Why the referendum on Europe has fundamentally damaged British democracy


There is much debate about a second referendum on whether Britain should leave Europe. Those on the leave side consider such an event to be tantamount to treason and unconstitutional. The argument is that the people have spoken and their view is that Britain should leave. Any attempt to amend that is unlawful and unconstitutional. It is arguable that referendums themselves are unconstitutional in that they bypass the sovereignty of Parliament. Curiously that sovereignty is one of the rights the leave camp are claiming to recover from Europe.

Many resist the potential for a second referendum principally because they fear the result could be reversed. This view that a second referendum could produce a different result stems from fear. If, as many claim, the British public are steadfast in their desire to leave Europe there should be no fear in holding a second vote. The people would simply re-affirm their original choice or even strengthen their vote given the strength of conviction the leave politicians insist is the preference of the Country.

The reality is that the fear of the leave politicians is genuine. They realise, but are unwilling to say, that the likely result of a second referendum is that there could be a majority which would vote to stay within Europe. The narrowness of the first vote and the absence of over a third of the potential voters puts a narrow win to remain highly likely. In such an event would the leavers consider that result to be a representation of the ‘will of the people’ or the theft of their legitimately expressed view exercised in the first referendum. Many would say that it is a typical move by politicians where the result doesn’t correspond to what they want to keep having a vote until they get the result they want.

The view of leavers is that the first result represents the ‘will of the people’ as expressed by a democratically held vote and that choice as expressed in that vote should be respected. The problem arises in that a second referendum vote would be no less a reflection of the democratically held views of the electorate. Any number of referendums have the same legitimacy as every other referendum and so it is a fallacy to hold up a single vote as being the sole will of the electorate. That is why historically referendums have not been resorted to in British politics. Prior to 1975 there had never been a UK wide referendum. Since 1975 their have been a number of other referendums but only two other UK wide votes, one on the voting system itself and of course one on membership of the European Union. The conclusiveness of the vote in the other two votes has been more decisive but this is tempered by lower turnout in both those votes suggesting the EU vote was of greater concern to a higher number of voters this time around.

Referendums are good at obtaining voter opinion on simple binary questions. What they are very bad at is answering complex questions especially where information regarding the consequences of those questions are either scarce, distorted or hard to predict. Political votes are seldom clear black or white choices. It is only now after the decision to leave the EU that a proper discussion is being held as to what the consequences will be. This debate highlights the foolhardiness of making complex decisions based on a simple binary yes/no vote where emotion takes a prominent position fanned by exaggerated and partisan opinions lacking a proper factual analysis both in the press and from politicians. The Cameron government clearly grossly miscalculated voter attitudes to Europe in a vain attempt to squash internal Conservative Party discontent and to shore up his own personal position within the party. Mrs May made a similar miscalculation in her decision to call a General Election again over European issues.

The referendum on Europe has done irreparable damage to the UK constitution. Cabinet collective responsibility is undermined when it is clear that so many within cabinet disagree fundamentally with decisions being taken on Brexit for whichever side. Cabinet Ministers brief in the press their personally held views against the Government held position. This is clearly counter to the principle of collective responsibility.

Parliamentary sovereignty has been undermined when David Cameron gave a cast iron guarantee of a referendum and then creating a virtual fait acomplis that the vote would be binding on Parliament even though the majority of parliamentarians disagreed with the vote against leaving the EU. At the time it is arguable if the UK public held strong views on the issue at all and that the referendum was actually forced on Cameron by discontent within his own party and a section of the press with an ongoing rabid dislike of Europe coupled with an erosion at the extreme edges of the Conservative vote resulting in a shift towards more extreme views held by UKIP. At no point was UKIP ever a serious political movement only ever having 1 seat at Westminster and for the Conservative Party to use the political expedient of the referendum to shore up its own flagging vote is a dishonest use of the parliamentary system which effectively took the decision making process away from parliament.

Discontent with Europe will not be removed once the UK leaves the EU. It will only take one rejection of UK goods due to non-compliance of EU standards or an increase in water or energy prices instigated by a European owned water or energy company to stimulate the headlines in the tabloid press about the iniquity of perfidious europeans. The only difference now will be that the UK will have no say in European issues beyond that of a lobbyist. Our political parties will be riven by discontent caused by the polarisation of views over Europe for years to come unless, as the leavers proclaim, the UK will sail off into the sunny uplands of economic prosperity now that the country is released from the constraints of European bureaucracy and the crippling costs of supporting French agriculture. There is little to believe that this will happen beyond the wishful thinking of a few rich businessmen who see the opportunities for themselves. The economic boom wasn’t there in the 1970’s when we begged to join the EU and there isn’t any reason to believe the UK is in a stronger world position now.