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What would the ballot paper look like?
14 Mar, 2018

Worries about a binary choice in a referendum on the terms are misplaced

London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg addresses the idea that as Brexit is so complicated it cannot be reduced to a binary choice and that the ballot paper would be impossibly complicated.

Complex and binary questions

Of course, Brexit is enormously complicated. There are loads of options and suboptions. But in the end there will be one package that comes out of the negotiations. Parliament may try to have the package amended. But at some point, the package will be final. There is then a binary choice: accept it or reject it.

If we reject it, there is an entire universe of options. But in practice we will Remain in the EU on the current terms. Leave could try for a new referendum on another package, but is unlikely to obtain the necessary support.

That is no different from decisions we take in normal life. What shall we do this evening? Theatre, cinema, stay at home, meal…? Alone or with others (which others)? Cinema – OK, which film? Which cinema? Which screening? But in the end it comes down to this film at this cinema at this time – do I buy a ticket - yes or no? “No” of course includes the whole range of other options. But buying a ticket for this film is a binary choice. We can after all only go down one path at a time.

And what about voting for a government? We get a pretty limited choice of candidates on the ballot paper who represent packages of policies and personnel assembled by – in practice – two main parties. The whole complexity of government reduced to a binary choice. I do not hear many people saying we should end elections on that ground.

Let’s look at the ballot paper

Some people worry that the ballot question would be long and complex. I do not think that is necessary.

In 2016 the question was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”.

1975 is more relevant as the referendum followed a negotiation with the EU. The ballot paper for the referendum after Harold Wilson’s renegotiation stated: “The Government has announced the results of the renegotiation of the United Kingdom's terms of membership of the European Community. Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?” That permitted a simple YES / NO answer (to be marked with a single (X)).

One could imagine something similar like: “The Government has announced the terms under which the UK would leave the EU if the UK decides to do so. Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave on those terms?”.

A white paper would set out the terms. Few would read it. But there could be a government-produced summary leaflet. The media would describe the contents.

The Electoral Commission would test designs for the question to make sure it was free from bias. The question would be set in legislation.

You can of course have more complex questions. Try the 2015 Greek bailout referendum question.


All questions come down to binary choices in the end. The ballot paper would be simple enough. Technical objections to the referendum on the terms are just a front.




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