No, we do not need to act on that referendum

The border along the main Dublin-Belfast road during the Troubles. There is a queue of cars and trucks, with signs saying things like 'Please wait, security check in progress, remain in vehicleIn the months since the referendum on leaving the EU, opinion seems to have hardened on the matter of whether there should be any question of leaving, given the 51.9% vote in favour. In the days following, when the value of the pound had dropped to a long-term low, David Lammy suggested that we should “stop this madness” given the very slim majority, the rapid exposure of the premises of the Brexit campaign as lies, the economic shock and the rise of racially-motivated violence. More than two months later, with favourable trade deals with any other country nowhere on the horizon and hardline anti-Europe Tories in key cabinet positions (such as Liam Fox who favours withdrawal from the EU customs union and a hard border with Ireland, which will make scenes like that in the accompanying picture a reality again), with the new PM insisting there will be no new referendum, no Parliamentary vote and no general election before her government takes the UK out of the EU as a matter of prerogative, the mainstream Left has developed a fatalism over the matter, with both Jeremy Corbyn and Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, stating over the past few days that we “have to respect democracy”; only Owen Smith, the Labour party leadership challenger, advocating a new referendum on whatever deal the Tories are able to strike.

First, as has been pointed out many times (most recently by Kenneth Clarke, the Tory MP and former minister in both John Major’s and David Cameron’s governments), a referendum is by definition advisory and not legally binding. Parliament is the law-making body and we do not have the ‘initiatives’ found in some democratic countries such as Switzerland and parts of the USA. There are many reasons why there is a separation between public opinion and the legislative process; it ensures that moral panics and passing outrages cannot, in general, result in lasting unjust law. The anti-Europe sentiment that led to the recent referendum was not, of course, sudden; it had been building for years, in large part because of repeated media misinformation, much of it now known to have been sourced from Boris Johnson but eagerly repeated by the same commercial press that for years repeated myths about “Winterval” and “banning Christmas”. Politicians had resented the checks on their power that membership of the EU imposes, as they do in the case of the Human Rights Act, and the Press, catering to a middle-class, white, provincial readership that sees itself not in need of human rights, eagerly assisted them.

There is plenty of precedent in the UK and other representative democracies for the majority not always getting their own way. No government since the Second World War received an outright majority of the popular vote; most received a share far lower than 48.1%, the share of the population that voted against leaving the EU. (The combined Tory/Lib Dem share of the vote in 2010 was 59.1%, though the combination itself did not have a popular mandate; a Tory/Labour coalition would have had a combined vote-share of 65.1%.) There are numerous examples of parties receiving shares of seats wildly out of proportion to their share of the vote because of how their votes were distributed (e.g. the Liberal/SDP alliance in 1983 and UKIP in 2015). The incumbent Labour government received more votes than the Conservatives in 1951, yet lost the election for the same reason. In the USA, George W Bush won the presidential election in 2000 despite receiving fewer votes nationally than his Democrat opponent, Al Gore, again because of where his votes were cast. There is also a long history of Parliament voting for what it sees as the greater good in spite of perceived public opinion. There has long been public and media support for the reintroduction of the death penalty; it has remained off the statute books because Parliament, even under Thatcher, was aware of a long history of miscarriages of justice both before and after abolition. Some polls put the support for the death penalty at over 70%, far higher than in the case of the recent vote to leave the EU. The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 produced a flood of petitions opposing the law unmatched in volume before or since; the law, however, remains and has been strengthened.

As I said in my previous entry on this subject, nearly all the dissatisfaction with the EU is rooted in British government policy and economic orthodoxies, not in EU diktats, and those orthodoxies are not being challenged by the present Tory government or its media. In some conditions, sovereignty and ‘freedom’ are more important than jobs and economics; much as a woman might flee an abusive marriage into poverty, a nation might well justify exiting a union whose forces were shooting people in the street or torturing people in its prisons. That is not the case here. The public does not know the economic consequences of leaving the EU, as nobody has shown willingness to put their cards on the table until we trigger Article 50 and formally begin negotiations. It is not acceptable that the government should isolate this country politically, at the expense of thousands if not millions of jobs, on the basis of a vote of slightly over 50% driven by false promises and outright lies, when the facts about leaving were not known and the vote might go differently once they are.

The MP and philosopher Edmund Burke famously said to the electors of Bristol (who were, at the time, a small subset of the population of Bristol), “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. The political classes, who sometimes do know better than the electorate, in this case betrayed their trust dramatically, failing to subject the referendum to a threshold of, say, 60% of the vote or the basis of our exit from the EU to a further referendum or even a Parliamentary vote. In any other situation, a proportion of 51.9% would be called “about half” and the fact that the faction in power belongs to that about-half does not change that fact. To honour the result of the June referendum regardless of the consequences would prove all the worst stereotypes about democracy — “two wolves and a sheep deciding who’s for dinner”, “mob rule in which 51% can deprive 49% of their rights”, etc. It must not be allowed to happen, least of all as a result of fatalism or subservience on the part of Labour or the trade unions, who represent those with the most to lose from leaving, especially in the absence of a very favourable agreement.

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  • M Risbrook

    “The public does not know the economic consequences of leaving the EU”

    The public did not know the economic consequences of joining the EU in 1973. It might as well have been entering the lion’s den!

    London might have done well economically as a part of the EU but other areas in England - like much of the industrial West Midlands - haven’t done well so the majority of their residents decided it would be better to (chance) leaving the EU or else it will simply be more of the same decline.

    What the referendum has exposed is a rift between London and most of the rest of England apart from a handful of trendy cities and affluent parts of the south.

  • George Carty

    How many parallels do you think there are between nostalgic Brexiters grieving for the lost British Empire, and Muslims grieving for the lost Caliphate?

  • M Risbrook

    I discussed this one several years ago.

    Answer: fewer than you think there are.