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2016: the valid and democratic referendum
01 Nov, 2017

Leave voters will not take seriously those Remainers who just call for the 2016 referendum to be set aside. We need to accept it as conferring a valid democratic mandate, argue Michael Romberg. We should see the mandate as provisional: since Leave had no plan, there needs to be a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain. This article is the third in a series rejecting arguments used by some Remainers to justify setting the referendum aside.

The Referendum was held to solve a Conservative Party problem

Well yes, but so what? There clearly was a huge popular demand for the referendum – 71% of the population voted, more than in any general election since 1997.

Moreover, public opinion polls are clear that the public wanted a referendum. Comres found in March 2011 and Kantar Public in January 2013 that more than half of the public wanted a referendum on EU membership. In October 2011 YouGov’s Anthony Wells counseled against taking too seriously public demand for referenda but noted that at 43% support for a referendum on EU membership was markedly more popular than other subjects.

Brexit was too difficult a question for the electorate

Let’s ignore the implied statement: those who voted Leave got it wrong; but we clever ones for whom the question was not too difficult voted Remain. You can imagine how well that line plays in Boston or Scarborough.

It is hard to say that voters are able to vote properly in a general election but not in a referendum. In an election, voters should study all party manifestos and compare policies across all areas of policy; they should read analyses of the differential impact of the various parties’ policies across the whole spectrum of government business, which requires an understanding of health policy, farming policy, housing policy &c &c. They should get to know the people who might be government Ministers for any party as well as all the candidates in their constituency. I scored about 1%; and you?  

A lot of the Brexit questions are actually quite simple.

For example, both sovereignty and immigration come down in the end to: are Spaniards, Poles, Lithuanians people-like-us? That is, are they sufficiently like us that voters are willing to share law-making power with them, to give them rights to be in the voter’s town – just as voters in Lancashire currently do with British citizens from Tyneside?

There are of course complicated questions about differential economic performance. But it is hard to believe that the question is markedly harder to answer than about whether Conservative or Labour would run the economy better.

I do not hear Remain campaigners saying that there should be no Scottish Independence Referendum and no Northern Ireland referenda on border changes. These raise exactly the same issues as Brexit.

Referenda are a tool of demagogues

There is no doubt that demagogues and anti-democrats have used referenda to further their ends: Hitler’s 1934 referendum on merging the positions of head of government and head of state; his 1938 referendum on the annexation “Anschluß” of Austria; Putin’s 2014 referendum in the Crimea.  

Demagogues and anti-democrats use other means also to further their ends. The start of the Nazi era is not dated to 1934 but 1933 when Hitler and his partner party won a majority in the general election and started the process of removing civil rights from their enemies. Putin and allied parties win almost all the seats in Russian general elections.  

Demagogues also use trials, newspapers, mental institutions. They use work creation schemes and holidays for workers to gain support. Should all these be banned because demagogues use them?  

What distinguishes demagogues and anti-democrats is how they approach otherwise legitimate methods like law courts and elections: violence, bribery, corruption, vote stuffing, lies, fraud, arrest, rigged trials, imprisonment, intimidation, murder.  

It was not the Anschluss referendum that was wrong – how better to decide whether a country should merge with another? Indeed Hitler invaded to prevent the planned referendum on that question being put by the independent Austrian government.

What was wrong was the way Hitler’s Anschluß referendum was conducted, from the fact that it was held under military occupation, preceded by mass arrests, associated with intimidation, ending up with the rigged design of the ballot paper.  

Referenda – often called plebiscites – are used for noble ends. After both world wars they were used as a peaceful way to settle territorial disputes.

I don’t hear Nicola Sturgeon being denounced as a demagogue.

Brexit is too complex to be resolved by a binary choice

This objection sounds plausible. But every decision is binary in the end.

Shall we go to the cinema? There are lots of options behind the choice. I would generally rather go to the theatre than the cinema. But what l do this evening depends on the plays, the films, the time, the theatre, the cinema, the weather, whether l can get a ticket, my mood, what my friends want to do. But in the end the question becomes: see this film at this time in this cinema: yes or no?

And so it is with EU membership. In or out. A simple binary choice. But with a lot behind it. What will the EU become? What deal will we get from the EU? How will the rest of the world react? All of that is unknown. But at some point it will become known – or at least as known as anything is that involves the future.

And then we have the simple binary choice: stay (on this understanding of what the EU is) or leave (on these terms)?

Whoever makes that choice will be making a simple binary choice about a complex question.

So what has gone wrong is not that the people cannot or should not make a binary choice.

Rather it is that so many people are treating what can only have been the start of a period of discussion, planning and negotiation as though it had been a final binary choice.  


Referenda are a valid tool in a democracy. What has gone wrong is that a vote on an idea has been treated as binding us to accept whatever plan is later produced. But the question whether Remain is better than Brexit depends crucially on what Brexit means. So, while we accept that the 2016 referendum mandates the start of a work programme by the Government there should be a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain once we know what Brexit means (other than Brexit, obvs).

  • Michael Romberg is a retired senior civil servant who is a member of the Committee of London4Europe.