's coffers each week; that the Governor of the Bank of England was not improperly playing politics but doing his job when he warned of the risks to our financial stability; that we won't in fact be able to remain part of the single market without accepting free movement of labour; and that the EU is not, after all, about to be flooded with 80 million Turks. But they won the vote confirming the view of autocrats around the world that democracy is dangerously over-rated.

There was both denial and anger in Remain's reaction to the news that a small majority of the 33 million votes cast wanted the UK to leave the European Union. Anger that people had fallen for a mendacious campaign and not thought properly about their real interests or those of the country. Anger amongst the young -- who didn't turn out in the numbers they needed to -- that the baby boomers who had already bankrupted the nation were now stealing their future. And denial that Britain's standing, prosperity, diversity and perhaps half its territory had been cast aside in a single, irreversible vote called not because the people of Britain were clamouring for it but because the leadership of the Conservative Party could no longer control its own troops.

The political fall-out is continuing. The careers of those on each side who gambled the most, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, are over -- at least for now. The Conservatives are in the throes of a divisive leadership contest and must decide whether they want to be led by a convinced Leaver or a unifier committed to making the best of the uncertainties that lie ahead.

The Labour Party, which could play a significant role in determining the least bad outcome of the negotiations with the EU, seems likely instead to remain irrelevant and unelectable in hock to the ideological purists and assorted militants determined to ensure it remains out of power.

But as we move into the third stage of grieving, bargaining, we need to start focusing on where the country goes from here -- especially if we are to have a chance of avoiding the fourth stage, depression. Despite nearly 4 million signatures on a petition and tens of thousands demonstrating in London on Saturday for a second referendum, and despite a sense that a simple majority in support of a series of misleading claims is not a reasonable basis on which to alter the entire future of the country, there is not going to be a simple re-run of the referendum.

But that's not to say that the British people should not be consulted on the terms of a new arrangement with the EU. Indeed they should be. How can we judge whether leaving is in the national interest before knowing what balance is available between retaining access for our goods and services to the single market and limiting freedom of movement? Or what the price would be in terms of budgetary contributions and acceptance of EU law for retaining access to the single market?

No-one seems clear whether these and other key issues can be resolved before we trigger the famous Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. Whether or not they can be, we will need to consult the people of the United Kingdom, through either a general election or a fresh referendum, on the terms of the eventual deal.

Article 50 is written in language suggesting that, once it is triggered, withdrawal is irreversible, within a timetable and on terms determined by the remaining member states. I doubt if that would turn out to be acceptable either to the UK or to any fair-minded member state (and we should remember that, whatever some are saying in public out of concern to discourage popular pressure to hold their own referendum, most know they need a continuing commercial, economic, security and intelligence relationship with Britain). But if it came to it, what's to stop us simply revoking the original decision to activate Article 50?

As always with referenda -- which is why they should only be used sparingly -- the outcome was only partly about the choice on the ballot paper. It had as much to do with distrust of the political establishment and anger at how globalization, disruptive technologies and income inequality are leaving ordinary people behind as it did with actual membership of the EU.

These are issues which resonate just as strongly in other member states. It is in their interest, and that of the EU's remote institutions and employees, finally to address the causes of this concern. Simply seeking to make the rebellious Brits pay the maximum price for their insurgency would be self-defeating and do nothing to stop the problems piling up ahead.

We in Britain should negotiate in that knowledge but understanding that others across the EU will not be able for their own reasons to give us everything we want. There is a way ahead. But it will require patience, pragmatism, negotiating skill and a clear vision of the national interest. And it will need to be put to the British people for their approval before anyone is invited to a signing ceremony.

Sir Peter Westmacott was British Ambassador to the US until January 2016 and previously Ambassador to France and Turkey. He was also a resident fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.