Should there and could there be an immediate fightback against Brexit? There are already signs that this is being considered. Some parliamentarians are suggesting that parliament should block Brexit; others are calling for a second referendum; millions have signed a petition against the referendum result; and even some Brexiters are showing hesitancy about triggering Article 50. Right now Britain remains part of the EU, and it is not clear when, or even if, Article 50 will be triggered.
Brexiters will argue that the referendum was a transparent democratic exercise that reflects the will of the people, and that there would be no justification to go against the result. They will plausibly claim that to ignore the result would be outrageously undemocratic, and would confirm how an establishment elite treat the wishes and concerns of the majority of British people with disdain. It is a powerful argument, and one that looks, on the face of it, unanswerable.
But it may be worth, at the very least, thinking through some possible counter-arguments. For this is undoubtedly the worst political crisis in Britain in any of our lifetimes. The country is in a febrile, chaotic, incomprehensible mess, at risk of falling apart, and in danger of legal, economic, political and social turmoil that could take years or decades to overcome, if indeed they will ever be fully overcome.
The following comes with a caveat: it consists of initial thoughts about an unprecedented situation, and one that is likely to remain highly unclear for some time to come. My points are intended primarily as a contribution to a debate rather than as a fully worked out position.
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The referendum numbers are worth considering. In a population of 65 million, 45 million were registered to vote (some, mostly the young, were eligible to vote but were not registered). Of that electorate, more than a quarter did not vote; of those who did, 17 million voted Leave and 16 million Remain. In other words, about 38% of the electorate voted to leave the EU, or 26% of the population as a whole. The lives of 65 million people have been decided by 17 million people. Only one out of every four people on the streets of the UK voted for Leave.
Of course it can be argued that my presentation of these figures is a sleight of hand. For example, a large part of the population consists of children, and it is necessary to distinguish between the population as a whole and those eligible as citizens and as adults to form the electorate. Nobody would seriously work out voting percentages in an election based on the population as a whole.
But the referendum was not the same as a normal election. In a general election, for example, one knows that whatever the result there will be another election in a few years’ time. The teenager disappointed by the 2015 election result at least knows that she will get to vote in the next election; but the teenager disappointed by the 2016 EU referendum result will have no such opportunity. Unlike an election, therefore, the referendum imposes a result upon millions of young people, and countless millions yet to be born, none of whom has any apparent prospect of revisiting, let alone reversing, the result.
It is worth reflecting here on one of the claims for classical conservatism. Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’, while G.K. Chesterton argued against risking the tradition that links past, present and future by submitting ‘to the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around’. In the referendum, 17 million people ‘who merely happen to be walking around’ have come to a decision that will affect generations to come.
All of this exposes deep flaws in the referendum process, and for that David Cameron bears a heavy responsibility. Most people, and he above all, knew the enormous risks of a vote to leave the EU, but he chanced it anyway, arrogantly assuming that his gilded life of success would secure a narrow political gain amid his own party problems. He might have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote; he might have insisted that a majority of the entire electorate was required for a decisive result; he might have demanded that all four constituent countries of the UK had to be of one voice. In short, he could have built in some reasonable safeguards to ensure that a vote on such a momentous issue was more inclusive of the population, and required a high threshold for radical and extremely uncertain change.
Instead, what resulted was a referendum determined by a simply majority, and one that was always at risk—and particularly so after a Leave campaign based on populist slogans, dishonesty and base appeals to prejudice and xenophobia—of delivering a result that amounts to the rule of the mob. It is uncomfortable to make this point, but such is the crisis that numerous difficult and discomforting thoughts occur to those of us committed to progressive politics. But it is becoming increasingly clear that many people had little idea what they were really voting about; that many people regarded the vote as a simple protest against the government or the establishment, rather than specifically a vote on EU membership; that some Leave voters even hoped that Remain would win; and that many people were ill-informed and lacked the ability or the will to question critically the many lies and exaggerations of the Leave campaign (and, indeed, the relentless negativity of the Remain campaign).
But one does not have to argue that a dumbed-down political culture, in which, at best, a diet of tabloid junk journalism fuels the political views of large parts of the population, is a reason why there should never have been a referendum in the first place. For how many of us truly grasped the issues?
I can only speak personally here: I consider myself a well-informed elector, someone who has studied and taught on politics, someone who has read many things on the constitution, on sovereignty, on democracy, on the EU, someone who follows politics and keeps up to date with a wide range of commentary, someone whose work and research means I have to possess a modicum of understanding about economics, finance and broad social and political issues. And yet I did not feel truly qualified to vote on an issue of this importance. I have gone on record as saying that I like the EU and believe that it is in our interests we remain a member of it; I have also gone on record as saying that there are problems with the EU, and that some of the criticisms of the EU seem merited. I have been very happy to contribute my thoughts to the debate. But when it comes to making a decision on the issue, as opposed to being part of the important conversation about the issue, there are people, often with direct experience of working with the EU or with a broader perspective on British society and the economy, who are better placed and better qualified than I am.
The democracy we have is a representative democracy. We elect and pay for MPs whom we entrust to make informed and considered political decisions. We give them responsibility in areas over which we have limited competency. We choose them on the basis of their manifestos, and we get regular opportunities to choose someone else. In short, we entrust questions of national importance to parliament. This does not mean that we cannot debate and attempt to influence parliament; we can. But ultimately parliament is uniquely positioned to consider and make political decisions. There seems no good reason why, on the issue of EU membership as on any other political issue, it should not have been the responsibility of parliament to make the decision.
And, constitutionally, the referendum is only advisory on parliament. Westminster could, if it wanted, regard the referendum as an extensive opinion-gathering operation, and it could consider the wishes of 52% of voters as one factor to put alongside their own expertise as they deliberate the future relationship between Britain and the EU. MPs could note the referendum result but decide on continued membership of the EU based on their own understanding and knowledge of the national interest.
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It is only fair to note that the Prime Minister pledged the referendum during the last parliament and that this pledge was part of the Conservative party’s election manifesto last year. The Tory government was elected on this manifesto and it had, therefore, a duty to implement it. The process has been transparent and democratic. Any suggestion that the referendum result should be ignored or overturned undoubtedly risks looking like the complaint of ‘bad losers’. Democracy always involves some people not getting the result they want, and the expectation that they accept that. I would only reiterate that the referendum may not, for the reasons I mention above, be strictly comparable to normal democratic exercises.
Politically any attempt to sidestep the referendum is fraught with risk, so much so that I suspect it highly unlikely to happen. The popular fury and political turmoil if the result were ignored might be dangerously uncontrollable. On the other hand, almost all the possible paths ahead are full of risk. The fact is that the referendum has generated a crisis in which normal politics, and the old political rules and certainties, may no longer apply.