The “leave” victors of the EU Referendum like to depict it as a fine expression of Britain’s democratic values.
From a democratic perspective, its main design flaw was that it excluded from the electorate two important groups of potential voters who would both be strongly affected by the outcome – the 16 to 18 year olds (who had a vote in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum) and British citizens who had lived abroad (including in European countries) for more than 15 years. Had this anomaly been corrected, the result might have been different.
The campaign process started very democratically, with Cameron letting members of his Cabinet and Conservative party campaign for either “remain” or “leave”. The contest, however, quickly became bitter and was marked by atrociously misleading claims by both sides and a sharp rise in tensions, especially in relation to immigration related issues. One effect was an alarming increase in hate crimes, including the murder of MP Jo Cox. More seriously it provoked a surge in the use of vitriolic and threatening language which continues to strike fear amongst many people, including MPs, who support remaining in Europe, inhibiting their liberty to freely express their views.
One of the strange aspects of the EU Referendum was that, though its conclusions had no binding authority, this was not explained clearly to voters and, more seriously, was deliberately ignored after the vote by the Government. The executive arm of government liked to claim that it gave them an undisputable mandate to act as they saw fit. They ignored the fact that only 37% of the electorate had advised them of their preference to leave the EU. One could also say that 63% of the electorate chose not to indicate their wish to exit the EU.
Nor was the Referendum designed to provide guidance on how – or over what time period – to translate voters’ preferences into actions.
Paradoxically, those who vaunted the “democratic” credentials of the Referendum and stressed the importance of reclaiming sovereignty also did everything possible – not just once but twice – to exclude Parliament from any engagement in shaping strategies for handling the most far-reaching decision to be taken by Britain in the last 5 decades. After the Government’s case was overturned by the High Court and then by the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister offered Parliament the least possible say in determining Britain’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the European Union and a minimal opportunity to hold the Government accountable for results. She was disdainful of the nations and interest groups who expressed alarm over the economic and financial impact of her intention to withdraw from the Single Market, and recklessly claimed that “no deal was better than a bad deal”.
What we have seen this week has made a mockery of Parliament and its MPs – pushing them into a debate that was largely meaningless because it preceded the publication of the relevant White Paper, and minimised the opportunity for MPs to consult with their constituents on the way forward. Dissent, at least amongst the Tories, has been muzzled by a very strictly enforced 3 line whip.
We now find ourselves in a surreal situation in which our parliamentarians – and especially Tory MPs who, like Teresa May, represent constituencies in which the majority voted to remain in the EU – have been constrained to sleepwalk with their eyes wide open into approving the invocation of Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union even though they know this will lead to an outcome that will be bad for Britain and especially its young citizens. One can sympathise with them because they were under tremendous pressure from their party leader to fall in line and because they and their families would have been exposed to the menacing attacks of “leave” hardliners. But many of these MPs will be haunted for the rest of their lives by the knowledge that they betrayed the expectations of their constituents and their own beliefs under duress. They and their constituents must have squirmed and gasped in disbelief when they read in May’s Foreword to her White Paper “And another thing that’s important. The essential ingredient of our success. The strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make this happen”.
The Brexiteers told voters that they would free Britons from the rule of non-elected bureaucrats in Brussels. Instead, they are undermining the credibility of the bastions of British democracy and preventing Members of Parliament from freely representing their constituents.
This whole process has, in the name of reclaiming sovereignty, deliberately belittled public respect for parliament and those who represent us there.
Future of our Children