Democracy, Brexit and a Peoples Vote
Ever since June 2016 I have worried about the language used by various folks in relation to Brexit almost as much as I have worried about the actual issues. Traitors, treachery, treason, the enemy within, will of the people, enemies of the people. This is the language of autocrats, demagogues and strongmen. Not the language of a mature Liberal Democracy.
Language that has concerned me recently, in relation both to how our parliamentarians vote, and the prospect of a possible “Peoples Vote” on the terms on which we leave the European Union is the term “Undemocratic” to describe various actions.
If we are in a Liberal and Democratic society; and I sincerely hope that we remain so, then it can never be inherently undemocratic to have further expressions of opinions on topics. The ability in a Democracy, for the electorate to be able to change it’s mind on an issue is the fundamental quality that makes a Democracy a Democracy. This applies to voters, to legislators and to the executive.
As one famous Brexiteer (Rt. Hon. David Davies MP) noted Democracies that cease to be able to change their minds cease to be Democracies.
In a world where the afore mentioned autocrats, demagogues, strongmen and indeed balls out fascists are on the rise it is dangerous for any of us, regardless of our political differences on particular topics, to use language that is so diametrically opposed to the underlying principles of Democracy.
You may well think that a new referendum on the deal May has reached is unwise, that it is unnecessary, that it would not materially change any direction or solve any problem. That the consequences of holding one would be severe, negative, and would outweigh any benefits of holding one. All are legitimate viewpoints.
But it would not be undemocratic. The decision would rest with us; and providing nobody broke the rules (more on that later!) the decision the British people took on whatever question was before us would be undeniably democratic.
So where am I and what do I think?
I am still uncomfortable about the use of referendums to decide on very complicated questions. I think that they inevitably reduce difficult and nuanced things to basic sloganeering, and I think they are easily hijacked by those who seek to subvert our normal democratic process and procedure.
Nonetheless I think there is a compelling argument that once you decided on something by a referendum it is difficult to envisage a situation whereby the decision can be reversed, or altered without either holding another referendum or by holding a General Election specifically to settle that question.
After the General Election in 2017 I wrote about how Brexit was a problem for Labour, and more pertinently that it was even worse for the Tories. Now I might have got my numbers slightly wrong. But I reckon this analysis holds up pretty well. The truth is the numbers don’t exist in our Parliament to pass any version of Brexit.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of another referendum at this time, there is no consensus for any form of Brexit in Parliament. There is no majority for May’s deal (nor any realistic prospect of changing it meaningfully). No majority for Norway or Norway +. No majority for remaining in the EU. And no majority for leaving the EU without a deal.
Apart from the most swivel eyed of swivel eyed loons on the Brexiteer right, and the Lexiteer left, our whole political class understand the degree to which a no deal Brexit would be a national catastrophe and it seems unlikely in the end that any government would allow this to actually happen if there were any means to prevent it (though I note that no deal Brexit will happen by automatic operation of law if no other decision is taken).
Given no deal seems able to pass Parliament, that time is running out, I see that for all it’s flaws another referendum might be the only practical way out for the government and the country.
For anyone, anywhere on the political spectrum reading this, who disagrees with this analysis I’d love to hear what form of Brexit you believe has the numbers to pass in Parliament, because I can’t see another path.
At this stage for the Government, if they lose, and lose big on Tuesday, a Peoples Vote might end up being the least bad of a big range of bad options.
Whilst I don’t think that any of this is a “slam dunk” I’m increasingly of the opinion that this is moving toward an inevitability. Recent events have made absolute chumps of those in the business of political predictions so I put little stock by this opinion of mine!
I might think that a new referendum is going to happen due to circumstances and parliamentary arithmetic. Which comes to what I initially intended to be the focus of this blogpost:-
“Should a new referendum happen on the terms of departure?”
And the simple answer from me is “Yes” there is a case on a number of grounds. I have argued since before the referendum that a second vote would be necessary. Since then things have moved on an I think that there is a strong case on a number of grounds to hold one.
- Despite what many on the leave side pretend the vote in 2016 was close. 52-48 delivered a clear, but narrow, victory for leave. But what it really told us was the country was reasonably split down the middle on the issue.
If my union delivered a 52 – 48 result in a ballot for industrial action we would not be triumphant and vindicated. We’d be gutted and it would give us serious cause for concern about future actions and tactics.
Almost every democracy other than the UK has thresholds for major constitutional change and in most places a result like 2016 would not have cleared the bar. It was a result within margins of error.
Lastly the Brexiteers, and the leave campaign would never have accepted this result, the other direction, closed the matter. Nigel Farage even specifically mentioned a 52 /48 result for Remain as being one that would still be open to question.
- The official leave campaigns cheated and broke the law. In some respects, I’m so shocked that this is not a bigger thing. Both campaigns have been officially sanctioned by the electoral commission and referrals have been made to the police for criminal prosecution. We’ve seen the unfolding Cambridge Analytica scandal.
No one can know definitively one way or another it this had a material effect on the outcome (I have my doubts, but a news story today reporting an academic testified in court he felt it likely)
One thing is for sure though in normal practice if someone is found to have cheated in an election the result is declared null and void and needs to be re-run. If you cheat in an exam you get a fail. If an athlete fails a drugs test they are stripped of their medal.
Amusingly (in light of all the “will of the people” arguments) the only reason this hasn’t kicked in over the referendum is that it’s legal status was advisory only!
But given the closeness of the result there has to be some question of it’s validity given it’s proponents cheated.
- If the cheating isn’t enough what about the lying? Now many people might be in favour of May’s deal. But I have yet to see anyone, on any side of the debate pretend that the Brexit we are being proposed bares any relation to the claims made by the leave side in the referendum.
In fact the loudest voices against, it’s biggest detractors, the most vocal shouts of betrayal are coming from those who campaigned in 2016 for us to leave.
The, for my 2 cents, inarguable truth is that the deal on the table is hugely, significantly, different from the picture painted to the British electorate. Given that it is different, I find it hard to see how it is wrong, in principle, to ask the British people if now they know the terms of departure if they are really happy with this or if they have changed their mind. This leads us on to:-
- It will really settle the debate. For all the people like me who claimed and claim that the last referendum doesn’t settle things because we’d had no say on the type of Brexit. This would end that.
The British people would have had a vote on a specific known quantity. Had they voted for May’s deal, or an alternative specific form of Brexit then that actually does end the debate, at least for me even if I’d personally despair at that.
If we don’t then Brexit doesn’t end any time soon. I hear a lot of people saying they just want it over with. But our current trajectory means that nothing other than Brexit will be happening for a decade or more.
The withdrawal agreement isn’t the end of Brexit. It isn’t even the beginning of the end. It is merely the end of the beginning. And what ought to concern any citizen here is if you have despaired at how hard the Withdrawal agreement has been to reach then that is the easy part. The actual trade deal (and other ancillary agreements necessary) has all the really difficult trade offs and compromises that will consume the body politic. It will be at least 10 years in the making of sucking all oxygen out of our political discourse.
And as things stand on top of that you will have all those like me who question the legitimacy of where we are at, and the course we are taking, campaigning to reverse course.
If you are fed up with Brexit, Brexit, Brexit then we really need to actually settle things. Because with the status quo it isn’t going away.
It has only been two and a half years since the Brexit result but the world has changed.
The international order under which many Brexiteers sold Britain’s post Brexit future is now under a sustained attack by our erstwhile supposed ally America because Donald Trump hates the international rule bases system and is trying to undermine the WTO particularly. A smaller country like us is more vulnerable to “The law of the jungle” than the EU is. Fact.
A hostile foreign power, Russia, is antithetical to our way of life and is increasingly trying to subvert our democracy (indeed may have tried, possibly even succeeded, in hacking the Brexit vote) and is threatening our allies just as NATO is under stress.
The world in which we voted for Brexit has changed for the worse, Britain’s place in that world is already more precarious than it was in 2016, and is likely to be even more so if we leave the EU.
Keynes once famously said “When the facts change so does my mind”. The British people deserve the right to change their minds. And all the evidence suggests a pattern that they have and they will.
I don’t know if there will be another referendum, and if there is I wouldn’t be confident in predicting the result.
But I think the case to have one is strong. And I think the circumstances might dictate that we have to have one as the only possible solution to the problem.
Buckle up because the next few months, and years, are going to be bumpy.
Also published on Medium.