For the 48% who voted to remain in the EU last summer – the narrow margin indicating a clear division, and probably a wide range, of opinion over the issue then – the argument of the more extreme Brexiteers that that vote gave them a clear and eternal popular mandate to distance Britain as far away from the EU as possible – a so-called ‘hard Brexit’ – is, frankly, ludicrous. There are four reasons why.
The first is that our parliamentary constitution gives them no mandate to claim such a mandate. The relations between Britain and other nations can only be altered by Parliament, after extensive consideration, and irrespective of any kind of direct test of ‘public opinion’, which – it’s perfectly clear – can only be ‘advisory’. The fact that our last craven Parliament voted against its better collective judgment, and in fear of popular (in fact Press) recrimination if it didn’t, only papered over this requirement. It voted, in effect, to surrender its constitutional responsibility; which I suppose makes the decision strictly speaking constitutional, but only by abandoning the safeguards against hasty decisions that the constitution is there to ensure.
Secondly, the claim that holding a second referendum in order to reconsider and even possibly reverse that decision would be ‘undemocratic’, is self-evident nonsense. In simple logic: if one referendum is democratic, why can’t another one be? Why should the first one bind us all for ever after, even if public opinion has shifted in the meantime? I don’t know whether that is the case (I’ve seen no polls to indicate it); but it’s quite possible that, for example, the young, who are the ones who are going to have to live longest with the new dispensation, and who would almost certainly have made a crucial difference if they’d bothered to vote last year, might come out and vote in a second referendum, as they did in the recent General Election, so reflecting a fuller range of public opinion than last June’s vote.
In the third place: the first referendum had obvious and blatant flaws, which rendered the result probably not a judgment on the issue that was formally presented in it, nor one taken on the basis of a fair presentation of both sides. I’ve posted on this before (https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/). The vote was taken in a moment of high dissatisfaction with the government of the day, for all kinds of reasons, and reflected that general dissatisfaction at least as much as it did hostility to the EU per se. I’ve talked with Brexiteers of all kinds and classes, and although some were genuinely and knowledgeably concerned about Europe (I share many of those concerns), and a few others were simply stupid (as were many Remainers too: that’s the nature of our society), many others were far more concerned with other things. Politicians’ out-of-touchedness-with ordinary people was one. A few months later their discontent was made even more obvious by the result of the June 2017 General Election, which slashed the Conservatives’ majority. Really, the EU Referendum was held at a very bad time. It was like being asked to come to an important decision in a rage.
Fourthly, it seems obvious that not all Brexiteers were voting for the same kind of Brexit. What kind that was, was never spelled out, leaving a number of possibilities, ranging from absolute isolationism to the closer Norway model. There is no way of knowing which degree of Brexit the voters favoured, and no justification at all for assuming it was the most extreme kind. If it was not, then there would seem to be some degree of overlap between the two camps; a compromise, based on the preservation of the single market, for example, and with most of the rules, like fairly free movement, which that would bring with it: in other words, a ‘soft’ enough Brexit to satisfy most people on both sides.
All of which is why Parliament, which is a better – more deliberative – channel for public opinion than a crude ‘in or out’ referendum, and the one that is licensed by our constitution, must have the final say on whatever terms of exit are negotiated between us and the remaining members of the EU. We’d then know exactly what we were voting on. In order to achieve consensus, and hence a positive vote, it obviously couldn’t be as extreme and final as the Brexiteers are demanding today. And, by rights – in democratic principle, indeed – it should leave open the possibility of our reneging on Brexit, and returning to Europe, despite that knee-jerk vote of 23 June last year.
For me as a historian, as well as an ordinary citizen, this whole event has, I have to say, shaken me. Historians like to be able to rationalise history, to trace underlying causes and broad trends, in a way this referendum affair is going to make difficult. I don’t recall many historical events that have turned as much as this one on accidents, misunderstandings and errors. That makes me uncomfortable This is not because the result of the referendum turned out ‘wrong’ for me. Before it, I was in two minds about Britain’s membership of the EU, especially in view of the distortions caused by the Euro, the EU’s failure to come to grips collectively with the refugee problem, its neoliberalism, and its ‘imperialism’, as I saw it (as an imperial historian), in Eastern Europe and the Ukraine. (I’ve blogged critically on all these issues.) My reason in the end for voting ‘Remain’ was in order for us in Britain to retain a degree of ‘control’ over our affairs, with the help of our European allies, against what is the major contemporary challenge to our national sovereignty, which is not Brussels, but globalisation; which an isolated mid-Atlantic economy cannot hope to resist on its own. If we had decided to leave the EU in a more considered and constitutional way, I would still have sorrowed, at the way my cherished European identity (one of several) had been stolen from me; but not felt as angry as I do now. For this to happen in such an accidental, random and irrational way is what disturbs me as a historian, and upsets me as a citizen. I imagine that others feel this way, and will continue to do so if Theresa May’s form of Brexit goes forward. That festering grievance bodes ill for our stability and contentment as a nation for years to come.