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To stay in the EU, do we have to accept the 2016 referendum result as valid?
21 Oct, 2017

Leave voters stop listening when Remain campaigners complain about the conduct of the 2016 referendum and call for the result to be set aside. This is the first in a series of articles by Michael Romberg that aims to refute the arguments of those Remainers who believe that Parliament should just ignore the 2016 result. Conversely, we should accept the referendum and treat it as provisional until there is a plan. Then there should be a referendum on the terms.

The European Movement Chair Speaks

Writing in the Independent on 4 September 2017, EM Chair Stephen Dorrell set out a powerful case for continuing to oppose Brexit by challenging both the drift to Brexit and the claim that the 2016 referendum has ended the debate. He concluded: “Of course we must hear the voters’ voice. But democracy is a dialogue in which all voices should be heard. And it must allow voters to change their mind.

Central to his thesis is that it is voters who must change their mind. It is not that their vote should simply be ignored.

Yet some Remainers take the view that Leave voters’ views should just be set aside. Professor Grayling is the most elegant exponent of that view – this series of articles takes up his challenge or you can see a refutation here.

We must start from where we are

To stop Brexit requires a referendum on the terms – no other event has the political authority to overturn the 2016 result. To win the referendum requires June’s Leave voters to vote Remain. So we need to persuade them to our point of view. We have a democratic problem that needs to be solved democratically.

Yet so many Remain campaigners open their case with the claim that the 2016 referendum should just be set aside because: [16-17 years olds]/[UK citizens living abroad]/[EU citizens] did not have the vote; because there was no supermajority and no majority of the electorate; because Scotland voted Remain; because £350m was not the best figure to use; because the vote was advisory anyway; because the question was too difficult for the electorate; because because because…

This opening ensures that Leave voters do not listen to anything else we have to say. What they hear is that we think that as they got the answer wrong their views should not be counted.

Parliament set up the referendum. That meant that the country had decided to resolve the issue by plebiscite. Before the referendum voters were told by politicians from all parties that the vote counted, that it would be acted on. And not only Leave voters see the referendum as binding: half of Remain voters think that – although they still think leaving is a bad idea – we have to honour the result.

Every time we complain about the 2016 referendum, we focus on process not substance. We look backward, not forward. We fail to make a substantive hopeful positive case for continued EU membership. We just show ourselves to be bad losers.

Our case should be: valid but provisional

We do of course have a much better line to take: Yes, the 2016 referendum was valid and democratic. Yes it conferred a mandate on the Government to take Brexit forward. But Leave had no plan. No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without reviewing the project plan So the mandate is only provisional. Once there is a plan, we need a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain.

Remember the categorical imperative

Some of the claims for rejecting the 2016 result do not make much sense in their own terms. These claims are only supported because they would have given the desired result in June.   

Think instead of Immanuel Kant and the Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”.   

In other words, our call for new rules should only be made if they would be right in all circumstances, not just because we like the effect they would have had in June. 

Or to put it another way, we should not make any argument that we would not be making if the result had been 52Remain:48Leave, with Nigel Farage calling it “unfinished business”.

Shock is still driving many remainers

Many of us were deeply upset on 24 June as the results came in. Some are still locked into the initial responses to that shock. For some that includes the belief that there should not be a referendum as – in effect – the people cannot be trusted to come up with the right answer.

Many preferred the option of a general election: the 48% would unite and vote for Remain parties. Well, we know how that turned out. In 2017 86% voted for parties backing Brexit. General elections are not about single policies.

Others believe that Parliament should just vote to Remain. But how could MPs feel able to reject the will of the people as expressed in June 2016 even if they did not like the terms in say November 2018? Would it depend on public opinion at the time? On the terms themselves? On whether they had been clearly flagged in the referendum campaign?

Given that we started this process with a referendum, if public opinion were still around the 50:50 mark and Parliament accepted the terms would Remainers feel that they had been given every chance to make their point?

Given that we have gone down the referendum route, what would be the political legitimacy of Parliament voting down Brexit without a further referendum? Would June's Leave voters feel fairly treated? If not, how would they respond? Democratically? Or would they give up on democratic processes as a means of effecting change?

How would the government respond if MPs did vote Brexit down? A move to an immediate general election, with the Prime Minister campaigning for Brexit on the terms? A referendum (the Greeks arranged their bail-out terms referendum in just over a week)?

Conclusion

We started the process with a referendum. So only a referendum has the political authority to change or confirm course. We are entitled to a further referendum because in 2016 no plan was put to the electorate. Once the terms of Brexit are known, Brexit will be more defined. Then we should have the referendum on the terms with the option to Remain.

 

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