‘This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’
– Commons Briefing Paper 7212, giving background on the European Union Referendum Bill
Results of the EU Referendum:
Remain: 16,141,241 (48.1%)
Leave: 17,410,742 (51.9%)
Total Electorate: 46,500,001
Rejected Ballots: 25,359
Given that this is a consultative exercise, ‘which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions’ what inferences can be safely drawn from the result regarding the opinion voiced by the electorate, and how should policy be guided by them?
First, the bare facts are these:
a minority of the electorate – 37.5 % – favour leaving the EU;
a smaller minority – 34.7% – favour remaining;
a considerable majority – 62.5% – did not vote to leave (i.e. those who voted to remain plus those who did not vote)
What inferences can be drawn from this, with regard to influencing policy?
- The clearest inference is that the electorate does not speak with a single voice on this matter; on the contrary, it is deeply divided – the 52/48% split among those who voted reflects this.
- There is not an overall majority of the electorate in favour of leaving.
- No inference can be safely drawn about the views of those who did not vote; however, in the context of a decision that will affect the entire country, the fact of their number – 12.9 million – cannot be ignored.
Beyond these immediate inferences, some wider conclusions can be drawn. From inference (1) above, it is clear that there is no warrant for talking in terms of the ‘express will of the British people’. It is not only the voices of the 17.4 million who voted to leave that must be heeded, but also the 16.1 who voted to remain and the 12.9 million who did not vote, for whatever reason. This is not a game show where the winner takes all: it is an instrument for shaping policy for the entire country.
It is evident that some of those who voted may have been under the misapprehension that the result of the referendum would be legally binding. However, anyone who had sufficient interest or was obliged by their position to inform themselves and others about the issue could have been in no doubt that the type and purpose of the referendum was as clearly stated in the Commons Briefing paper quoted at the head of this article, which was published on 3 June 2015 and freely available.
A numerous group of people including all MPs and parliamentarians, News Editors, political journalists and public commentators had either a sworn duty or a serious responsibility to acquaint themselves with the content of Commons Briefing Paper 7212 and therefore to know that the referendum was consultative and not legally binding.
It follows that anyone in that group who implied otherwise, by action or inaction, acted reprehensibly, mischievously, dishonestly and irresponsibly.
Much blame must attach to the previous Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, whose conduct in this matter can only be described as reckless and irresponsible throughout, since he repeatedly used a matter of grave import to the whole country as a party-political tool.
His initial inclusion of the referendum as a manifesto promise appears to have been intended primarily to stem the haemorrhaging of Tory support to UKIP and there are strong grounds for supposing that he did not expect to have to implement it, since he did not think he would be elected outright and would be required to jettison it as part of any coalition deal.
His failure on taking office to make clear the status of the referendum is reprehensible and negligent. He then aggravated matters by embarking on a process of renegotiation with the EU prior to the referendum. This was completely wrong-headed and appears once more to have been motivated by his own political situation. It is evident that he hoped to use the threat of the UK’s possibly voting to leave as a means of pressing the EU for concessions which he hoped would sway the referendum outcome in his favour, i.e. a vote to remain.
However, since the express purpose of the referendum was ‘consultative, [to enable] the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions’ it is clear that its proper use should have been to form the basis of any renegotiation of membership – that is the very policy which it was intended to influence.
Had the actual result (i.e. a vote in favour of leaving) been put to its proper use, the Prime Minister would presently be engaged in renegotiation of our membership (and reform of the EU as a whole) in good faith but with a strong hand since the option of leaving would remain a possibility if the results were not to our satisfaction. It is hard to see that this would not be better, from everyone’s point of view – leavers and remainers alike – than the situation we now find ourselves in, having closed down our options and effectively resigned all influence by a premature (and unnecessary) commitment to leave.
For that, Mrs May is to blame. Mr Cameron’s abrupt departure (his final irresponsible act) may have pitched her into a situation that was more febrile than it need have been but she came in with a clean slate. The opportunity was there for her to show leadership but she has failed to take it.
She has never challenged what she knows to be the mistaken assumption that the referendum result commits the government to leave the EU. She could have done so and defied contradiction since every other MP, parliamentarian, News Editor and political journalist knows it as well as she. Instead she has confirmed the error by her frequent reiteration of the idiotic mantra ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and aggravated it by challenging the High Court’s decision that sovereignty of parliament cannot be circumvented in this matter – something which she and all these others know very well.
It should not have been left to the courage of a private citizen to have the courts reaffirm what every parliamentarian not only knows, but has a duty to uphold, namely the sovereignty of parliament. They should have been foremost in asserting it, not shying away and attempting to deny it.
The response of certain newspapers to the Court ruling was disgraceful. The fact that we expect little better from the British press does not exonerate the editors from blame. They know that they have been instrumental, from the outset, in encouraging their readers in the false belief that the referendum binds the government to a course of action, whereas – as they know perfectly well – ‘It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented.’
We are now in the ridiculous and entirely avoidable situation where a large minority of the populace believe erroneously that they have been given (or won by their vote) the right to compel the government to do their will and take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. This misapprehension has now been suffered to continue uncorrected so long, and indeed been reinforced by the ill-judged actions of such a number of people, that any attempt to remedy it will probably result in considerable civil strife and violence, since it will be seen as the ‘Establishment’ attempting to thwart the will of the people and deprive them of what is rightfully theirs.
Who is going to have the courage to stand up and state the facts, and defy anyone to contradict them?
Here they are, once more:
The referendum was consultative and did not bind the government to any course of action.
It was intended to ascertain the voice of the people, in order to influence policy. It is evident from the result that the people have not spoken with a single voice and do not have a settled will in this matter. The nation is divided. There is no majority in favour of leaving the EU. A large minority wish to do so; a similar but slightly smaller minority wish to remain. A further group, nearly 13 million people, did not express a view. The majority of the electorate did not vote in favour of leaving.
The situation, though dire, is not irrecoverable. Probably the most honest course would be to admit that almost everyone concerned, across all parties and on both sides of the debate, has created an unnecessary and dangerous mess, call a general election, and let the people decide.
In the meantime, there is an onus on those who have contributed to the creation of this dangerous situation to do their best to defuse it, by speaking calmly and honestly and confining themselves to the facts. A collective act of contrition on their part would be a good beginning. They have deceived the people and endangered the country.