Thursday, 14 July 2016

Can Brexit mean Remain?

A host of "authorities,"  some of them died in the wool democrats, are arguing that parliament should ignore the referendum result and refuse to trigger Article 50.

One such is my friend Michael Meadocroft, liberal and Liberal to his fingertips, who calls upon what's left of the Liberal Democrats in parliament to do just this.

Tim [Farron] has taken the right decision - to campaign for UK in Europe at a forthcoming general election - but it will be nugatory if parliament has already agreed to invoke Article 50.

I am surprised and highly disappointed that the parliamentary party - and, alas, many other well-meaning but naive politicians - tamely accept the outcome of the referendum. Is this the successor to the brave parliamentary party that alone stood against the array of political and social forces and opposed the Iraq invasion? It looks like a pale shadow of the party of 2003,  whose judgement was, of course, proved absolutely correct.

The Leave campaign easily surpassed the level of manipulation that justifies declaring the referendum illegitimate. No referendum ever answers the question posed but this one was in a class of its own. To say that it was democratic and represented the view of the electorate on whether to Remain or Leave the EU is to accept that the cynical and deliberate mobilisation of xenophobic and dangerously prejudiced arguments on immigration can be set aside. For a large swathe of the electorate - certainly enough to swing the outcome - the referendum was on immigration not on the EU and the effects on immigrants and minorities of legitimising open attacks on them is already being seen. Those of us who manned stalls out side supermarkets or who engaged with electors when delivering Remain leaflets are well aware of what had motivated Leave voters - and it wasn’t membership of the EU.

Has the parliamentary party forgotten so quickly the bravery of Elwyn Watkins exposing successfully in the courts the 2010 general election lies of Phil Woolas in Oldham East & Saddleworth? That action showed that deliberate deception at an election renders the result null and void. The same verdict applies to this referendum, with its lies on the £350 million a week, the pending accession of Turkey and its 76 million people queuing to arrive in the UK, with the accompanying sickening illustration of non-white refugees seeking to leave Slovakia..

The catastrophic consequences of leaving the EU, for both the UK and for Europe, have been well-rehearsed and yet the parliamentary party is prepared to accept these on the basis of a highly flawed referendum. Further, can it be regarded as legitimate for parliament to act on the result to bring about a fundamental change to the constitutional position of the UK based on such a small minority of the electorate? Only 37.2% voted for Leave. A change of such magnitude needs to be based on the settled view of a majority of the electorate and this result palpably failed to demonstrate that.

It is significant that in 1978, as a Labour (and later SDP) backbencher, George Cunningham,  persuaded parliament that it should insert a threshold requirement of 40% of the electorate for the result of the Scottish devolution (not even independence) referendum to be effective. The result that year was 52% to 48% in favour but it was therefore not enacted. A very good precedent to day.

Significantly, Nigel Farage, on 15 May, stated the same view: that if it was a narrow victory for Remain - and, helpfully, he quoted precisely 52% to 48% - it could not be regarded as definitive and he would demand a second referendum! How much more significant to have those actual  figures cast for the opposite and more drastic option of Leave?

One further party point: we should not allow the same campaigner organiser who promoted lies and deceptions against us in the AV referendum in 2011 to have the satisfaction of seeing the same tactics work again on this much wider and more significant issue.

The party’s promise should be to thwart the early enactment of the referendum result - ie to vote down any early invoking of Article 50 - and to tackle the clear and understandable causes of disenchantment among the anti-immigration electors and in due course to fight a general election on the declared policy of Remain. Such an election, particularly if the difficult issues are not addressed, is likely to produce a number of UKIP MPs but by then there should be much clearer awareness of the consequences of brexit for the case for Remain to be accepted by a majority of the electors. Whether a further referendum is then needed is a question for that moment. There are precedents for such a second vote, in Ireland, France, Netherlands and Denmark.

The sight of Marine Le Pen congratulating Farage was chilling. Unless Liberals and their allies face up to the far right across Europe the future is bleak. We have been consistently for a united Europe since the 1955 general election and must maintain that view today. Are our MPs, and others of like mind, really going to troop regularly through the lobbies time after time in favour of legislation they know to be disastrous in its effects?

Michael Meadowcroft.

3rd July 2016

For once I cannot agree with Michael.  However narrow the margin of defeat, it is surely not legitimate to change the rules just becasue we don't like the result. Maybe there should have been  provision for a two-thirds majority, maybe we should have been told the referendum was only advisory, maybe there should have been a means of making legal challenges to downright lies.  

But there weren't.  And the Liberal Democrats are as complicity in this negligence as everyone else.

As as this letter in yesterday's Guardian points out:

The European Union Referendum Act of 2015 passed the Commons 544-53 on second reading. The House of Lords also approved. Only the Scottish Nationalists opposed the bill; other parties, even the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, agreed not just on holding the referendum but on structuring it as a single vote, a one-day plebiscite requiring only a simple majority nationwide to pass – no supermajority, no “multiple lock” recognising Britain’s constituent parts, no later confirming vote and no requirement for a detailed prospectus of the leave position.
Any of those parties or their leaders could have said at the time that this was a careless and dangerous way to proceed. Why didn’t they? And what responsibility does that give them for the resulting mess?
Jeff Smith
Brno, Czech Republic

The answer to Mr Smith's question is that our parliamentarians should do their best to clear up the mess their lack of thought has created.  I should prefer our future to be in and fully co-operating with our partners in the EU.  Outside it we are diminished politically as well as economically.

But we shall survive,. It will not be the catastrophe that Michael claims.  We need to work for the closest possible relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, remaining outward-looking, devoted to the rule of international law, playing a full  part the UN and other international institutions, and avoiding becoming more of a lapdog of the United States.

More serious than our economic future (we are still very rich: all we need do is spread it around a bit more) is the precarious state of our democracy.  To ignore the referendum result becasue the "British people have spoken" but given the wrong answer, will further fuel the disillusionment which already exists.

Rather, we need to tackle the flaws in our democracy: a fairer voting system, equitable funding of the parties, more devolution, real equality before the law,  a more diverse media, greater economic equality, a vibrant education system for all, and a curb on the ability of the rich to manipulate the system to their advantage.

And never again have another referendum.


  1. Your wish for no more referendums is "highly unlikely" to be granted. The wheels are already in motion on a "Which Union?" referendum in Scotland. As you noted, Nicola Sturgeon's governing party were very clear from the outset last year that there should be a 50% threshold met to take Scotland out of the EU. The vote for leave was only 38% with 62% voting to remain. That threshold was not met so it is only reasonable that the electorate should be asked again to chose between the two unions that it has voted in recent years to be part of if remaining in both is not an option. The choice will be between two very different sorts of change and it will be a very different campaign. The status quo ante is not an option this time. Those who want to make the case for the UK will also have to make the case against the EU and vice versa.

    Of course, Scotland leaving the UK could be argued to create a "material change of circumstances" that would justify a second EU referendum in the Dual Kingdom of England and Wales (as EU diplomats are reportedly calling it).

  2. I was thinking in terns of UK wide referendums but you're right, with my Anglo-centric tunnel vision I'd overlooked the Scottish case.

    Having already started down the referendum road on the issue of Scottish independence it is logical to continue. and, with a 50+% majority being enough to secure a "stay in the UK" vote last time, it would be unfair to to place a higher threshold for the next one.

    My own view is that it would be preferable for the UK to remain united, but with complete independence on domestic affairs (home rule) for the constituent nations, leaving the UK government with responsibility for defence, foreign affairs,the currency and equalisation grants.

    However, with Brexit so roundly defeated in Scotland there is now a very real case for Scottish independence. Good luck with it.

    But, in or out, I suggest that be an end to referendums.

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