Ever since Britain voted by a clear margin to leave the EU, there have been calls for the vote to be set aside or ignored.
Advocates of this course have pointed out correctly that the vote was purely consultative and that Britain is a parliamentary democracy and that the British parliament is under no legal or constitutional obligation to carry out the referendum result.
People who say that the vote should be disregarded also say the vote was obtained by lies and that many of the benighted voters who voted to Leave, having now realised they were lied to, are experiencing “buyer’s remorse” and would vote Remain if asked to vote again.
Others, whilst grudgingly admitting the vote cannot be simply set aside or held again, propose an alternative more insidious strategy. They want the British government to go through the motions of pretending to negotiate the terms for Brexit. Then when in two years time the deal produced is obviously unsatisfactory it can be put to the people in a second referendum, presumably in the expectation they would vote to reject it, allowing Britain to stay in the EU. Proponents of this strategy include the political commentator Timothy Garton Ash, who in a column for the Guardian put it this way:
“By 2018, the likely result of an article 50 exit negotiation, Scotland’s intentions and any changes that may be made on the continent will all be clearer – and a new Labour leader should be firmly in the saddle. That is likely to be a better moment to ask the British people if they really want to commit this act of self-harm. Or maybe the right moment will come a little sooner, or later.
The strategic goal is clear: to keep as much as possible of our disunited kingdom as fully engaged as possible in the affairs of our continent. But sometimes in politics it is wisest to watch and wait, playing for time and keeping your options open. This is such a time.”
Some of these demands to reverse the referendum result are couched in very emotional language, with a common complaint that the vote to Leave was a betrayal by the old of the young, and with some going further still, like the Observer’s Will Hutton who in a column in the Observer calls the EU
“a noble idea that represents the best effort the world has seen to build international cooperation”.
Such a great cause apparently cannot be given up even if that means setting aside a clear demand of the people expressed in a democratic vote.
These widespread calls to set aside the referendum result find a strange echo from some people who actually welcome the result. These people do not want the result to be set aside but are nonetheless confident that it will be. They say democracy does not exist any more in Britain, Europe or the West, point out that the EU has a habit of ignoring or setting aside referendum results it doesn’t like, and predict that this will happen to the British referendum result as well on the grounds that Brexit would supposedly be too great a blow to the EU and the West for it to be allowed to happen. Classic statements of this view have been made by the Moon of Alabama blog, by Eric Zuesse here in The Duran and – with important qualifications – by Dr. Paul Craig Roberts.
I am sure these views are all wrong. I do not believe the referendum result will be set aside or that the referendum will be fought again now or in two years time. I am sure Britain will leave the EU.
First, as to the referendum result itself, there are no grounds to set it aside. No one is claiming there were irregularities that might invalidate the result. Claims the result was built on lies are wrong. The result was not close. On a high turnout the people of Britain voted by a clear margin to leave the EU and in England outside London – the core region of the United Kingdom – the vote in favour of leaving was overwhelming. The fact that the vote is in theory consultative rather than binding is neither here nor there. The people of Britain were promised before they voted that parliament would be bound by the result and the political reality is that parliament is bound by that promise. Parliament draws its legitimacy from the people and it cannot simply disregard how they have voted without putting its legitimacy – or rather of that of the politicians and political parties represented in it – in question.
Talk of widespread “buyer’s remorse” amongst Leave voters is for the moment just that – talk – with no polling evidence behind it. Besides even if some voters who voted Leave are now having doubts there is no reason to think the vast majority of Leave voters, who make up a large majority of English voters outside London, share those doubts. The expression of doubts in the immediate aftermath of a vote no-one expected is not surprising or even politically important. Once the situation has calmed down the strong likelihood is that any doubts there now are will settle, and that any Leave voters who in the days immediately following the vote wobbled amidst the noise, hysteria and panic, will quietly firm up again.
As for the attempt to play generations off against each other, that is an appalling argument and is certainly no reason to set the result aside. Besides the claim 75% of young voters voted Remain is misleading given the very high abstention rate amongst such voters. The Moon of Alabama blog has explained the point best:
“First, young voters feel cheated of their future because some old, grumpy people voted for Brexit. Well, these young voters of age 18 to 24, tearfully interviewed by the BBC and Channel 4, constitute only 5% of the electorate. Only a third of them voted at all, 70% of those 1/3 of 5% for “Remain”. This is a small part, and a not very interested one, of the population. Who are they to deserve some special attendance?”
If the British government or parliament or the elite in general try to set aside or ignore the vote, they would create for themselves a major crisis of legitimacy especially in England. Whilst this being the United Kingdom we are unlikely to see riots and tanks in the streets – as some are already warning – it would create a huge sense of grievance, which would very quickly crystallise into a major political movement that in England outside London could easily sweep all before it. Once the hysteria in Westminster has died down – which it will – that fact will become obvious and politicians being in their mass the political animals that they are – intent first and foremost on their own survival – they will quickly adjust to the fact and will recognise that their only prospect for future political success is if they accept the result and guide Britain towards Brexit.
What of the EU, will it to try to invalidate the result as it has so many other referendums in the past? For the first and I suspect only time in my life I find myself in agreement with the Le Monde and Guardian commentator Natalie Nougayrede who sets out the obvious difficulties:
“First, about previous referendum reruns. In 1992 Denmark rejected the Maastricht treaty with a 50.7% majority. That set its European partners scrambling for a solution: opt-outs were granted on economic and monetary issues, on common defence and security policy, on home and justice affairs, and on the question of European citizenship. The following year, after that package had been presented, another referendum was held, with this time a 56.7% yes answer. In 2001, Irish voters said no to the treaty of Nice (by 54%). EU statements were then made that Ireland needn’t join a common defence policy and could refrain from other enhanced cooperation. In 2002, a new Irish vote produced a 63% majority in favour. In 2008, again Ireland rejected (by 53%) a new European text, the Lisbon treaty. A special document called “the Irish guarantees” was then produced, allowing for a rerun of the Irish referendum in 2009, with this time 67% of the electorate approving. But what was possible then is not necessarily possible now.
One essential difference is that these previous referendums were not about national membership of the EU, but about plans to strengthen integration. They were about adding layers to the project – not subtracting a key member state from it.”
The point Nougayrede is making, and she is right, is that all the previous referendums she discusses that were set aside were about giving or withholding consent for further EU integration. When the results went the “wrong” way it was relatively easy to massage them away by making what turned out to be fake concessions that formally met the demand that the referendum result had expressed. That way the pretence of abiding by a democratic outcome could be preserved. That incidentally is what also happened following the French Constitutional Referendum of 2005 – a referendum Nougayrede strangely fails to discuss. That rejected by a clear majority the EU constitution that was being proposed in that year. The EU got round that rejection whilst formally abiding by it by pretending to drop the constitution whilst repackaging it as the Lisbon Treaty, which France then accepted without holding another vote.
As Nougayrede rightly says, it is simply not possible to do things like that in the case of Britain’s Brexit vote, where the vote was a straightforward vote to leave the EU. That is too unambiguous a rejection of the EU to be massaged away. Any attempt to do so would cause fatal damage to the core of the EU’s ideology and self-image, written into its founding Treaties, of itself as a community of democracies and free peoples. As its leaders undoubtedly know, doing anything like that would completely vindicate the EU’s critics by proving conclusively that they are right: that it is not the democratic structure which it claims to be but is rather one which depends purely on force. Given the crisis of legitimacy that would cause it is unlikely the EU would survive such an exposure of itself for very long.
The same by the way holds true of one other referendum that Nougayrede also for some reason does not discuss – the one that was held in Greece last year. That too was not a vote to stay or leave the EU or even to stay or leave the Eurozone. Rather it was or purported to be a referendum about whether or not to accept the EU’s bailout conditions, a massively complicated issue in which Tsipras and the Greek government could pretend to be carrying out the will of the Greek people after the result was declared whilst actually doing the opposite.
I would add that if the EU were to attempt the same sort of financial terrorism towards Britain that they carried out towards Greece last year – something which is actually impossible given Britain’s far bigger and stronger economy and the fact that Britain is not a part of the Eurozone – the effect in Britain would be calamitous and would massively strengthen the demand in Britain to leave the EU and to do so moreover immediately. The effect on the world economy – including the EU and US economies – of targeting in that way the country which hosts one of the world’s largest financial centres anyway ensures it will not happen.
In fact the impossibility of reversing the British referendum result is so well understood within the rest of the EU that only marginal players like Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynsky are reported to have even suggested it. On the contrary the consensus within the EU appears to be that they want to end the uncertainty by getting Britain to leave the EU as quickly as possible and that they want that to happen by having the British initiate the process by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty with the least possible delay.
What of the view that efforts will nonetheless be made by the elites both in the EU and Britain to keep Britain within some of the institutions of the EU – first and foremost the European Single Market – even if Britain formally quits the EU?
Whilst such a thing is theoretically possible I frankly doubt it will happen. The British want to stay within the European Single Market but essentially want to do so on their own terms – with unrestricted access for their businesses to the Single Market whilst opting out of the EU’s core principle of unrestricted movement of labour. Whilst such a thing is theoretically possible, I cannot see why the EU would concede it when doing so would merely encourage other EU states to demand the same. Ultimately hopes for these sort of arrangements rest on assumptions about British power and importance to the EU which have no basis. Given the bad example making such concessions to Britain would create, I cannot see why the EU would want to make them.
We should not let the hysteria amongst the political class in Britain blind us or confuse us to the realities. Britain is definitely leaving the EU, and there will be no second referendum and no reversal of the decision. Perhaps Scotland will split away and will negotiate to join the EU, but that will come later. England at least is definitely leaving.
As for the idea that Britain can quit the EU but remain a member of the European Single Market on its own terms, frankly I think that is very unlikely and I doubt it will happen.