Four reasons why the referendum lacks legitimacy:
We Remainers are told we should accept the result of the referendum with good grace and start thinking optimistically about the future of an isolated Britain (or England and Wales) hankering after the glories of its imperial past. There are actually four reasons why the referendum lacks legitimacy each one of which on its own would be sufficient on its own.
it undermines parliamentary sovereignty
Clem Attlee, the prime minister who created the National Health Service and greatly strengthened the welfare state said that referendums are “devices for demagogues and dictators” a phrase which was strongly endorsed by Mrs Thatcher in 1975. (To my knowledge she never did a U-turn on the matter.) Attlee it should be said was against the UK joining the forerunners of the present EU. While one can never know what a historical figure would have thought about present issues the best assumption is always that he or she would still have the same opinion so Attlee would still have thought joining the EEC in 1975 was a mistake and would have wanted to leave. But he also would have kept his opinion on referendums so he would have deplored the use of a referendum for this as for other purposes.
The campaigners to leave said that they wanted to return sovereignty to Parliament. But in fact by allowing a vote of 38% of the electorate to overturn a large majority in Parliament in favour of Remaining in the EU, the use of the vote to decide the future position of the UK in Europe and the world amounts to the biggest attack on parliamentary sovereignty since the 17th century.
One option was clear, the other encompassed contradictory aims
Second, the referendum was presented as a binary choice between Remain and Leave. But in fact while the choice to Remain was for a very clear known outcome, the choice to Leave opens at least two entirely different options. One is that the UK should remain a country of high immigration, but with the larger amount the comes from outside the EU being increased in relation to that from in the EU and with the UK moving forward on the basis of competition in open markets despite the evident costs to those left behind struggling in low wages and with inadequate public services. The other is of a country drastically reducing immigration so as to protect those with poor education and skills who have found it difficult to compete in open labour markets and have lost jobs due to competition from countries with much lower labour costs. If the referendum had separated these very sharply different visions of the future for the UK outside the EU and thus given the electorate three choices it is almost certain that Remain would have come out top of the three in a first post the post election. Even if the Alternative Vote system was used allowing a second choice to be used to decide between the two front runners it is very unlikely that most of those who voted for one Leave option (free labour and other markets as opposed to measures to protect British workers from competition) would have put the opposite option as their second choice.
The vote divides the generations
Third the referendum was intended as determining the future of the country for a period of 30 years or more, a very different proposition than a general election whose outturn lasts for a maximum of five years. The fact that all surveys show a large majority of those under 40 who will live longer with the consequences voted to Remain is an unacceptable binding of their future by an older generation.
Voters were misinformed in some cases deliberately
Fourth, the British people were misled and in several instances told outright lies by the Leave campaigns.
First, they were told that Turkey IS joining the EU in large posters prominently displayed. Turkey IS NOT joining the EU. Eleven years since negotiations opened in 2005 Turkey has completed only one of the 35 chapters which are preconditions for being considered for accession. Turkey as other countries can never join the EU without the parliamentary approval of every member country including not only the UK but also Germany, France and Austria where opposition to Turkish membership has traditionally been far greater than in the UK. (In fact British governments have long supported the principle of the possibility of Turkish membership and this position was not questioned by the Leave members of the British government before the referendum campaign).
There is no possibility in the near future that Turkey could come to a position in which member parliaments would be asked even to consider it for membership. This was a very distant prospect in 2010 and since then President Erdogan has made a large steps away from meeting EU membership criteria related to human rights, freedom of speech, rule of law and treatment of minorities. .
Second, the people were told that Leaving would give Britain control of its borders. In fact Britain has control of its borders: people coming into the country go through passport control. The UK can and has turned back people, including EU nationals,with criminal records or considered a threat to security. Whether the new electronic system is effective is open to question but that was always a choice only for the British government. To significantly strengthen such controls would require either a massive increase in border staff to subject travellers to intense scrutiny and long queues or some way of cutting the number of visitors.
Third, the Leave campaign’s battle bus was emblazoned with a statement that Britain would save £350m a month by leaving the EU and that this will be used to increase funding for the NHS. When Dr Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative MP and medical doctor, changed sides from Leave to Remain during the campaign in disgust at this flagrant lie, the Leave campaign announced that their position had not changed and the sum to go to the NHS remained on their bus. Immediately after the campaign it was dropped like a hot cake because they know that leaving the EU will save less than half the £350m and given other demands no government could afford to increase spending on the NHS to that extent without raising taxes.
Those amongst the 48% who voted Remain who feel strongly about the matter should never accept the Referendum as a legitimate exercise of democratically accountable governance for the reasons given in the article and particularly because far from returning sovereignty to Parliament it critically undermines the sovereignty of Parliament by pressuring MPs to vote contrary to their own judgment on a matter of fundamental importance to the future of the country and possibly even the very existence of the country. One reason for non-acceptance is to try to prevent it acting as a precedent for referendums both in principle and in the manner of their conduct on other issues in the UK and across Europe.
However saying this provides little guidance of how Remainers should act in the coming months and years. Despite the reluctance of leading Brexiteers to move quickly to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to set in motion divorce proceedings it remains probable that the UK or what remains of it will leave the EU in due course. It must require an Act of Parliament but probably enough MPs have promised to follow the referendum outcome rather than their own judgment so probably passing such an Act.
Maintaining any special access to single market will be difficult outside the EU
Then will follow negotiations on leaving and subsequent economic relations with the EU. The least bad outcome from the point of view of Remainers of such negotiations would be to retain substantial access to the single market. But this will be highly difficult to obtain. Since the UK will now refuse full access to the single market for other EU workers—given that this was the biggest substantive issue in the campaign, it must inevitably accept limitations on its own access to the market in the 27 remaining member states. A new government may still hope that it can negotiate access to important parts of the single market like financial services and the digital economy but it will not be at all easy. Any deal requires the agreement of every one of 27 countries all subject to their own pressures and lobbies. If the UK was negotiating with the German Industry Association (BDI) which has called for a good deal for the UK the task might be easy. But it is not. Even the German government if it had sole negotiating rights would want to maintain a rules-based single market, and Germany is not able to dictate to other countries despite the myth to that effect in the UK. With regard to euro zone bail-outs it has much power as the leading creditor but that power does not extend to other policy areas as seen in its attempt to push for a common sharing of refugees across the EU.
At present more access to the single market than countries like the US and Canada (in the present situation with as yet no TTIP) seems impossible as all EU countries and institutions are taking an all or nothing approach. In my opinion the other EU countries were a bit too rigid in what they allowed David Cameron in his renegotiations. However, there are in fact very good reasons for the EU’s apparent rigidity. The EU is not, as portrayed in the British media, a monolithic entity but a framework for achieving the very difficult task of enabling 28 independent member states to work and cooperate in some areas as well as compete fairly in others. The fear of those who want to hold the EU and its single market together is that, once one breach in a rulebook is made, there is a high risk that other countries will want their own exceptions eventually making the single market a shell with more holes than substance.
It seems that many Leave voters did see their vote as compatible with a close relationship with the single market. If such an agreement can be reached it could gain political and popular support in England and Wales, provided it included a significant restriction to free movement (probably a cap, a points system to cherry pick migrants would not be likely to be acceptable). However, if no such agreement can be reached, the UK will be faced with a stark choice of having at best the same access to the single market as the US or Canada, or and arrangement like Norway’s or Switzerland’s that does not achieve any of the major aims of Brexiteers. By then the impact of Brexit on the UK economy may be more visible especially if investors begin to expect no or few remaining privileges for the UK to be agreed. Brexiteers might present this as the EU punishing the UK but in fact it would just reflect the normal self-interest of parties to any negotiations. It is precisely to overcome the stumbling blocks that arise when negotiations are based only on each country looking after its self -interest that the structures of the EU were created. The Conservative government should be held to account by pro-EU opposition parties – acting with at least some cooperation – for the consequences for the British economy of every disinvestment or other adverse consequence brought about by the referendum result.
The forgotten parts of England and Wales that turned the vote
One domestic aspect of the June 23rd vote is particularly notable . It was always expected that prosperous rural and many suburban areas that usually return Conservative MPs would vote Leave. What was less expected were the Leave majorities in poorer parts of England and Wales that have lost mining or manufacturing industry over the last 30 to 40 years. Most larger towns, apart from Birmingham, voted Remain. But smaller depressed post-industrial towns that have long been safe Labour constituencies voted Leave, a good example being the first significant Leave vote in Sunderland in the north-east, but included towns in the West Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire and South Wales. A Panorama programme on BBC on July 4th gave some glimpses of the way people in these towns feel. They feel left out and forgotten and the phrase “Give me my country back” appeared to resonate, but what do they mean by that? It appeared to be a nostalgia for when the towns were thriving manufacturing centres and the high streets full of local shops. There was almost nothing these respondents said in the programme that actually had anything to do with the EU, (such towns are not major magnets for immigration) but nevertheless they appeared not just to be giving a protest vote but to actually believe that leaving the EU would lead to a revival of their towns. Somehow it would seem that UKIP and possibly even Conservative campaigners found ways of raising such hopes. Such hopes are not going to be fulfilled by UKIP and probably not by the Conservatives, but others particularly Labour politicians cannot just wait and let them experience another disillusion. There does need to be concerted efforts made to give back hope to these towns. It should be based on encouraging local initiatives supported from outside. At least for another two years some outside money may continue to come from the EU.
The vote clearly reveals that many English and Welsh people are deeply discontented and implies that the UK’s apparent success in terms of job creation and low overall levels of unemployment hide a labour market which is not functioning as well as people in all major parties have believed. This applies both to areas of high immigration and economically-depressed areas. Minimum wages paid holidays and rights for part-time and temporary employees (some derived from EU legislation) need to be better enforced.
The question Where Now? has only been very partially addressed and will have to be addressed again in the future