Thursday, October 11, 2018


We must respect the referendum result. It's a mantra you hear from all sides. I agree. We must. It's just that I don't think that what they call respecting the result is respect at all.

Very roughly, 17 million voted to leave, 16 million voted to remain, 12 million didn't vote (and several million more people who are directly affected were disenfranchised for a variety of reasons). To leavers and remainers alike, respecting the result apparently means accepting the absolute authority of the 17 million, whilst totally disregarding the other 28 million. As a democrat, this troubles me.

What we should respect is the referendum vote as a whole and that showed a dissensus. It wasn't a mandate to remain, but it also wasn't a mandate to leave regardless of the consequences. It signalled an unexpected problem, one that had to be dealt with.

There was an additional difficulty in that there were plenty of divisions in both camps. This wasn't a problem for Remain, as all they were saying was that their political differences would be fought out under the unchanged existing arrangements. Leave proposed change and so were obliged to explain what that change would be. Yet they couldn't agree amongst themselves. Leaving the EU, yes, but how? What would be Britain's new place in the world? All they offered were quarrels, slogans and appeals for faith, not practical plans. This is not what anyone needed.

The referendum did not give us a decision, merely a direction. A democratic response would have been to involve all parties in investigation and deliberation. Perhaps it could have been managed through a Parliamentary inquiry. Ideally, additional participatory elements could have been introduced - such as citizens' juries. Then it would have been possible to present clear, detailed findings on the future options and their consequences so that we could reach a final authoritative decision - whether by Parliament or by another popular vote - before approaching the EU with our decision. That would have respected the result.

I don't need to tell you that this isn't what happened. The reason why is that we tried to deal with a novel situation using old, ill-suited structures. The British electoral and Parliamentary systems are based on winner-takes-all. After the referendum no thought was given as to who should deliver the result or what the result really meant. The Conservative government alone had to interpret and implement the referendum, which they considered binding. The result was hardly democratic, especially as May's misconceived election lost the Tories their majority. Parliamentary arithmetic delivered a wrecking power to a small minority faction - the Brexit ultras. Not only that, but agreement with the sectarian DUP handed them a veto over constitutional arrangements, not only in Northern Ireland, where they were the only party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement and where they supported Brexit despite Northern Ireland's strong vote to remain, but in the country as a whole.

The result is predictable confusion. Policy is being driven by the extremes, a fraction of the leave vote. The EU made the different options available for a future arrangement absolutely clear. The government is yet to choose, pushing for some impossible compromise. Article 50 was sent without any agreed position. Remarkably, with the two year negotiating timetable drawing to a close, there is still no agreement within the government on their starting position. The public are little clearer either as battle rages over propaganda and sound bites, rather than authoritative information. Meanwhile, remain voters, locked out of the whole process, are mounting a vociferous public campaign for a second referendum. It's a mess.

There was hardly any questioning as to whether Brexit should be handled by the Conservatives alone. It was automatically assumed that they would, despite the complexity of the issue and the ambiguities of the result. This is mainly because we have an unreflective self-confidence in our democracy. We don't acknowledge constitutional flaws. We talk of it rhetorically, but rarely critically. Brexiters assert that leaving is an assertion of democracy, though their understanding of it appears to be the imposition of their will on those who vehemently reject it (and who may now constitute a majority of the electorate).

It's the old parable of motes and beams. Brexiters like to rant about the EU's democratic deficit, but perhaps we need to look at ourselves. As we fail to respect and consider the whole of the referendum vote, I can't help thinking that the democratic deficit is really on our side.

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