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The 2016 EU Referendum and its aftermath
25 Jun, 2020

David Quinn explores the reasons why the 2016 EU Referendum Campaign and its aftermath have plunged the UK into a political crisis of which there are few precedents in its history.

The 2016 EU Referendum and its aftermath have created divisions at all levels of society and in the political parties, paralysed the workings of government and Parliament, and given rise to serious conflict between the executive and judiciary branches of government, as well as between Westminster and the devolved administrations. These threaten the very union of the United Kingdom.

The crisis is still ongoing after four years and is only temporarily suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. The future relationship with the EU has still to be negotiated and the threat of a no-deal still exists. However, the crisis has had the merit of revealing serious weaknesses in the constitutional arrangements and political processes which underpin our democratic institutions. It has also revealed the need to establish an improved code of conduct for the public and privately-owned media, particularly vital in the new digital age, to prevent the abuse of one of the essential pillars of any democracy, the freedom to publish (press and social media).

At the earliest opportunity, a Royal Commission should be set up to examine these issues and propose the necessary reforms without which the truly democratic nature of our society will not be assured. The following areas need to be addressed in any such review.

The 2016 Referendum

To hold a referendum without a threshold or qualifying majority required was not only unwise but sheer folly. A written Constitution would surely require suitable safeguards to prevent a "First Past the Post" system to be applied to such a public consultation. Though the Referendum Bill stated that the result would only be advisory, the government committed itself to respect the result, whatever that might be, which rendered it anything but advisory.

However to hold a binary “in/out“ referendum on such a complex subject, not a purely domestic issue and one affecting 27 other Member States, was clearly not appropriate. It exposes the dilemma the House of Commons found itself in: to implement a referendum, the interpretation of whose result was subject to endless controversy and was, in any case, opposed by the majority of the elected members of the House.

The Electoral Commission

It has become clear from the referendum campaign this body has insufficient powers of investigation and control to prevent electoral fraud and the use or misuse of digital information designed to influence targeted electors. The Law Society’s recent investigation into the role of the Electoral Commission has concluded that the electoral process is losing credibility and is no longer fit for purpose.

The Electoral System

It is time for a serious study into the effects of the present First Past the Post System which results too often in parliamentary majorities for a party which has less than 40% of eligible votes.

The political culture which sustains this system leads to acceptance of statements that the result of elections represents “the will of the people“ when clearly this is not so. Any change in the system would no doubt be opposed by both main parties who see no advantage to their own interests in supporting any change.

The principal argument for the present system is that it provides stable and effective government. However, this governance is neither stable nor effective if, as often occurs, the two major parties reverse the policies of the predecessor party in power when they take office. A comparison with the system prevailing in Germany, where coalition government has been the norm since WW2, would be edifying. The need for political parties to achieve consensus on contentious policy issues is surely conducive to good governance and consequently the national interest?

The Role of the Press

Freedom of the Press is one of the main pillars of any democratic society. When this freedom is abused by the press itself it raises difficult questions. Fake news, however, has not been the result of the digital revolution. It has existed in much of the UK press for decades. Coverage of the remain argument in the EU Referendum campaign and prior to that presentation of news relating to Europe and the EU and its predecessor institutions was often grossly misleading, if not inaccurate. This disinformation by the press no doubt contributed in some measure to the outcome of the referendum vote itself.

There is no easy solution to the problem. When does reporting on events cease to be reporting the facts and become interpretation of the facts ? The present abuse of press freedom is no longer acceptable and the system of leaving the press to regulate itself in this matter via the Complaints Commission is no longer fit for purpose. It vitiates to an unacceptable degree “the consent of the people“ when their consent is required by the democratic process and is obtained by disinformation and deceit.

David Quinn
Former international servant

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.