Let me take you on a metaphorical coach journey. One hundred passengers are heading down the motorway towards Europe when, suddenly, the driver suggests taking a detour to the nostalgia-based theme park, Brexitland. This proposal proves divisive. A lot of the older passengers are incredibly excited about this new development. The younger ones tend to be less keen. They’ve heard stories about dangerous rides, expensive food, long queues. They determine that the fairest way to decide is to hold a vote—and the Brexitland option wins out by 52–48. Despite much grumbling from the losers, the coach driver turns off the motorway and up the dirt road that leads towards their chosen destination. Things do not go smoothly, however. The coach ploughs through dense forest and boggy marshes, while stormy weather sets in. At each setback, the pro-Europe 48 call for the coach to turn back. Some of those who initially voted for the diversion are starting to have doubts, too, but the hardcore theme park fans among the group assure them the bumpy ride will be worth it in the end.
The coach comes to a river and it transpires that the bridge has been swept away in the storm. That’s that, then. There doesn’t seem to be a safe way to cross—visiting Brexitland looks impossible to achieve. But wait! The driver continues towards the river, shouting that the people voted for Brexitland, so he will deliver Brexitland. It seems a majority of those onboard are now absolutely terrified that the coach will be washed downstream by the frothing whitewater rapids. A couple of passengers, who happen to be experts on rivers, explain that this is precisely what will happen. The driver ignores them. A chorus of frantic screams rises from the back, the gist being: At least let us vote again now we have more information.
Now ask yourself, in this situation, who is more democratic: the passengers demanding another vote, or the driver intent on honoring the original result no matter the consequences? I find it unfathomable that anyone would side with the latter in this situation, as he risks driving his passengers to a watery grave, without even giving them a chance to change their minds. And yet it seems to be precisely the stance being taken on Brexit by Theresa May, hardcore Brexiteers and Areo contributor Connor Jones, whose August 19 article “The ‘People’s Vote’—A Challenge To Democracy And Liberty” claims that going back to the people to ask whether the UK should leave the EU would undermine “the bedrock of the Western understanding of individual liberty.”
OK, so there have been better metaphors for Brexit than this. But the point remains: democracy does not stand still—it must be able to adapt and change according to new developments and information. A wise man once said—and David Davis, the former Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) repeated: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” How true—and how sad that arch Brexiteer Davis has now gone back on that statement.
There’s a lot to address in Jones’ article, but let’s start at the end. He concludes by saying: “No one yet knows whether leaving will be good for the country, so it seems incoherent to call for a second referendum. If democracy is to survive we must respect this outcome.” No one can tell the future, certainly. Yet the consensus is that No Deal Brexit—leaving without a trade deal with the EU, or indeed with any other country, and reverting to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules—will be hugely harmful. This is our raging river: a potentially disastrous outcome which is now the most likely scenario, despite previously having not even been on the table. The we must go ahead with the original outcome, no matter the cost mindset is a bloody minded and authoritarian one, liable to cause our country severe economic hardship or see our Golden Boy coach washed downstream.
Jones’ argument was echoed last weekend by Prime Minister May. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, she said she would not “give in to those who want to re-open the question with a second referendum, adding: “To ask the question again would be a gross betrayal of our democracy—and a betrayal of that trust.” Yet this is no democracy: taking a binary vote on a single day as sacrosanct, freezing it in time and then seeking to prevent the ongoing processes of discussion and development based on new information, even if it becomes apparent that Brexit is not the optimum available solution for the country or society. And this is even before we get into the muddy waters of deceit, fraud and toxic campaigning which hardly make the 2016 referendum a model of how democracy should be carried out. Instead, we now seem to have entered into a strange Brexit democracy, an authoritarian viewpoint which demands everyone accepts (and never opposes) an absolutist ideal set out by the most hardline advocates of an initial framework voted upon by a narrow majority more than two years ago.
If our democracy is to survive, it is vital any democratic decision is treated as provisional. The reason democracy works better than other systems is that it is capable of adaptation to circumstance. As the law commentator David Allen Green said recently: “A referendum can be either irreversible or democratic. It can’t be both.”
Yet Jones argues that we cannot change our minds on Brexit, now it has been voted for, until after it has been implemented and the consequences have been experienced rather than simply predicted. This seems arbitrary, especially as it is quite likely a People’s Vote would provide a different outcome. At what point will it be acceptable for us as a country to decide we want to change the 2016 decision? Five years after Brexit? Ten? If prominent Leavers are jailed for breaking electoral law? If the economic effects are even more dire than first feared? If the Troubles begin again in Northern Ireland? Once the Union has broken up? Who gets to decide? As it stands, if the public has indeed switched to backing Remain as most opinion polls now suggest, we are being told the will of the people no longer matters.
In her Sunday Telegraph column, May also wrote: “No Deal will not be the end of the world but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park, either. For some sectors there would be real challenges for both the UK and the EU. But we would get through it and go on to thrive. So, we will be ready for a No Deal if we need to be.”
“Real challenges” is politic-speak for total freakin’ nightmare. But at what point will we get through it? It was suggested recently that we might not see an economic benefit to Brexit for fifty years. That wasn’t Remoaner Project Fear Part II, either. That was prominent Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP. If a No-Deal Brexit had been on the original ballot sheet, with a caveat that it could mean half a century of uncertainty and economic suffering, is it likely that Leave would have won? And yet that is now what we’re facing. How can the people not be given the chance to decide whether this option is acceptable to them?
Jones points to John Stuart Mill’s ethical theory of utilitarianism, which can be summarized as, that which is good is that which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. On this, we can agree. But was the 2016 referendum a reliable indicator of Brexit’s ability to bring such happiness? Hardly. The 52% of voters who opted for Leave represent 37% of the eligible electorate and just 26.5% of the population, all voting for different forms of Brexit.
While we cannot presume that the eligible voters who did not put an X in the box are in favor of staying, it is fair to say that had the three million EU nationals living in the UK not been denied a vote, Remain would have triumphed. Instead, Brexit will cause upheaval, worry and misery to these affected three million—their rights lost without them having had any vote on the matter.
The same could be said of the under-18s. With younger voters strongly backing Remain, a different referendum outcome appears likely had 16- and 17-year-olds been given a say. If it does take until 2069 before we come out of the tunnel, those 17-year-olds denied the vote will be over retirement age before Rees-Mogg’s Brexit dividend kicks in. Of course, it’s not just the youngsters who will be furious at five decades of hardship: a large proportion of us will be dead by the time it’s over. On this basis, Brexit cannot be said to fulfill the criteria of Mill’s ethical theory of utilitarianism, certainly not based on such a narrow majority in a flawed, advisory (please note) referendum.
The European Union Referendum Act 2015 was passed with the proviso that it made legal provision for a non-binding vote on the UK’s continued membership of the EU. The Parliamentary briefing paper on the Act states that there is “no requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum” and that it “enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.” Amid all the passionate bluster, this seems to be continually swept under the carpet, with Leave voters instead preferring to quote the now-infamous leaflet issued to every household in the country, which states: “This is your say. The Government will implement what you decide.” This was a staggeringly naive error on David Cameron’s part, but it shouldn’t really make a jot of difference. Leaflets are not law. That claim was a political one. The EU Referendum Act, backed by the High Court in November last year, sets out where the referendum stands in legal terms. Guided by “basic constitutional principles of parliamentary sovereignty and representative parliamentary democracy,” the High Court ruled that the government could not keep the pledge in the leaflet without the approval of parliament. Put simply, in a representative democracy, the people are not sovereign. So, there’s no point in bemoaning dangers to democracy if you’re willing to turn a blind eye to a parliamentary vote by democratically elected MPs have been usurped by the political sound bite of a blasé Prime Minister. As Cameron’s successor, May has tried every trick in the book to prevent even Parliament from having a final say on their agreed deal, or lack thereof, making a further mockery of any pretense that this process is in any way democratic.
Precedents in the EU
Jones remarks that:
Representative democracy, with its First Past The Post voting system, has its flaws, especially in a climate in which the media influences the political economy. But efforts to erode democracy at its most fundamental level, by challenging democratic outcomes for no reason than the outcome itself, must be repelled at all costs, or we risk destroying the foundations of the most successful system of governance ever tested.
First of all, he is quite right about the first-past-the-post system being flawed. It devalues the representation in a supposedly representative democracy. We are represented but not proportionally represented, which would be a far fairer system. Secondly, democratic outcomes are often challenged due to nothing but the outcome. There are even precedents in the EU, with Denmark on the Maastricht Treaty, and Ireland, twice, on the Nice and Lisbon treaties, asking the people to vote again after the implementation of those treaties was rejected at the first time of asking. On all three occasions, the original outcome was overturned by a significant majority. Both countries now show record support for the EU: 91% in Ireland back their country’s membership, while 76% of Danes say the EU is a good thing.
Yes, there will be those who bemoan the keep on voting until you get the result you want mentality but if there weren’t a democratic will for the eventual result, it still wouldn’t happen. John Stuart Mill would surely have concurred that the majority’s happiness at being EU members was worth the second vote.
It would certainly be hard to make a case that either Ireland or Denmark are less democratic than the UK. We Brits may not value endless plebiscites, but Ireland’s penchant for asking the people has seen democracy in action in recent votes on same-sex marriage and abortion, for example. In the case of the former, a landslide thumbs-up from the people for marriage equality was less controversial than Cameron pushing the law change (to legalize marriage equality) through Parliament without it having previously appeared in the Tory manifesto. That move angered traditional conservatives, who felt—perhaps justifiably— that the way it was done was undemocratic.
I’m not advocating direct democracy, as repeated plebiscites in a country of 50 million voters are expensive, unwieldy and open to ridicule. Yet, on big policy decisions, plebiscites do give an extra semblance of democracy—especially since, as previously mentioned, our representative democracy is far from representative. A People’s Vote does not then represent a threat to democracy, rather it is simply more democracy.
Flaws with the Referendum
“Moreover, the referendum was free and fair,” Jones claims, despite the fact that Vote Leave have been found guilty of breaking electoral law; that the Leave campaign used specially targeted bots to disseminate inflammatory and false social media posts to floating voters; that questions about malign foreign influence looming large over the campaign have yet to be answered satisfactorily. So much for them not being “nefariously meddled with.”
Even if the Remain campaign was just as bad, as Leavers often claim, that is hardly a ringing endorsement. Two wrongs don’t make a right and they certainly don’t make a decent advert for democracy. It seems odd to hold the result of such an unedifying campaign as beyond reproach and completely irreversible.
Jones sees no good reason for refuting the original result. I would say the fact that nothing the Leave campaign promised looks anywhere close to materializing, or indeed possible to achieve, is justification enough for having another go.
Jones hits the nail on the head when he says: “Perhaps an In/Out vote cannot adequately represent” our relationship with the EU or our future outside it. But he then goes on to add: “The simplest answer is that a Remain vote meant carrying on while a Leave vote meant leaving the EU entirely.”
However, the binary nature of the vote was perhaps the biggest flaw of the original referendum. re were around 17 million differing visions of what Brexit could mean. Rather than In/Out, or Leave/Remain, it is more accurate to say the electorate fell, by and large, into three broad camps: those who wanted a more global Britain; those who were happy staying more or less the same; and those who wanted a far more insular UK. Therefore, In/Out was a horrendously flawed dichotomy, with two camps likely to opt for Leave even though those two groups’ desired outcomes were at polar opposites of the spectrum.
Another major flaw of the referendum was that the terms of debate allowed Leave campaigners to say anything they liked with no consequences. They weren’t forced to put forward a coherent manifesto or blueprint for what they would do in the event of victory, aside from the two-pronged tactic of cake-eating and continued cake ownership. David Davis’ “No downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside”; Andrea Leadsom’s “sunlit uplands”; Liam Fox’s “easiest deal in history”; the same access to EU markets as we currently enjoy; no need to leave the single market; no possibility of a hard Irish border; £350 million a week extra which could be used to fund the NHS—all of these claims have been proven to be total bunkum. The Remain campaign certainly wasn’t whiter than white—then Chancellor George Osborne’s disingenuous warning of an instant, crippling austerity budget in the wake of a Leave victory certainly provides evidence for the charge that both sides were just as bad as each other. Yet, with hindsight and a subjective eye, most of the warnings in the much maligned government pamphlet were pretty much on the money.
Failing to Agree a Deal: A Tale of Difficulty and Incompetence
The referendum result directed the government to look seriously at exiting the EU, which they have certainly done, even if their attempts at doing so have been marked by incompetence.
In mitigation, theirs was an almost impossible task. Maastricht in 1992 was our honeybee sex moment with the EU. A male honeybee has a barbed penis—or endophallus—which ensures the tightest possible contact with the queen. Sadly, there is no way this can end without the male’s dramatic death. The signing of the Maastricht Treaty enmeshed the UK inside the EU constitution, as a drone becomes locked with its queen. The UK became too inextricably linked to be able to exit without severe damage and catastrophic pain. Despite Liam Fox’s promise of the smoothest withdrawal in history, or Nigel Farage eulogizing over the blissful buzz we’d experience after pulling out, the reality is that extricating ourselves could well leave us spiraling into oblivion—sans genitalia and with most of our abdominal tissue ripped from our body. Whether it was democratic of John Major to push through the signing of Maastricht without offering people a vote on the matter is an argument for another day.
There was, I concede, the possibility of something approaching a successful Brexit if the country’s greatest minds had been brought to the table and given ample time to formulate a strategy and negotiate properly with the EU. Yet the government’s commitment to populist anti-intellectualism was writ large—particularly when Michael Gove said people had “had enough of experts.” So, instead of capable people who knew what they were doing, it was left to the likes of Davis, who wore his lackadaisical, ignorant persona like a badge of honor, spending just four hours a year at the negotiating table with his opposite number, Michel Barnier. The Brexit brigade was then flummoxed further by an egregious error on May’s part. She triggered Article 50, unnecessarily setting a deadline, which made it impossible to agree terms to such a complex deal.
Jones’ insistence that we go through with Brexit ignores the perilous reality of the situation. Brexit is not simply “cancelling our subscription the EU,” as he puts it. It is feasible that, should life outside the EU not be all rosy and the people are, at some point, permitted to have a say on reapplying, we will not be dealt terms as favorable as those we currently enjoy (including opt-outs on the euro and Schengen Zone, for example). It is hard to see how we would be offered the same privileged conditions if we were to come crawling back in a few years’ time with our tails between our legs and our vital bee organs packed in ice cubes in a carrier bag. If, however, we decide to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit before it happens, we will be in a strong position to keep our current standing and negotiate future beneficial terms.
The Case for a People’s Vote
Despite being referred to constantly as a second referendum, this would be a vote on whether the people accept the deal (or none) that the government manages to negotiate once directed to attempt to leave the EU. Jones—and, indeed, May—say it doesn’t matter how people would vote now. The decision has been made. Jones suggests that if we were to hold a People’s Vote based on the will of the people changing, we should hold a general election every time an opposition party overtakes the government in the opinion polls. But Brexit is not like a general election. With the latter, you know where you stand. All sides know that, should they lose, they will have to wait five years (at most) until they get their chance to vote again. But they know they will get that chance. Brexit has greater generational consequences than that, so if the people have changed their mind, it is undemocratic to deny them the chance to show it.
If a new democratic vote changed the result of the first referendum, it would not be an attack on the previous majority, merely an equally democratic result subject to its own future challenges. To regard the matter as settled is undemocratic—as nothing is settled in a healthy democracy.
Jones opines, “If democracy is to survive we must respect this outcome, whilst ensuring the government gets the best terms for our country.” But how do we, as an electorate, do that? MPs correspond only with their own constituents. Even if your constituency MP is in a position to influence the terms of Brexit (and it’s not even clear that Dominic Raab, the current Secretary for DeExU, is in this category), what is it Jones expects us to say to ensure the best terms?
Get the best terms please? Get the best terms or else? I believe the government is trying to get the best terms but—due to a combination of the magnitude of the task and their startling incompetence—those best terms aren’t going to be anywhere near as good as promised. So lobbying for a People’s Vote makes rational sense, especially if it were agreed that a new referendum would be held only in the event of the government failing to secure a deal. That would focus minds far more successfully than emails to MPs, asking them to do their best.
Sure, it’s possible that, against the odds and expert predictions, a No-Deal Brexit isn’t, as May claims, the end of the world, and that our coach would somehow make it to the other side of the river with its passengers unharmed. But shouldn’t those passengers be afforded the right to make that decision themselves?
We have an advisory referendum being considered legally binding simply because people are quite passionate about the subject; a government unable to negotiate and deliver that which it promised; a narrow majority resulting from a toxic campaign mired in lies and fraud being treated as irreversible; and a PM determined not to let the people—or even Parliament—have a final say. Yes, democracy in the United Kingdom is at risk from countless threats. But more democracy is not one of them.