Because so many of us focus on changing the past, we are allowing Theresa May to determine our future. Let’s start with some thoughts that will count as heresies in the Remain camp – but which we need to accept before we can campaign effectively or continued EU membership.
It was Good to Have the Referendum
It does not matter that the referendum was held only to sort out an internal Conservative Party problem.
We learned something really useful: a majority of the population want out of the EU. We did not know that before. We thought that Brexit was the preoccupation of a few “fruit-cakes, loonies and closet racists”.
As democrats we should be pleased that the will of the people has been made manifest. Now we can do something to make the EU work for them.
We also learned that UKIP and the Leavers did not have a clue what they wanted apart from Out. More of that later.
The Referendum was a Valid Democratic Exercise
All the arguments that the referendum is void because of flaws in the franchise and terms (16/17 years olds and longer expats not voting, no veto for Scotland, no minimum turnout, a wish to count non-voters for Remain) do not stack up. No-one says that Parliament is void even though it uses the same franchise and operates with the same rules.
Some say that the referendum should be ignored because we have a parliamentary system. But under our flexible constitution we have had as many referenda as general elections since 1973.
If referenda should be ignored because they are the tool of dictators and demagogues, should we also close their other tools: parliament, law courts, mental hospitals, police, prisons?
The referendum was not perfect – but it was as good as anything else in our democracy (first past the post, House of Lords).
MPs cannot just make Brexit go away
If MPs were anyway going to vote on the basis of what they thought before the referendum, why did they set it up?
If one of the reasons for the June result was Leave voters protesting at being ignored, how would they react if their referendum victory was taken from them by what they would see as an establishment stitch-up? Democratically, with what result? Not democratically?
Parliament has the legal power but not the political authority to set aside the referendum result.
The Way Forward: A Referendum on the Terms
So Theresa May is quite right to claim a democratic mandate for planning and negotiating Brexit including invoking Article 50.
But she exaggerates when she says that the June decision means that we must Leave the EU. A decision made without a plan can only ever be provisional.
So there should be a referendum on the terms of Brexit 20 months after the Article 50 notification has gone in. The question on the ballot paper should be: Brexit on the agreed key terms, or Remain?
MPs with Leave majorities can back it as they will be able to explain to their voters that a referendum on the terms is just good government. No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without a project review. Only the people have the right to confirm or change course.
Remainers play into Theresa May’s hands by focussing their efforts and hopes on the wrong issue. Let’s campaign for the Real Referendum – on the terms of Brexit.
By Michael Romberg
Michael runs the Facebook page: Campaign for the Real Referendum – on the Terms of Brexit