Sunday, 19 June 2016

Forget 'Leave Or Remain' - The Brexit Referendum Should Have Never Been Called In The First Place


With just under a week to go before the vote on the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union, the country is reaching peak referendum fever. 



However, amongst all the hype and excitement, it appears that nobody has stopped to pause and ask a far more fundamental question: whether we should be having this referendum at all. Politicians and political commentators from all sides have hailed the referendum as a fantastic symbol of the strength and vibrancy of our political system. In fact, this referendum is a cynical political ploy which will serve to undermine our system of representative democracy. The referendum was tactically motivated and its merits ill thought through. We should never have called this vote in the first place.

Firstly, let’s immediately demolish this idea that the referendum is some noble expression of our democracy. It’s not. The referendum was included in the Conservative Party’s 2015 election manifesto as an attempt to diffuse the populist threat posed by UKIP. It was a cold political calculation, a cynical attempt to shore up support amongst the party's traditional base. Although some claim that the referendum was called because of the importance of the issue being debated, this is clearly false. None of the most important questions in our democracy’s history were put to referendums. Whether to go to battle in the first world war, or the second world war, or whether to invade Iraq. Nor were referendums held over which economic policies to adopt during the great depression, or the more recent financial crisis of 2008.

There is a very good reason why these huge, seismic political issues were not put to referendums. It is because we, as a nation, have chosen to abide by the principle of representative democracy. The basic idea is simple: every few years we vote in a general election where we choose representatives who vote in parliament on our behalf. These representatives have the time, resources and expertise to discuss, debate and understand the complex issues and public policy questions of the day. As such, they’re much better placed to vote on these questions than we are. And, of course, MPs must have their constituents’ interests at heart because they know that they may well be voted out of office at the next election. Well, that’s the idea at least.

This argument for representative democracy seems particularly applicable to the question of our membership of the EU. It seems bonkers to leave what is undoubtedly an incredibly complex and multi-faceted question to the direct votes of the general public. Who really has the time or expertise to pour through and weigh all the evidence on both sides of the debate? Are we, the people, really better placed to decide this monumentally tricky issue than our elected parliament?

Moreover, the complexity of the issue at hand renders a referendum completely inappropriate in this instance. It is simply not possible to reduce such a challenging and complex issue to a simple yes or no question. With so many competing visions of our post-Brexit future, what does a vote to leave the EU even signify? Does it entail us joining the EFTA, or the EEA, or leaving the single market altogether? This is far from clear. In the event of a leave vote, should we hold another referendum, or should we leave it up to MPs to decide? But what if MPs (approximately two thirds of whom support Bremain) decide to follow the model of Norway, who are outside of the EU but remain inside the single market through membership of the EFTA? Norway must accept the free movement of people and make contributions to the EU budget, but regaining control of our borders and the infamous “£350 million a week” we supposedly send to the EU (we don’t really, but that’s been discussed enough already) have been two of the key arguments propounded by the leave campaign. The inevitable public backlash that would ensue if MPs took us into the EFTA following a leave vote would raise serious constitutional issues. Are the people or parliament ultimately sovereign; who should reign supreme?

Another issue with the referendum campaign is that it has, at times, felt as if we were debating another question entirely. Namely, who should be the prime minister, rather than the question of our membership of the EU. The campaign has seen a huge focus on personalities and individual ambitions, rather than the substantive issues we should instead be discussing. But this is a consistent theme throughout referendums in the UK. During the Lisbon Treaty referendums in Ireland, abortion and conscription became major issues. During the "yes" campaign for the 1997 Welsh devolution referendum, an aeroplane flew across Wales with a banner which read, “Vote Yes, Vote Blair”. Referendums often become about something entirely different to the real question at hand.

I hope it is now clear that there is a very strong case to be made against the idea that we should be having this referendum at all. But you would think that, with such a multiplicity of issues and problems with the very idea of holding this referendum, some sort of parliamentary committee might have thought to investigate the use of referendums in the UK before we called this vote. Well, you’d be right! In fact, the House of Lords Constitution Committee looked at the merits of the use of referendums back in 2010, weighing the evidence on both sides before concluding that:

The balance of the evidence that we have heard leads us to the conclusion that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums. In particular, we regret the ad hoc manner in which referendums have been used, often as a tactical device, by the government of the day.”


The committee identified all the never-ending problems with the use of referendums outlined in this article, and more, before reaching the same conclusion that I have. It is abundantly clear that the EU referendum was inappropriate and misguided - a bad idea from the outset. It has undermined the axiomatic premise of the sovereignty of parliament and corroded our representative democracy.
Mohammad Lone Editor