The EU Referendum: A Political Crisis We Can Never Have Again
Britain now has a policy with no government
Richard Thomas outlines his argument for why the EU referendum was a damaging experience for Britain’s political system that cannot be allowed to happen again
The philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, is credited with this analysis of conservatism and internationalism, “The conservative is not internationalist, and should be suspicious of all attempts to control legislation and government from a place beyond its borders.” I see, and I will always see, the European Union as a threat to British sovereignty. As a conservative, I find it wholly unacceptable how much of our national sovereignty we have given away to Brussels over the last 40 years, and I find it worrying the level of support we have in our island for a bureaucratic superstate which has a completely different way of life, history, language and culture to our own. I will always be happy to offer my opinion on British involvement in the European Union project – and my views, like millions of others, are personal but open to debate. However, we very seldom get the opportunity to voice our opinions in that debate, mainly down to the very pro-EU stance our major parties have taken over the last thirty years. Yet when we got the opportunity to voice that opinion in June 2016, I was primed, and ready, to cross that box to leave. And so I did. I don’t regret that decision. But if I was to be given the opportunity to vote again, I may take a very different approach. Not because I wish for Britain to remain in the European Union, but because the implications of that particular referendum has done great damage to our old and banal constitution. The law of unintended consequences (as defined by Robert Merton) has, this time, played its hand well. I for one thought the idea of an “in or out” referendum was well overdue. I believed that the British people should finally express their sovereignty, and I knew that the vote to leave could have a serious chance of winning. I wasn’t surprised when it did. However, I now believe that to hold that particular referendum was the wrong thing to do, and we should, as a country, do all we can to fight against holding a second referendum – for the sake of our democracy.
The first real glimpse that something was wrong was in the immediate aftermath of the result. Up until the vote, I thought that most people I had discussed the EU debate with seemed on the whole pretty relaxed about the whole thing. Many discussions were had in good spirits and in good humour. Most were fact based and many were prepared to get along with the result and let bygones be bygones. The rage which followed from both sides after the vote was worrying. The intolerance and hate from many on the remain side was alarming. Immediate calls for a second referendum, an arrogance of condemnation – blaming the British people for not knowing what they were doing – alongside the usual, boring garbage of racism and xenophobia which boomed from the echo chambers of social media. In those initial few days, the sore losers were out in force and were not afraid of venting their fury. But what was also immediately apparent was the huge vacuum which was now left. The resignation of David Cameron and the appointment of Theresa May presented the first major problem and the first political crisis. Political parties put forward their policies to the public in manifesto’s before an election. Here now, it became apparent that we had a policy without a party. The Conservative Party has been (and still is) a pro-EU party. Now it was faced with a policy that it didn’t want, of which didn’t know how to handle and couldn’t manage. Government’s stand on platforms of policies at election time – if we don’t like it, we can remove them. But here was constitutional conundrum – the people had given the government a policy, a crisis the referendum had inadvertently created. And the Conservative Party, in their total arrogance (typical of the way they have misunderstood their own supporters), didn’t have a plan. Ultimately, it meant momentum which the Conservatives could have gained from the vote to leave was lost – something which cost Theresa May her majority. Labour too was forced into backing something it didn’t want. Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn wanted to leave the EU immediately. In an interview with the BBC he said that “Article 50 should be invoked now, so we can start to negotiate our exit.” But it wasn’t just a “policy without a party” which caused further crisis. The court challenges over the final deal with the European Union, votes in parliament, challenges and disputes about the suffrage, disputes over the spending, Russian interference – it’s all had a major impact on our constitution and the debate over who governs who and how.
But it wasn’t just these instances which have caused great embarrassment to our democracy. Let’s look the actual figures from the referendum. 17,410,742 votes to leave. 16,141,241 votes to remain. A majority to leave by 1,269,501. On a 72% turnout, 51.9% to 48.1%. It can not be argued that the result was not clear. But it can be argued that the result was not definitive. But, those 17.4 million people who voted to leave presented us with yet another political crisis. Aside from “project fear,” how was it, that over 17 million of the electorate fundamentally did not agree with all the major political parties, the economic institutions, the elites and the celebrities? How was it, or how has it become, that millions of people have become so far detached from the representative political parties, that they were prepared to risk their supposed financial future and defy their masters? To me, this is one of the major implications of the referendum which has never really been answered or analysed properly. The real detachment between the governors and the governed has been laid bare for all too see. My view is that so many of the loyal supporters of both Labour and the Conservatives had been ignored for many years by their own parties. They refused to listen to their own patriotic sentiments of their supporters – denouncing their anxieties over mass immigration and sovereignty as racist and bigoted. Gordon Brown even expressed this view, not so privately. For so many years, you could not get a cigarette paper between them. Our democracy had become too permissive and too predictable. But those who had been marginalised throughout the previous 20 years came out in their millions on 23rd June 2016. The growth of these elites – which were personified perfectly by the technocrats in the European Union – alongside the out of touch MP’s who were now obviously propped up by people who disagreed with them, presents us with a dilemma almost unprecedented in British politics. We can say this even without the constitutional problems presented by the votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
These two major downfalls of the referendum; that no one took ownership of the result and that it exposed a deep and major gulf between the electorate and their representatives, was something which could have been avoided. I’m not going to get into a constitutional debate about the legal aspects of the referendum, but I must admit I am sceptical about the use of plebiscite in our political system. They are a new phenomena in our country, and don’t seem to me to be the “British” way of doing things. Our democracy is based on liberty, habeas corpus and the rule of law. Direct democracy in this way has its limitations. Indeed, perhaps it is worth mentioning that it could have been the inexperience of our MP’s and their short sightedness that a leave vote would present a huge problem – both constitutional and politically? Rightly or wrongly, we elect representatives of political parties to do what they think is best on our behalf – that is our system. And, it is my opinion that it is within this system, that we should have organised an ordered and peaceful withdrawal from the EU.
Firstly, it is worth looking at the result of the 2010 General Election, the local elections in 2012 and the European Elections in 2014. The common denominator in all of these elections is the growing support for UKIP. Despite a relatively small proportion of the vote in 2010, it was still estimated at nearly 9% of all votes cast. At the local elections in 2012, it increased to 13% of the seats they contested, which clearly resulted in lost seats for the Conservatives at this poll. However, UKIP made significant gains at the European Elections in 2014, coming out as the largest party with 26.6% of the vote. Amazingly, they won an extra 11 seats at the European Parliament. Here now was clear evidence of a decisive lurch to Euroscepticism in the UK. And it was here, that the Conservative Party made a mistake. To win back the debate, they should have (backed by the overwhelming majority of Conservative members) changed their policy – that they were now in favour of an ordered and peaceful withdrawal from the EU. This would have won back votes they were haemorrhaging from UKIP and placed the Tory party back at the forefront of British politics, signalling a clear difference with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In my opinion, an even bigger conservative majority would have been achieved at the 2015 general election. It would have taken 5 years perhaps to rectify the internal divisions and set out a clear policy. If they had won a majority in 2020, then a mandate for withdrawal alongside a transition period would have meant Britain could have made their ordered departure by 2025. All this is of course hypothetical, and would have relied on election victories in 2015 and 2020. However, the point is very simple; MP’s would have stood on the principle of an exit, thus making themselves accountable for the outcome. The referendum gave us no accountability whatsoever. So, if the electorate decided it wasn’t what they wanted, then another party with a different perspective would have their chance. To me, this would have been a far better model than the embarrassment of watching David Cameron try to make reform from within the EU (which confirmed to many that the EU could not and would not be reformed) and the subsequent referendum. It would have made the Tory party a political force once again.
But it didn’t happen. Instead we have lurched from one crisis to another. I am a big believer in the notion of not making a bad situation worse. Despite the fact that I believe in Britain outside the EU, we have to endorse our conservative spirit of temporary compromise. The Brexiteers and the remain extremists can not have it all their own way, something is needed to reflect clear division – limits on the freedom of movement coupled with an end to European Court of Justice jurisdiction alongside access to the single market and its benefits is the obvious choice. There are models available, such as those given to Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. These are readily available and can be applied to us at little cost and short notice. It would have been better if Theresa May had maybe considered this first and then looked at a full withdrawal by 2025. Maybe that would have healed some of the fractions early.
And as referred to previously, despite the compromise to which could have been offered, the result was clear. As I have also elaborated on, Euroscepticism has been growing in the country for a number of years. Which is why, based on the arguments already put forward, the idea of a second referendum is a ludicrous and an ill-conceived idea, despite what the question might be. Any talk of this is a clear attempt to overturn the first result, with the millionaire elites now pretending to offer a sympathetic ear to those with a grievance – whilst completely misunderstanding the fact that it’s precisely the molly coddling of those out of touch people which led to us leaving the EU in the first place. What’s more, I can see no evidence to say that the people at large want this. Opinion polls run by pro EU campaign groups and media outlets does not constitute as evidence. The real opinion poll (that of the ballot box) before the referendum did show that public opinion had changed, in favour of withdrawal. For reasons already given, I think it’s important we consider the implications of a second referendum vote very seriously and give credence to the idea of the untold damage it would do to our democracy and the confidence in it. There is too much water under the bridge for us to simply go back to how it was before June 2016. If the referendum had a positive, it was the fact that millions of people were evidently not happy with the previous arrangement. Any attempt to go back to that would drive that gulf between the electorate and their masters further apart. Even for those who support staying in the EU, democracy and political stability is what our country needs, and we, as conservatives, ought to be fighting that prospect wholeheartedly. To me, preserving the integrity of our democracy and the social fabric on which it stands is far more important than getting a good deal from the negotiations.
As with all crisis and fallouts, there must be lessons learned. We are not a democracy in which plebiscites are the normal done thing. Any further attempt to pledge a referendum on any issue should be met with a great deal more scepticism, even if we desperately want what is on offer because democracy is more important than a policy. Similarly, I think it’s about time we had a lot less open mouthed faith in our politicians. We should be more sceptical about their supposed expertise and experience. Evidently, there was no plan for a vote to leave and this has exasperated the political crisis we are still in. It can be solved, but it would need both sides to stop shrieking at one another, with the first step accepting that each others’ intentions are good. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I do hope we never, ever, have to go through this again.