We just have not yet learned the lessons
There was widespread public demand for the referendum before it was held. It has offered a lot of lessons to us. London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg argues that we need to make sure that we learn them. We must develop practical policies that address the real grievances of Leave voters. More importantly we must offer them respect.
Remainers tend to see David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum as a big mistake. Well, it was certainly a mistake to lose. But the result does not invalidate the decision to hold it.
Demand for the referendum
There clearly was a huge popular demand for the referendum – 71% of the population voted, more than in any general election since 1997 (2017 turnout fell back to 69%). Understandable: unlike in a general election every vote counted and counted the same.
Moreover, public opinion polls had been 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.
Lessons from the referendum: (1) Leave had no plan
There is nothing wrong with having a vote on an idea – so long as you have a vote on the plan once you have one. Our problem is that Theresa May is treating a vote on an idea as though it had been a vote on the plan that she has yet to produce.
Respecting the referendum means taking Brexit forward. Calling for a referendum for the people to be given the Final Say once the terms are known also respects the referendum result because it hands back to the same electorate the next decision in the process.
It never occurred to me that Leave would just make it up as they went along. That after decades of campaigning they did not know what they wanted, just what they did not like.
That seems not to have mattered to Leave voters. There is a signal there that Leave voters were unhappy – though not necessarily with the EU. If we are to stay in the EU, we have to address the unhappiness.
Lessons from the referendum: (2) half the country wants out
The second thing we learned is that it turns out that Brexit is not just a view held by a few obsessives and fruitcakes, but by a majority of the public. Even if for some or many Leave voters their vote was not or only barely EU-related, that was the subject they chose to vote on.
EU membership was a reasonable question for a referendum. It was not a moral question with only one right answer. Nor was it too difficult. Just like the Scottish independence referendum, it was a question of affection: do we like Spaniards and Poles enough to share with them the power to legislate, the right to live in the UK – in the same way that we do with our UK fellow citizens?
In a democracy the government should reflect the will of the people. So it is good that we now know what the will of the people is and that the Government are on the way to implementing it – though they should stop when they reach the limit of their mandate (no plan – no mandate) and provide for a referendum on the terms.
Learning the Lessons
Every time a Remainer calls on MPs to set aside the 2016 result a Leave voter is confirmed in their support for Brexit. Every time we say that Leave voters’ referendum vote should be ignored we confirm their view that they are going to be ignored by the elite for ever.
Central to remaining in the EU is to demonstrate that we have learned our lessons: that if we Remain in the EU we will address the concerns of Leave voters, not just ignore them as we have done.
Will any good come of it?
Not if we Brexit, no, apart from fulfilling our commitment to democracy. The sky will not fall in but we will be a poorer, meaner, nastier country.
But if we are able to move June 2016’s Leavers to vote Remain in the referendum on the terms, then yes. We will for the first time in ages have had to make a positive case to the people for the EU and won them over.
We will also have had to listen to a lot of people who do not normally vote and take into account their grievances and concerns and come up with policies that meet their needs. So instead of politics based on pleasing swing voters in marginal seats we will have had to create a more democratic politics.
That does not mean accepting the solutions adopted by June’s Leave voters. But we do have to address their problems. So for example we should not oppose immigration and should make the positive case for it. But we could come up with better policies in response, for example equipping native Britons with better skills.
If we are to stop Brexit we have to persuade Leave voters that life will be better for them in Remain-UK than in Brexit-Britain.
Some of that is about the economy – but we focus too much there. Moreover, some of Leave voters’ economic problems are insoluble: technological change and globalization are here to stay – we need to discuss how to ameliorate the consequences better: training and re-training, support for new businesses, more research to generate the ideas and business of the future.
But at the heart of Leavers’ concerns is a sense that their self-respect, their idea of who they are, their being taken seriously by politicians and their fellow-citizens has been eroded. We need to find the way of assuring them that in Remain UK all that will change. Practical policies like proportional representation, greater freedom for local authorities, more emphasis on education in particular technical education would all help. But we need to ensure that our campaigning conveys a message of respect.
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