Cameron’s Referendum – the “Will of the People”?
This note summarises some of the flaws in the argument that a second Referendum would be the travesty of democracy some politicians claim. To download a PDF version of this note click the Download button at the bottom of the note.
An advisory referendum
The European Referendum in June 2016 was always considered advisory – a public consultation, but without any binding effect on government policy. Because it was only advisory (EU Referendum Act 2015), parliament thought that it did not require a “super-majority”, say 66% of the votes cast, for any major change. Even small local clubs and societies require such a super-majority for a change in their constitution, but this did not apply to the Referendum.
Similarly because it was only advisory, the idea of a lock, requiring any change to be approved by all the constituent nations of the UK, was firmly rejected. In contract, many other countries with more formal constitutions require a major change to be approved by each constituent state or region. In the case of the UK, with England representing some 84% of the total UK population, without some specific protection for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is almost inevitable that the views of English voters would dominate the national outcome.
Although the Referendum was advisory, before voting day, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a statement that the outcome would be implemented, in effect binding the government politically to the result, no matter how marginal any majority might be.
Breaking the rules
The campaign leading up to polling day was characterised by unfounded and unverifiable claims such as leaving the EU would free-up £350 million per week to be available for the NHS. Again, in countries with more formal arrangements for Referendums, it would be normal for the proposed constitutional change to have been set out in detail, and to have been approved by parliament, before voting could take place. In contrast, the “Leave” proposition in 2016 was completely undefined, leaving great uncertainty about what leave-voters actually wanted for the future of the country other than simply “leaving the EU”.
It was particularly unfortunate that the Leave campaign was characterised by practices that undermined the principles of democracy that this country has been rightly proud of for many years. The Electoral Commission has found that Vote Leave, the designated lead campaigner for the leave outcome, broke the electoral rules set out by Parliament to ensure fairness, confidence and legitimacy at an electoral event. The Electoral Commission stated:
“Serious offences such as these undermine public confidence in our system and it is vital therefore that they are properly investigated and sanctioned. We have been advised that Vote Leave has paid its £61,000 fine and look forward to receiving the sum in full”.
In addition to the breach of rules, there remains great uncertainty about the source of much of the funding that supported the Leave campaign; it is understood that police enquiries are continuing.
Furthermore, it is now well-established that personal data was harvested on a massive scale through social media sites and used to promote targeted messages to voters likely to be sympathetic to the Leave cause. It is recognised that electoral regulations have not kept pace with developments in electronic communications and social media, and until changes are made, this remains essentially an unregulated field. Nevertheless, what did occur undermines the credibility of the outcome of the referendum process.
Although finding that Vote Leave broke the electoral rules, the Electoral Commission has no power to declare the referendum to be null and void – because the Referendum was only advisory. If it had been a binding referendum, it would have been able to set aside the result, as would be in the case of a parliamentary election.
We are frequently reminded of the outcome; how 17.4 million voted to leave. What is rarely mentioned is that 16.1 million British people voted to remain in the EU and to retain their European citizenship. The majority was just 1.27 million.
Similarly, of the four nations that make up the UK, two (Scotland and Northern Ireland) voted to remain, while two voted to leave. The overall result was dependent on the size of the electorate in England, and it can therefore be concluded that Scotland and Northern Ireland are being taken out of the EU against their will.
Overall, the outcome of the Referendum is hardly the overwhelming expression of the “Will of the People” that must be respected for all time, no matter how circumstances might change, or the claims of the Leave campaign are shown to be undeliverable or just simply false.
A travesty of democracy?
Politicians often state that giving people a say on any final deal to withdraw from the EU would be a travesty of democracy. Now that the facts are known, and a closer watch could be kept on any breaches of electoral law, it is arguable that not holding a second Referendum would be a travesty of democracy. Certainly, the electoral roll will have changed, with three-years’ worth of new voters joining the roll, the very people who were too young to vote in 2016, and who have the most to lose through Brexit.
Politicians also say a new referendum would be divisive. It is difficult to imagine anything more divisive than the present situation, created by a poorly thought-through referendum with no definition of what the options would lead to. In contrast, a well-defined People’s Vote could be what is required to start the process of bringing people back together again.
The real travesty of democracy is the flawed Referendum of 2016, and the claim that the narrow outcome represents the settled “Will of the People”. The time has come to move on, and allow people a say on what they really want for the future of this country.
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