People’s Vote, a campaign aiming to unite all anti-Brexit groups, was launched on 15 April, 2018. It is calling for a second referendum on the final result of the Brexit negotiations between the UK and Europe, but fearing the potential public backlash against the idea of a second referendum, the group insists that it would be a “vote” and not a “referendum”. At one level that distinction could be seen as just another example of the semantic games played out in the political arena all the time. At another level it could be seen as an attempt to manipulate public perceptions of what the group is actually determined to try to achieve. The group includes MP’s, as well as celebrities and business leaders. This campaign, like so many other attempts to reverse the 2016 referendum result, raises very serious questions as to whether its participants any longer believe in representative democracy. It seems to have been conveniently forgotten that the decision to hold a referendum was not the result of a public uprising: elected MP’s voted for the European Union Referendum Act by 544-53, and the House of Lords also supported the bill, enabling it to receive Royal Assent in December, 2015. This new campaign group needs to be reminded that the decision to hold a referendum was, therefore, an example of representative democracy at work. However, the BBC reported that Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, publicly announced at the campaign launch that a second referendum was necessary because “this issue is far too important to leave to the politicians.” It is difficult to read this as anything less than an outright rejection of the concept of representative democracy. Labour MP Chuka Umunna has reportedly expressed the same view as Caroline Lucas. The obvious question that must be asked therefore is this: if People’s Vote, which includes some MP’s, no longer believes in representative democracy, what does it believe in?
The group appears to believe that the 51.9% of “the people” who voted to leave were either too ignorant, naive, or reckless, in June 2016, to know or care what they were doing, and that they need to be re-educated. The Labour peer Lord Adonis, for instance, is reported as having told the BBC that in the 2016 referendum “no-one had any idea what the consequences of Brexit were going to be”, a breath-taking generalization by any standards. It is clearly inconceivable to People’s Vote, and its associated groups, that leave voters could possibly have had legitimate, and well thought-out reasons for voting to leave. Hence People’s Vote seems to be working on the assumption that once leave voters have been re-educated they will reject the final terms of the Brexit negotiations, in a second referendum (“vote”), and we will, by default, remain a full member of the EU, not least because the EU itself is now saying that we can change our minds about leaving right up to the end of the transition period. People’s Vote also appears to believe that the 48.1% who voted to stay in the EU were not ignorant, naive, or reckless, and that they had legitimate and well thought out reasons for voting to remain in the EU, and therefore they do not need to be re-educated. What this seems to reveal is an unexamined conceit about the assumed good sense and wise judgment of all those who voted to remain, and on the other hand an unexamined contempt for the assumed ignorance or recklessness of all those who voted to leave. These underlying assumptions need to be challenged, not least because they are absurd generalizations, but even more importantly because it is precisely these assumptions which are being used to justify repeated attempts to make leave voters feel guilty, or ashamed, of the way they voted in the 2016 referendum.
People’s Vote appears to be strongly committed to the concept of giving more “power to the people”. This seems inevitable if, as we have seen, the group no longer accepts the concept of representative democracy. It has to be said, of course, that in democratic societies, a referendum is the safety valve which elected politicians can use to hand power to “the people” to decide an issue which they are unable to resolve themselves. The overwhelming support in the UK parliament, across all political parties, for a referendum on the issue of EU membership in 2016 could be seen as an example of this democratic safety valve in action. Successive UK governments had shown themselves unable to resolve the battles over Europe, so the decision was handed over to “the people” in 2016. The uncomfortable reality for People’s Vote is that Parliament handed power to “the people” in June 2016, and the majority voted to leave the EU. That, of course, is the classic risk of holding a referendum: you can find yourself with a result that you were not expecting, and/or an outcome where the result is so close that the heated debate over the issue remains a problem. In the case of the EU referendum, in 2016, those who had voted to remain found themselves having to deal with both of those outcomes.
So People’s Vote finds itself in a predicament: on the one hand they seem to be committed to handing power to “the people” (because elected politicians can apparently no longer be trusted), but on the other hand doing just that in 2016 had not only produced the “wrong” outcome, but it had produced a remarkably close outcome. Their solution? Campaign for another referendum (“vote”), whilst simultaneously resurrecting Project Fear all over again, but this time with the additional weapons, as we have seen above, of attempting to instill feelings of guilt or shame in leave voters for their supposed lack of concern about the damage that leaving the EU might do to the prospects of their own, and everybody else’s, children and grandchildren. As if this tactic isn’t unpleasant enough, such an approach also runs a very real risk of unleashing public anger against leave voters. It is entirely legitimate within a representative democracy for People’s Vote to campaign for a second referendum. The problem is with the underlying assumptions they are making, and the resultant tactics which they are using. Stirring up visceral emotions such as guilt, shame, or anger is not only a very dangerous game to play, it increasingly stifles reasoned debate. It is legitimate to ask, therefore, if these are the kinds of outcomes People’s Vote wants to risk unleashing?
The fundamental belief of People’s Vote, and all the associated anti-Brexit groups they are attempting to bring together, that leave voters in 2016 had no understanding of the consequences of what they were voting for, and that remain voters did understand the consequences of what they were voting for, must be challenged, not just because such a view arises from quite absurd generalizations about the electorate but because, in its understandable concern about the potentially negative economic and social consequences of leaving the EU, People’s Vote, and its associated campaigns, seem unable to conceive that there could possibly be any significant negative risks if we remain. Yet Boris Johnson, of Vote Leave, had warned only a few weeks before the 2016 referendum that the past 2,000 years of European history have been characterized by repeated attempts to unify Europe under a single government, all of which have ultimately failed, and Johnson was reported by the Daily Telegraph on 10 May, 2016 as saying “fundamentally what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe. There is no single authority that anybody respects or understands. That is causing this massive democratic void”. Meanwhile the International Business Times reported Iain Duncan Smith of Vote Leave as warning, just two weeks before the referendum, that the EU was running on a course towards the “eradication of the competing nation state and creation of a supranational federal union”. The Remain campaign seemed to perceive these comments as symptomatic of Vote Leave trying to launch its own Project Fear, but the sovereignty issue is not driven by an outdated sense of patriotism, or by some kind of jingoistic desire to return to our imperial past, as some have claimed since the 2016 referendum. It is driven by a desire to escape from the kind of democratic void, identified by Johnson, on the one hand, and the possibility of a considerably greater future loss of sovereignty on the other. At the time of the referendum, and in the debate ever since, two key issues, directly affected by our reduced levels of sovereignty as a result of EU membership, were our freedom to negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world, and our ability to control levels of immigration from the rest of Europe into a country needing a million new homes, and a country facing huge strains on its infrastructure and public services.
If People’s Vote, and allied campaigns think the issue of sovereignty is outdated or jingoistic, they should read Revolution by French President Emmanuel Macron, published in November 2016 (prior to his election as president), which unequivocally confirms that the warnings about ever greater reductions in our sovereignty are not exaggerated, if we were to stay in the EU. In one chapter of his book Macron launches into a damning analysis of the EU, describing it as being in an “existential crisis” which it will simply not survive without radical reform. His solution? A radical transfer of power and decision-making from individual nation states to Brussels and Strasbourg, as envisaged by the founders of the European project in the 1950’s. With German Chancellor Merkel’s power now seriously compromised as a result of the German general election outcome, it is arguable that Macron is now the most powerful head of state in the EU, and it is clear from his book that he is determined to address the issue of Johnson’s democratic void by turning a union of nation states into a centrally controlled European super-state which would include central control of taxation and fiscal policy. Indeed he appears to see this as the only way that the EU can be saved from collapse. It is reasonable to ask, therefore, how many remain voters understood what the potential negative consequences could be of what they were voting for in 2016. If People’s Vote believes that leave voters need re-educating about the potentially negative consequences of leaving the EU, prior to a second referendum, they should read Macron’s book. They might just decide that remain voters also need re-educating about the potentially negative consequences of voting to reject the Brexit negotiation outcomes, and thereby voting by default for the UK to stay in the EU, were there to be a second referendum. People’s Vote, and its associated campaign groups, should be required to answer the following question: what are the potentially negative consequences of staying in an EU which is either heading for collapse, or will have to become a centrally controlled super-state in order to avoid collapse?
At the very heart of this complex debate, a searching, and difficult question needs to be addressed: should perceived concerns about the potential economic and social consequences of leaving the EU always take precedence over perceived concerns about the potential loss of sovereignty associated with remaining? Macron’s blueprint for a radical centralization of sovereignty within Europe, and an equally radical reduction of sovereignty for member nation states, makes the need to address this issue ever more urgent, particularly if People’s Vote managed to persuade parliament to call a second referendum.