Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 16 August 2017

What does respecting the referendum result mean?

Take the people who voted Leave because they believed there would be more money for the NHS if the UK didn’t have to contribute to the EU. People, and there were plenty of them, who believed the £350 million a week figure. Should we respect their vote by leaving the EU, which would mean considerably less money available for the NHS?

And how about those who voted Leave because they believed less immigration from the EU would mean they had better access to public services. They can hardly be blamed for voting that way, because plenty of politicians from the Prime Minister downwards have told them that immigration is to blame for pressure on public services. In reality reducing immigration would almost surely reduce the money available for public services. So how are we respecting their wishes by leaving the EU?

And those who voted Leave because they were worried about being ‘swamped’. Not because it was happening to them right now, but because they have read that it is going to happen. When Turkey joins the EU. Or with all those refugees. Because they read countless articles that scare them. The only difference between this example and others is that this is explicit in talking about ‘the Muslim problem’. Do we honestly think that leaving the EU but continuing with free movement is going to assuage their fears?

It is an awkward truth that what many people wanted when the voted Leave is either simply impossible, or cannot happen without making everyone significantly poorer year after year. It is this reality that keeps the government in a fantasy world. Almost no one who voted to Leave is going to be happy with the result of government decisions. Those who wanted better access to public services will not get it. Those who wanted more sovereignty will find their sovereignty sold off cheap in a desperate attempt to get new trade deals. Those who wanted less immigration will also find their wishes largely frustrated because the UK cannot afford to reduce immigration. 

The parallels with the US are clear. The Republicans, after spending years denouncing Obamacare, found they could not produce anything better. Those promoting Leave also did so without any thought to how it might actually happen, and therefore they have nowhere to go when confronted with reality. As a result, the government invents a magical customs union so that Liam Fox can have something to do. I have never known a UK government look so pathetic. 

This is why the lies told by the Leave side are so critical. People tell me this is not important because most elections involve politicians lying. I'm afraid this is exactly equivalent to saying that Trump is just another politician who lies. It should be obvious that Trump and today's Republican party are something new and dangerous: people who tell blatant lies all the time about crucial issues and construct an alternative reality with the help of media outlets like Fox News. In exactly the same way, those in charge of Brexit live in their own imaginary world supported by the pro-Leave press. It is this imaginary world that they got 52% of the electorate to vote for.

That alone is enough to completely discredit the referendum as an exercise in democracy. But there is more. The debate we should have had during the referendum was about the costs and benefits of immigration, This never happened because the person leading the Remain campaign had spent so much of his political life stoking up fears about immigration. It is hardly surprising that so many people voted to end free movement when both campaigns were united about immigration being a problem and way too high. The referendum campaign was like a boxing match where one side tied one of his hands behind his back and the other side brought knives.

Respecting the referendum result means passing all this off as just normal. It is not normal. It is no more normal than Republican's taking health insurance away from millions. It is like an election held by an authoritarian state that runs a xenophobic campaign and controls much of the means of information. In that case we would say that this authoritarian state respected democracy in only the most superficial sense, and the same was true for the EU referendum. 

We cannot say that we should respect the right of people to make mistakes when the information they were given was so untruthful. The people voted for Trump and it is right to struggle to limit the damage and overturn that result after 4 years. Those who struggle against Trump are not disrespecting democracy but fighting to preserve it. In the same way it is right to limit the damage the referendum vote does and reverse it whenever that opportunity arises.

I understand those who say that in today's political environment anything other than another referendum is politically impossible. I understand why it benefits the opposition to sit on the fence and triangulate. [1] But please do not tell me that by being politically expedient in this way you are keeping the moral high ground. [2] There is nothing noble in defending an exercise in democracy that was as deeply flawed as EU referendum. It is no accident that the only major overseas leader that supports Brexit is Donald Trump, and that those pushing Brexit hailed his victory. Brexit is our Trump, and the sooner both disappear the better the world will be.  

[1] Although what is the point of Labour hedging bets on keeping in the customs union? It makes their Brexit strategy look much more like confused and conflicted than strategic triangulation.

[2] It is very easy to tell the difference between political expediency and political conviction. Imagine the very unlikely event that parliament votes to end Brexit. Would you join demonstrations outside parliament calling this an affront to democracy, or would you breath a huge sigh of relief?

Postscript 17/08/17   If you think that these lies were not important in influencing the result, then you should read what Dominic Cummings who ran the Leave campaign thinks: in particular the paragraph that starts "Pundits and MPs kept saying"  


  1. I think the continental Europeans know what they are doing with close referendum results they want reversed.

    They will crush our Tories in the negotiations, hence Mervyn King's desperate pleas for a No Deal plan.

  2. TBH, as a remain voter, I'm seeing 'Brexit' as a possible means to get rid of the Tories (read as; Murdoch and co) neoliberal agenda, once and for all.
    You say the opposition can claim no moral high ground by backing Brexit. Conversely, the opposition cannot win the votes of those who bought the lies of the Leave campaign by opposing their 'democratic vote'.
    JC is bang to rights to take the path he's chosen.
    And anyway, the Tories are incapable of doing anything they had planned (as shown by their attempts to produce a manifesto with no promises of note). They're literally making up as they go along. And, even then, every policy is followed by a u-turn.
    If they can't see Brexit through, there is little doubt in my mind we will soon have a Socialist PM. One who will have no choice but to offer another referendum. And, at least, we have now had much of the debate that was never on offer the first time round. Here's hoping common sense prevails.

  3. Huh? Both conservatives and liberals lied shamelessly to get war with Iraq, which is also a "crucial" issue. Everyone knows the USA has nukes and a superpower's conventional forces and Saddam Hussein would be overthrown and die if he attacked. They pretended if he had WMD that he could use them. Even while Kim Jong-Il Was building a NUCLEAR bomb and boasting about it. One of those who went along with the lie was Hillary Clinton in the Senate. The deaths that would result from cancelling the health insurance of millions are wrong, so were the deaths predictably caused by our invasion of Iraq.

    On referenda, do you take this attitude over Scottish independence? If the SNP had won, or wins in future, by lying about the net fiscal transfer would you want Parliament to overturn the result? Or is it too scary to say "no" to Scottish voters?

  4. No Simon, the debate we should have had prior to the referendum was about the Free Movement of capital, not people. That’s what has led to tax abuse, pernicious financialisation, rentier extraction, short-termism, pro-cyclical volatility and the dominance of the City (amongst other things).

    Your analysis – which as far as I can see focusses entirely on short-to-medium term effects on trade - appears to make the (rather strange) assumption that we won’t be facing another huge financial crisis in the next few decades. It’s precisely because we very likely WILL see GFC2 and will be much better protected with capital controls, bank-nationalisations, lashings of PQE and possibly even debt jubilees when it happens, that we’re better off out of an institution where these are either impossible or very difficult indeed.

    Adrian D.

  5. Totally agree with your comments.

    We should not be so willing to forget when politicians pass lies off as just part of the game. It only encourages more lies.
    We have a parliament where debate and decisions are to be based on reality. Although Parliament is not ideal, as it relies on the quality of our politicians but I feel Parliament is infinitely better than the referendum talent show.
    Referendums have been shown to be the worst kind of decision making. Especially as the brexit referendum was called to silence conservative activists.
    Maybe national decision making needs a form of averaging over time so we dont have knee jerk reactions to major events such as the 2007 man made financial cock up. A sort of cooling off period.


  6. The settled view amongst Labour MP's seems to be: we will only think about another referendum if a sufficient shift towards the support for one becomes discernible.

    This a bit like a football referee saying to the players after an incident 'that could have well been a penalty, but I am not going to award one, until you surround me and protest'!

    It does rather smack of an abdication of their duty to guide and lead public opinion on the basis of the facts and their own reasoned assessment of what is best for the country: an attitude of mind which will do little to reverse the general popular contempt for politicians.

    Nor does it augur well in terms of the potential ability of labour to develop, produce and enact, a macro-economic framework that can address the challenges of continuing stagnation, public finances that give little leeway for fiscal expansion, amid growing pressures on the public services.

    Both Clement Attlee and Edmund Burke would be throwing up in their graves.

  7. You have answered your own question: respecting the referendum result means leaving the EU.

    Now what exactly this means in practice remains to be seen and, even if it is seen, will take many years to play out; it took forty years for dissatisfaction to assert itself.

    The other, and more fundamental point about this, is that you look at this issue solely as a UK centric matter. I voted to leave not because I believed the nonsense about the £350 million but because the EU had changed its vision very substantially, moving far away from the original organic conception of "ever closer union" to one that was manifest and to be pursued by many of the tricks that you condemn in the UK referendum; it was (and is) becoming flagrantly anti democratic.

    The other point is the establishment of the Euro which I believe was a huge mistake and this will ultimately fail and bring down the EU with it.

    The point about much of this is that many, if not most, will have to adjust their expectations in the coming years and what you call the disaster of Brexit could turn out a relatively good deal in twenty years' time when compared to what is happening in the EU.

  8. I don't know, I think this is a trickier point then you are letting on.

    I've always believed strongly (in the context of elections) that part of what makes a democracy work is that you are stuck with who you vote for. Elect a crook and you're stuck with a crook, your vote is not something to play around with and you are responsible for learning the facts for yourself.

    I suspect this why impeachment is so difficult and so rare in the US.

    Now this is not an election with time limited effects, the finality of it matters. Nevertheless surely some of that principle carries over. After all, this also cuts both ways as the people of Quebec discovered with their multiple secession referendums which hurt their economy (though they had federal transfers to make a lot of it up!)

  9. Whilst I agree with absolutely every word in today's blog, the sad fact is that your article will have absolutely no traction. I suspect that you are preaching to the converted on this one. When I challenge brexiters using similar arguments they simply place their fingers in their ears. They believe that the Remain campaign told as many lies as the Leave campaign did.

    As we know, those who voted for brexit tended to be older and less well-educated. They simply do not understand the complexities and technicalities of the argument. They have been told by the likes of Gove that they should disregard experts and they obtain their world view from our appalling MSM. Those who seek a more informed view are unlikely to have been radicalised by the hate preachers at the Daily Mail and are likely to be younger and better educated.

    Sadly, even when people experience the direct consequences of the economic and political self-harm that we are engaged in at present, this will be blamed on the EU, on immigrants, on 'lefty-liberals'... on anyone other than this dreadful government... because that is what the MSM will tell them to think...

    I would highly recommend that you take a look at Professor Michael Dougan's analysis of the current chaos from a constitutional law perspective (I am sure that you have already). His lectures/views are easily found on YouTube...

  10. "Briefings - Britain and the EU: One year On" is an excellent hour-long TV lecture by Vernon Bogdanor with numerous repeats being shown throughout August on the BBC - Parliament channel.

    It’s also available on the Gresham College website.

    With much more expertise than I have he makes a point which I had suspected was true over a year ago: my view was always that Brexit was really about turning the UK into a low-tax, free-trade tax haven:
    For the upper-class there are low taxes.
    Anyone can import goods into the UK and not pay a tariff.
    Lax financial regulation (code for “easy tax avoidance and money laundering”) will encourage foreign investment.

    For the lower-orders there are low wages, weak unions/workers’s rights and reduced public services.

    The leaders of the Brexit campaign merely used immigration as the issue to get enough of the public to vote the way they wanted. In terms of EU immigrants per capita, the UK is about half-way down the EU28 league but the press---by "bigging up" immigration---then created the impression that the UK was at the top.

    (By the way I am looking out for a Simon Wren-Lewis economics lecture---complete with graphs---on BBC Parliament one of these days. Let's get some economics education on television.)

  11. Another annoying aspect of this 'respect the result' mantra is the apparent belief that an extreme version of the result voted for by 52% is 'the democratic choice'.

    Specifically, on membership of the EEA (a) presumably some Leave voters actually wanted this and (b) presumably all Remain voters would prefer this to a hard Brexit. So, it seems near certain there would be a big majority for a soft Brexit.

    Or- to put it in more general terms - as the country was nearly 50/50 split between Remain and Leave, the mildest form of 'Leave' seems to be the obvious way genuinely to respect the outcome.

  12. Respecting the referendum result means passing all this off as just normal. It is not normal. It is no more normal than Republican's taking health insurance away from millions. It is like an election held by an authoritarian state that runs a xenophobic campaign and controls much of the means of information. In that case we would say that this authoritarian state respected democracy in only the most superficial sense, and the same was true for the EU referendum.


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