Wednesday 13 September 2017

The shameles Right

One of the problems of being on the side of the angels and supporting truth, justice and traditional British values (modesty, understated patriotism, level playing-fields, a penchant for the underdog," my word is my bond, "etc) is that we have a sense of proportion and a sense of shame.  Therefore, since the case for disregarding the Brexit referendum vote has been made  by umpteen of us, from the great and good Professor A C Grayling down to this humble blog, we're embarrassed about going on about it.

The case has been made, those concerned have presumably noted it, and the argument must move on.

Unfortunately the right in general and Brexiteers in particular, have no such reservations.  Remember how the Tories managed, by constant repetition, to convince too many of the electorate that the financial crash of 2007/8 was al the fault of Labour's overspending and it was George Osborne's sad but necessary duty to clear up the mess they'd left behind?  Or the constant banging-on about the Tory "long-term economic plan" which was neither long term ( it seemed to change every six months) - nor successful  (the internal deficit which it promised to eradicate by the end of that parliaments is still there and not now  due to be achieved until the end of this one.)

So in reference to Monday's great debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill  (the chutzpah of calling it the Great Repeal Bill seems to have been abandoned) we were told again and again that "the people had spoken,"  that the purpose of the bill was to implement the "will of the people," and those who voted against it were defying democracy.

Therefore, without apology, once again let me rehearse that:

 In the actual referendum 

  • just over a third voted to leave;
  • another third voted to remain;
  •  and just a bit less than a third didn’t vote.  
  •  This is nowhere near the two-thirds majority which the humblest club or society would require for a change in its constitution.
  •  Add to that the fact the that 16 and 17-year-olds, thought to be overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, and the citizens most affected, in terms of years, by the result, were not allowed to vote.    
It is therefore nonsense for MPs or anybody else to claim that the referendum result is the will of the people: just the view of a good third or so of us on a particular day,  No self-respecting democrat in a representative democracy need feel bound by it.

It is shameful that so few MPs, elected to use their judgement on our behalf,  have the guts to do what they know is "best for Britain," and put a stop to this nonsense. Instead  the majority  continue to vote for national self harm on the basis of a falsity.


  1. and just a bit less than a third didn’t vote

    And therefore cannot be counted. We don't declare MPs elected in by-elections illegitimate because the turnout is always low; we don't stop local councillors form taking their seats because they are regularly elected by a tiny proportion of those eligible to vote.

    So why make that argument here?

    Those who didn't vote can hardly have failed to notice there was a referendum on, so they must be presumed to be equally happy with either result, and therefore what matters is the relative proportions of those who did express a preference — slightly more of whom preferred to leave than remain.

    That is what matters. Not turnout.

    1. Well, yes and no. I think the Tories have made rules about Trade Union strike ballots which require a minimum turnout to be valid, and certainly the 1979 referendum on Devolution to Scotland required that 40% of those eligible to vote should be in favour for the result to be valid. Although 51.6% voted in favour, this was only 32.9% of the electorate so the Assembly was not brought into being.

    2. Okay, so in a few exceptional cases there are turnout considerations.

      But in the general case, we don't require any turnout threshold for a democratic decision — votes are carried by those who bother to turn up. So it's disingenuous in the extreme to make a big thing of the turnout in this case, I hope you'd agree?

      After all, if you want to get technical, at over 72%, the turnout for the EU referendum was higher than any general election since 1992. Does that mean the Blair governments were illegitimate? By your logic it should.

      Or if you want to confine it to questions of constitutional change, the Scottish devolution referendum in 1997 only had a 60% turnout. Has Hollyrood been illegitimate all these years?

      The Welsh one's even worse: the Cardiff assembly was approved by a 50.3% majority on a 50.22% turnout. That's less than 26% of voters in favour, on a major constitutional question. Should we abolish the Welsh assembly?

    3. As I said, "yes and no."

      The Tory rules for Trade Union strike ballots stipulate a minimum turnout of 50%, and for health, education, fire and transport, at least 40% of those entitled to vote must vote in favour. (At 37% the EU referendum fails this test.)

      But the most important failure to my mind is not to have included a super-majority for such a major change A two-thirds majority is required by most clubs and societies for a change in their constitutions, and this should have been stipulated in the referendum. One might have added at least a 50% majority in each of the constituent parts of the UK , which I believe is that case for each state if the Australians wish to change their constitution.

      Words are much imprecise than figures and can be used in all sorts of contexts to exaggerate minor differences. To talk of the "the will of the meeting" or in this case "the will of the people" implies that a considerable majority, even an overwhelming majority, take a certain view. In the case of the referendum a tiny plurality were of that opinion with such a narrow majority that, if the vote had gone the other way, the chief protagonist for Brexit, Mr Farage, would have demanded another referendum.

      Many people believe that you can lie with statistics: you can certainly distort the truth with words, especially if you repeat them often enough, and without shame.

    4. So, you think the Welsh assembly is illegitimate, then? That referendum didn't get anywhere near a two-thirds majority.

      you can certainly distort the truth with words, especially if you repeat them often enough, and without shame.

      Indeed; you keep shamelessly repeating the words that there should have been a two-thirds majority rule, but (a) that's by no means a standard rule in constitutional referendums (the Irish Republic, for example, doesn't have such a requirement on its constitutional referendums; Canada's referendum on Quebecois independence didn't have such a rule either) and (b) the playing field was already tilted against the Leave side, what with the government throwing all its weight, and money, behind Remain — it was hardly a fair fight as it was.

      Basically, you think the wrong side won and you wish the rules had been written in such a way as to make it certain that you preferred side had won; is that not the case?

    5. (Would you insist that any future Scottish independence referendum had to have a two-thirds majority in favour, or Scotland stays part of the UK? How do you think that would go down with the Nats?)

  2. Ah, tricky.

    I'll start by saying that I wouldn't have had a referendum in a representative democracy in the first place. However, once one has vbeen held, it seems unfair to change the rules (though the "40% must be in favour" rule for Scottish devolution seems to have disappeared, which helps the SNP

    I'd say that, for a parliament elected by proportional representation, a simply majority of the parliament is sufficient, for one elected by FPTP then a two thirds majority should be required.

    1. If my reading is right Australia doesn't have a super-majority for its constitutional referendums either (for state ones only a simple majority is required; for federal ones there's an odd system where you need an overall majority plus a majority in a majority of states (not all states, just a majority of them) but in neither cases is a super-majority required.

      At this point it might be easier if you could provide any examples of countries which do require a super-majority in a referendum to change the constitution? Because I can't find any which do, and have mentioned several which don't. If it's as obvious and universal as you seem to be claiming to require a super-majority, then there must be some examples out there, mustn't there?

    2. From Wikipedia:

      Article Five of the United States Constitution describes the process whereby the Constitution, the nation's frame of government, may be altered. Altering the Constitution consists of proposing an amendment or amendments and subsequent ratification. Amendments may be proposed either by the Congress with a two-thirds vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate or by a convention of states called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures.[1] To become part of the Constitution, an amendment must be ratified by either—as determined by Congress—the legislatures of three-quarters of the states or state ratifying conventions in three-quarters of the states.

      Not an exact parallel I know, as it refers to Congress and, presumably, State legislatures rather than referendums, but it demonstrates the importance of ensuing a pretty hefty amount of support before making a serious change.

    3. Okay, so that's one example versus three (and counting) where constitutions can be changed by referendum without a super-majority (Ireland, Australia, and Canada).

      Any others? Remember, you were claiming that not requiring a super-majority was so outrageous that would be reasonable to void the whole thing. At the moment it's looking like not requiring a super-majority is not just not unusual, bu that actually not requiring a super-majority for a constitutional referendum is the normal case and it's the requirement to have a super-majority for a constitutional referendum which is the exception.

    4. Oh, and I just looked it up: it's not a country, but the constitution of the state of California can be changed by a ballot requiring a simple majority of voters. The same is true of the constitution of the state of New York.

      So, that's five examples where only a simple majority at a referendum is required to change a constitution, versus one which isn't even really directly comparable because it isn't about a referendum.

      It's really not looking good for this idea that a super-majority is required for a constitutional referendum to be valid, is it?

    5. Well it's certainly proved to be more uphill than I'd anticipated. I had, perhaps naively, supposed that people would accept that what's good enough for our golf clubs and music societies would be good enough for our nation. Maybe we hold or clubs and societies closer to our hearts than our nations.

      My bottom line remains that there shouldn't be referendums in the first place. If they are held on serious questions then a super-majority or other safeguard should be necessary. If, as you seem to have discovered, no-one else has yet required that, surely you can't object to we British being pioneers?

      I see there's to be a referendum on the independence of Catalonia in Spain next week. It will be interesting to see if that's by simple majority, what the result is, and if the Madrid government takes any notice.

  3. I had, perhaps naively, supposed that people would accept that what's good enough for our golf clubs and music societies would be good enough for our nation. Maybe we hold or clubs and societies closer to our hearts than our nations.

    Actually, I suspect that it's because the reason those protections are necessary for small electorates is to stop a cabal who just make a majority from working together to seize control.

    But when you get to an electorate the size of a nation, where 17 million people are voting one way, that's not a small cabal working together: that's a true representation of the opinions of the majority.

    Basically, as sample size increases, so does certainty in the result. That's basic statistics. With small electorates, you need safeguard to make sure that you're not vulnerable to one individual's changing their mind having an outsize effect. With electorates of tens of millions, that's not an issue.

    If, as you seem to have discovered, no-one else has yet required that, surely you can't object to we British being pioneers?

    The only thing I really 'object' to is the claim that those who voted Leave in last year's referendum were stupid, or racist, or brainwashed by rich media tycoons.

    The rest is just observations.

    Anyway, do you still claim that it is the duty of MPs to overturn the referendum and, if so, on what grounds (given that 'there should never be any referendums on anything ever' is clearly a niche position)?

    1. That “there should never be any referendums on anything ever is clearly a niche position” is by no means a niche position. It was a view held, I believe, by both Attlee and Churchill.

      And yes, I do believe it is the duty of MPs to disregard the referendum result on the grounds that:

      1. The referendum was advisory.
      2. It is the duty of MPs to use their judgement to achieve what is best for their constituents and the country.
      3. As Brexit negotiations precede we are able to gain a clearer idea of the outcome than was possible at the time of the referendum.
      4. It is now accepted by most “experts” that the outcome will be damaging both to Britain’s economy and prestige.
      5. As long as negotiations continue serious problems requiring urgent attention (eg lack of housing, inadequate welfare services, abject poverty ) are being neglected.
      6. Hence a halt by parliament is to be preferred to a referendum on the outcome.
      7. Sadly a referendum on the outcome may, however, be the more politically acceptable option.

      Interestingly, Giles Fraser, the former canon of St Paul’s, has an article in today’s Guardian which supports you point of view with enthusiastic venom.

      You’re welcome to have the last word if you wish, but I feel I’ve now exhausted the arrows in my quiver.

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