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The case for the Referendum on the Terms
11 Dec, 2017

Give the people the final say!

The 2016 vote gave a valid democratic mandate to take  Brexit forward – but that mandate is provisional. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg sets out why there should be a referendum on the terms.

On 11 December 2017 Parliament debates the latest petition calling for a referendum on the terms. As the EU (Withdrawal) Bill passes through Parliament MPs and peers will be able to vote on Liberal Democrat and Green amendments that would provide for a referendum on the terms.

One of the oddities is that proponents of the referendum have to persuade not only Leavers (and those Remainers who think that the 2016 vote settled the question) but also some committed Remainers who think that Parliament should decide the question without reference to the electorate. So this post addresses the very different objections to a referendum from these two groups.

The case for the Referendum

No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without reviewing it at every stage. Always, those project reviews include the option to stop the project.

In 2016, Leave decided not to put forward a plan or vision for the UK after Brexit. That decision was made on narrow tactical grounds. Without it the coalition of competing visions for Brexit would have collapsed and the referendum result would have gone for Remain.

No matter how that decision came about, the effect is clear. No matter how sure individual voters were about the Brexit they each wanted, none knew what Brexit they were going to get. Even now we still do not know what Brexit means – beyond Brexit of course.

So the mandate from 2016 is valid – but provisional. The Government should take Brexit forward and produce options or a plan.

At some point the terms of Brexit will be known. There will be not only the withdrawal agreement but also the framework agreement setting out at high level the terms of our future relationship with the EU.

Then we the electorate should decide the next step in the process: do we go ahead with the project once we know for the first time what it means or do we stop it?

Replies to objections from Leavers and those Remainers who think that 2016 settled the question

Leave voters say that the June vote has already settled the question, so Remainers should just get over it. There are several possible explanations for that view:

First, some Leavers would be happy with any Brexit, whether it is for example the EEA model with freedom of movement; a country closed against the world with minimal immigration; or a country open to the world with immigration at the same level as now but with Commonwealth immigration substituting for EU immigration.

Second, some leavers cannot see that there is any choice left to make. This is not as daft as it sounds. All Leavers knew what they wanted as a result of the referendum, and they just heard those campaigners who promised that and tuned out the rest. It is fairly normal behaviour and we all practise it (confirmation bias). Most people have lost interest in the subject and are not following the story closely.

Third, subtly different, some Leave voters just do not see the lack of a plan as having been a flaw in the Leave campaign. We should draw analogies to help them understand the point. What if there had been a general election and the available answers had been that the present government should continue or be replaced by an unspecified party? If “replace” won, there would need to be another vote to decide who should form the new government – and the present Government should form one of the parties competing.

Finally, some Leavers argue that 2016 decided the principle of Brexit and the only options now are what sort of Brexit to have. That is just not how decisions are made. Consider an analogy: a group of us decides to go to the cinema. When we get there we do not all wish to see any of the films on offer. So we decide to go for a meal instead. Duty manager Theresa May tells us that we may not do that – since we had decided to go to the cinema we have to see a film, whether we now wish to or not. But we don’t.

Questions to put to committed Remainers who want Parliament to stop Brexit without a referendum

Q1 Why did Parliament set up a referendum if MPs were anyway just going to vote according to what they believed before the referendum?

A referendum is not an opinion poll – Parliament could have bought one of those or read the results in any newspaper. A statutory referendum is a major public event, a part of the country’s decision-making process. “Advisory” just means that it is not directly effective in law, not that it has no force. Before the vote the Government made clear that it would respected.

Q2. If you think that flaws in the referendum campaign and process invalidate the referendum, what about flaws in the parliamentary process?

Do you think first-past-the-post leads to a representative Parliament? Or the House of Lords? If you think the referendum was unfair because 16/17 year olds were denied the vote, why do you not regard the general election result as flawed for the same reason? If you think that the referendum was flawed because each country in the UK should have had a veto, why call for a Parliamentary vote where that rule also does not apply?

Q3 What would the aftermath be if MPs just voted Brexit down?

How would Leave voters see it if their referendum victory was taken away from them by MPs. One explanation for some of the Brexit vote is that it was a cry by those who felt excluded, not listened to by the political class, not respected. How would they react if the political class decided to not listen to the referendum result? Would they react in the next general election by voting in hard Brexit candidates? Would they give up on democratic means and try other methods to effect change?  

Conclusion

The referendum on the terms is the honourable and transparent way to give the people the chance to stop Brexit.

Please write to your MP, to any peer you know and to the Mayor urging them to make sure the referendum amendments the EU (Withdrawal) Bill are passed.