Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Reflections on the EU Referendum

In 2013 I posted on this blog  supporting the call for a referendum on EU membership. There is a link to that post with updates in 2016 and 2017, at the top of the "Where I stand" box on the right hand sidebar of this blog.

Here are some further reflections on the referendum as the turbulent political year 2017 comes to a close.

David Cameron persuaded me when he first announced his intention to call for a referendum if he was re-elected in 2015 that this was the right thing to do, and I still think that it was.

It was an extremely important issue on which the British people had not been properly consulted for forty years, during which the nature of what was originally called the "European Economic Community" and had been sold to them as a "Common Market" had changed. Worse, a promise to give the British people a say on the most recent set of major changes - the EU constitutional treaty of which more than 90% was eventually enacted as the "Lisbon Treaty" - had been broken by the New Labour government, creating a significant amount of anger in a part of the British population which was poisoning British politics.

I thought at the time that the majority Britain's metropolitan elite, including most journalists, most senior business leaders, and most politicians in all the major parties other than the Conservative party were not taking the concerns of that section of the British people seriously enough and badly underestimating the degree of resentment, the strength of the conviction of many people that their views were being ignored, and the number of people who felt it.

Subsequent events suggest that I was right that the elite was making that mistake, and continued to make it until they found out the hard way in July 2016. However, I also found out in July 2016 that I too was underestimating that resentment and the extent to which Britain is a divided society and indeed, so was almost everyone else. The EU referendum and indeed the 2017 general election reveal a country separated by vast gulfs of mutual incomprehension in several directions.

Like almost every other organisation built by fallible but well-meaning mortal human beings, the European Union has strengths and weaknesses, does some things well and others badly, some good and some harm. It's biggest weakness was and is a democratic deficit which, although not nearly as bad as the kind of people who call it the "EUSSR" make out, really does exist. This is not just the result of a power grab by institutions in Brussels but because it is convenient for the elites running the member states.

In my professional career I have heard national officials more or less admit, in places where the media were unlikely to pick it up, that they were going to get the EU to impose things they wanted to happen but knew to be unpopular, rather than take action themselves which they would have to justify to their own electorates. 

I would have liked to see the EU go down the path of reform and democracy, and hope that it will still do so without Britain, but we could not have gone down the road of seeking reform and democracy within the EU without a democratic mandate from the voters in Britain. In the event, voters chose a different path.

I wrote in July 2016 that whichever way the vote went in Britain's referendum, it must be respected. I still hold by that.

* It was in the manifesto of the party which won the 2015 general election to call a referendum on EU membership and abide by the result.
* The legislation setting up that referendum was passed by parliament with an overwhelming majority of the House of Commons.
* During the referendum campaign the government wrote, at taxpayers' expense, to the home of every elector in Britain promising to implement the result of the vote.
* The referendum was won by the "Leave" side by a margin which, although not huge - 52% to 48% - was quite clear.
* When the Supreme Court ruled that parliamentary approval would be required to trigger "article 50" of the Lisbon treaty and start the process of leaving the EU, the necessary legislation to do this was overwhelmingly passed by parliament.
* The vast majority of MPs elected in the 2017 general election had stood on a platform of respecting the referendum result by leaving the EU.

On any reasonable criteria the democratic mandate from the British people to leave the EU is indisputable. To fail to do so now would have very serious consequences for confidence in British democracy which in my opinion would do far more damage than Brexit will.

Now, not one of the points above provides any over-riding democratic mandate for a particular FORM of Brexit.

The Referendum ballot paper did not specify whether or not Britain would still be in the single market or the customs union, or what immigration policy Britain should follow - it simply asked whether Britain should leave the EU or not.

Both those who want a "soft Brexit" and those who want a "hard Brexit" should all be free to argue their case without being called traitors, mutineers or enemies of democracy on the one side or racists and xenophobes on the other.

And because the vote was so close, anyone on either side with any sense should listen to the arguments of the other side.

Britain is a great county and we can make Brexit work. But to do so we need to work together.

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