The Leader of the Labour Party has re-stated his positon, which is the de facto policy of the party, that the outcome of the Referendum of 23rd June 2016 must be respected. By this he clearly means it must be implemented and thus agrees in substance with the position of the Conservative government. The only disagreements are on matters of the procedure by which the UK should leave the EU.
I wish to ask, again, the question why the outcome of the Referendum must be implemented in light of the following facts:
First, there is the fact that the Referendum was itself an unbinding advisory referendum. It was not a legislative one, which means that it did not need to be implemented. This is why in the Act that enabled the Referendum safeguards were not put in place to mitigate against a small majority (for example a qualifying threshold). Yet, it is constantly presented as a decision that we are locked-into. This is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public on the legal status of the Referendum.
Second, on the legal aspect, if there is any doubt about the legal necessity to implement the outcome, the Supreme Court ruled that the Referendum did not constitute a decision to leave the European Union. That decision would have to be made by Parliament and would need an Act of Parliament.
Such a decision has not been made and nor has an Act of Parliament been made. A Notice of Withdrawal Bill was presented in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling. However, this did not include a withdrawal decision. The bill was a mechanism for notification of a decision, which has not yet been made. A notification is not a decision. Yet, the Government has falsely claimed that the Referendum was a withdrawal decision. This is a false claim and contrary to the Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the sovereignty of parliament.
The false claim that the decision was already made precluded parliamentary debate about the Referendum result. Parliament has not debated the Referendum result. Neither the Referendum result nor the Notice of Withdrawal provided the constitutionally required decision to leave.
Third, as to the political necessity to execute the outcome as ‘will of the British people’, the simple facts need to be re-stated. Only 37 % of the electorate voted to Leave the EU. A very large number of people entitled to vote were not on the voting register, many of them – those most affected by the outcome – were disfranchised.
The 3.8% majority won by Leave is a small majority for such a major change to the status quo and one that leads to the abrogation of rights currently held, in particular the rights held by young people. It cannot be argued that there is a large or clear majority in favour of Leave. Not much more than 25% of the UK population support Leave. There is no unquestioned mandate. The reality is that the UK is deeply divided.
Four, the Leave campaign was itself driven by lies which were not challenged by the government. In view of the above – the deliberate attempt to conceal the fact that the referendum result is irreversible and the ‘will of the people’ – the integrity of democracy is diminished. It is not the case that decisions cannot be reversed. Indeed, it is part of the democratic process to check and revise decisions in light of changing circumstances. Referendums may have their place, but they are only one part of the democratic process. Public opinion has already shifted against Brexit in realisation of the negative economic consequences that will almost certainly follow.
Five, it is clear that it is not in the national interest for the UK to leave the EU. Yet, the Government is pursuing this destructive goal, which, with some exceptions, has the support of the Labour party.
The UK will lose its world standing and will be isolated from the EU and severed from its largest trading partner. It does not have in place alternative trading arrangements that will compensate for the exclusion from the EU single market. It is evident that the government’s plans to implement Brexit are clearly going badly wrong. There was never an analysis of the risks and all advice given to the government on the catastrophic outcome for industry, trade and finance were ignored and concealed from public scrutiny. The direction of travel is plainly catastrophic. It is clearly a serious dereliction of the duty of parliamentarians to give their support to a cause that has no foundation in legal necessity or political reason.
Why is this madness that derives from a small group of ultra-nationalist MPs taken on such a magnitude and received the acquiescence of the majority of MPs who know it is foolhardy? The Referendum was driven by the David Cameron’s desire to solve an internal problem in his party – and which has manifestly failed – but was bizarrely given parliamentary assent with the backing of Labour MPs.
The majority of MPs are in favour of the UK remaining within the EU – or remaining within the Single Market – yet they have surrendered reasoned deliberation for a panic-stricken endorsement of nationalist isolationism that has now left the democratic process paralyzed.
The inescapable conclusion is that it is clearly time to stop Brexit.
Gerard Gelanty is a Professor of Sociology & Social & Political Thought at the University of Sussex. This blog post first appeared on his personal blog.