Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 19 December 2018

How Brexit circumvented democracy

It is difficult to overstate the mess that UK politics is in, and the harm that is doing to many of its citizens. MPs have accepted a mandate from the people that Brexit should go ahead, but cannot agree on what form Brexit should take. With the possibility of leaving with No Deal a 100 days away, firms are having to make decisions to move jobs abroad to avoid the impact of that outcome. That in turn reduces the living standards of everyone in the UK. Rather than trying to convince them to stay, the government is actually urging firms and citizens tio plan for No Deal, as if No Deal was some kind of natural disaster. Billions of our money is being spent to plan for a disaster that the government can stop in an instant by revoking Article 50.

Let me put this another way. Theresa May and her government are spending our money to plan for a disaster that they might allow to be inflicted on the country they govern. It is the ultimate blackmail by the executive against parliament: vote as we wish or we will allow this disaster to occur. I cannot think of anything like it in my lifetime.  

It is worth taking a step back to see how politicians have got themselves, and us, into such a damaging mess. It results from one huge mistake, and that was the decision to allow a referendum in the first place. Even if you like the idea of referendums in a representative democracy, 2016 had two fundamental flaws. First, how we left (the form of Brexit) was allowed to be unspecified. That was a mistake Cameron made. The second, which he could not avoid, is that any Brexit plan required assumptions about how the EU would negotiate, and that again allowed wishful thinking on a colossal scale.

It was like offering to sell people fruit without specifying the type of fruit or its price. There is a great danger that people would say yes to fruit, and then be presented with rotting bananas that they didn’t like at an exorbitant cost. But when people say they don’t like bananas and these were too old and the price was unacceptable, they are told they had agreed to buy fruit so there is nothing they can do but pay up. You can see this problem in the polls: where Remain currently has a modest majority over Leave in a rerun of 2016, but it has a much bigger majority against the deal negotiated by May, with Remain versus No Deal somewhere in the middle (the last is probably flattered by many thinking No Deal means nothing happens). Therefore a consequence of both flaws in the 2016 referendum was that a second referendum, where both the form of Brexit and what the EU would allow were clear, became a democratic necessity.

But despite all they say, neither May nor the Brexiters are democrats in this sense. All the talk of will of the people is entirely bogus. They want their form of deal, however unpopular it is. We can pinpoint exactly when this anti-democratic move began. It was triggering Article 50 without any agreement from parliament about the trade deal that should be negotiated. All A50 requires is a withdrawal agreement before a country leaves, with trade arrangements to be decided later. Most MPs were foolish enough to fall for this trap. They couldn’t see the difference between a request for fruit and the delivery of a particular kind of fruit with a price attached. So although the Brexiters and May’s intentions in triggering Article 50 were undemocratic (remember she didn’t want MPs to vote), MPs made it democratic through their own folly. They signed the country up for whatever rotten fruit May produced.

May and the Brexiters’ plan would have worked if it hadn’t been for the Irish border, which the EU decided quite rightly should be part of the withdrawal agreement. They insisted that in any deal Northern Ireland would have to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland whatever the rest of the UK agreed on trade (the backstop). The withdrawal agreement was now in part about trade. The fact that the Irish border was hardly discussed in the 2016 referendum campaign illustrates how that referendum cannot be a mandate for a particular deal.

The Brexiters did not want the UK to be part of the Customs Union or Single Market, and were quite happy to see a hard border in Ireland. But as the EU had ruled out doing any trade deal on these terms, that logically meant that the Brexiters required just one type of Brexit: leaving with no trade deal with the EU at all. This was certainly not what Leavers had talked about in 2016. May and the rest of her party were not prepared to suffer the economic consequences of this form of leaving, and so the actual Withdrawal Agreement (WA) May negotiated with the EU involved the UK staying in the Customs Union.

For Brexiters, this type of leaving was in many ways worse than being in the EU, so they refused to vote for the WA. Because most of Labour’s members want a second referendum the opposition dare not vote for the WA. We are therefore stuck. Stuck because of a badly conceived and poorly thought out referendum, because of May’s undemocratic nature (reflecting the very undemocratic Brexiters), and the EU’s laudable insistence on the backstop.

The curse of Brexit is that while a thin majority of voters wanted to leave in 2016, they cannot agree on how to leave, and many Leavers would prefer to remain in the EU rather than accept a form of leaving that was not their preferred (and often imaginary) option. The WA is much less popular against Remaining compared to the unspecified idea of Leaving. Quite simply allowing a decision to leave based on a thin majority in 2016 based on fantastic notions of what Leaving meant almost guaranteed that any particular realistic form of Leaving could not get a majority over staying in the EU.

This in turn is reflected in parliament, where neither the WA or No Deal can command the support of a majority of MPs. If MPs cannot find a deal that commands a majority (which they may well fail to do [1]), in a democracy that should mean no Brexit, or if MPs are too timid to make that decision themselves it would mean a People’s Vote. This is where the UK has departed from the representative democracy it is supposed to be. May refused to allow a vote on the WA, and therefore denied parliament its ability to work its way out of the impasse we are currently in. They say parliament is sovereign, but it appears this is not the case if the Prime Minister is determined to sideline it and MPs protect their party rather than their constituents.

We are trapped in a poker game between the two forms of Brexit few people want. The Brexiters are happy to continue to oppose May’s deal, because they know we leave with No Deal by default in March 2019. Furthermore huge amounts of money have been spent on preparing for this eventuality, an outcome only a minority of people want. The NHS is spending money on refrigerators rather than training nurses or doctors. May, who is known to be extremely stubborn, is not shifting from wanting parliament to pass her deal (also only wanted by a minority of the UK public), and she hopes as the March deadline approaches she can scare MPs into voting for it.

If either she or the Brexiters win their poker game we will embark on a form of Brexit that most people do not want, achieved by means that no one could call democratic. People do not want the WA or No Deal [2], MPs do not want the WA or No Deal, but we could well get one or other through a process of blackmail. On this issue the UK does not have a representative democracy, which is disastrous when it concerns one of the most important decision in my lifetime. Even if one side folds, we must remember the politicians who wasted so much public money, and squandered many UK jobs, just so they could play their silly poker game.

As this may be my last post before Christmas, have a good Christmas despite it all. 

[1] Corbyn dares not vote for any form of Brexit for the reasons I have given (which is why a government of national unity will not work). The Brexiters only want No Deal. That means a majority is extremely difficult for any form of Brexit without some form of coercion (like a threat to allow No Deal). It seems many Conservative MPs have not understood this.

[2] As the experienced pollster Peter Kellner says: "All the signs are pointing to the public losing faith in Brexit fast. It’s clear we need a People’s Vote." If you do not believe the polls, then lets find out with a real vote. 


  1. I'm all in favour of a second ref if, and only if, all options are on the ballot paper. A binary question will solve nothing and will be close again. The Ref must include the EFTA/EEA option which has the support of some 605 of the electorate. Happy Christmas to you too and thanks for all the blogs you've done this year.

  2. There were two other flaws in the referendum process:
    1. A constitutional issue such as Brexit should have required a qualified majority (say 66%), as happens in countries that have written consitutions.

    2. The process should have required a second confirmatory vote a year or teo later, from the outset.

  3. Did you include the Blog comments in your book?

  4. It looks likely that May's deal will get through. The extreme Brexit people will support it because they want Brexit more than anything else; and they will be supported by a number of cringing Labour MPs.

  5. The mistake wasn't made in 2016 when the referendum was called, it was made in 1992 when a referendum wasn't called. Once the Maastricht Treaty was agreed without a proper democratic mandate, the rest was inevitable.

  6. Another reason for questioning the legitimacy or definitive nature of the 2016 referendum is that its electorate excluded about a million British citizens living elsewhere in the EU, including myself. Our number is uncertain, and may as as high as the Leave majority of 1.3 million. We are overwhelmingly of voting age and overwhelmingly Remainers. You can make a case for denying us a vote in a régime of parliamentary sovereignty. But add referenda to the de facto constitution, and the exclusion becomes indefensible.

  7. I don't believe that we can say that in 2016 a majority of voters wanted to leave: we have heard from enough people who voted in protest, with no belief that the result would be carried out, to cast doubt on that assertion, and we all know as fact that the referendum was consultative.
    The only thing against that is that the PM promised: do we really think the electorate trusts the word of the government?

  8. Remainer here (worried it would cause a recession etc). I don't like what you're saying about Leave being undemocratic because the public couldn't know what would come next. Obviously what would or could be agreed would depend on the attitude of the EU, not just the priorities of the UK govt side. It's like saying Remain would be undemocratic because the public couldn't know what future decisions would be taken in the Council of Ministers, or what new EU treaties future UK govts would sign. Fruit without specifics in both cases.

  9. "The second, which he could not avoid, is that any Brexit plan required assumptions about how the EU would negotiate, and that again allowed wishful thinking on a colossal scale."

    I don't think it was wishful thinking to assume that figures such as Tony Blair and the like wouldn't go around Europe encouraging them not to give concessions in order to facilitate a second referendum. They were expecting the norm and Tony Blair and his friends broke it. We will never know what the outcome would have been if the country had been able to present a more united front.

    It raises an important constitutional issue. Do I wish to live in a country where I can vote for things but George Soros, Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair can arbitrate what happens? As far as I am concerned there is now a principal at stake which is far more important than any economic outcome.

  10. Graham Lester George22 December 2018 at 13:26

    A good piece, thank you. However, you state in your first paragraph: "MPs have accepted a mandate from the people..." but this is a mis-statement. The referendum as it was constituted was advisory, not mandatory. It was only subsequent to the result that both main parties abdicated their roles in our Representive Democracy and spoke only of "the will of the people". Right from the start it should have been parliament's role to decide whether leaving the EU was in the country's best interest.

  11. A comment from Australia.

    The Australian Constitution provides for referenda.

    These referenda perform a very specific purpose – to change the wording of the Australian Constitution.

    Voters are required to vote either YES, to change the Constitution in a specific way, or NO, to keep the existing wording.

    Here is the salient point: behind the YES vote exists a precise set of words that may be added to the Constitution, and a precise set of words that may be removed from the Constitution. These words to be added and/or subtracted cannot be voted upon by the electorate until that form of words is legislated into existence by a majority of both houses and signed off by the Governor-General.

    In other words, even though most voters have only a hazy notion of the actual words they are voting about, nevertheless there stands behind those hazy notions considerable expertise and an elite understanding of the meaning and function of those proposed changes.

    And the historical record shows that Australians are very reluctant to change the existing Constitution, passed into law by the British Parkiament while Queen Victoria reigned. Make of that what you will.

    Contrast the Brexit referendum. The British have no experience with the practice. Referenda play no role in the British Constitution.

    But of vital significance, the YES vote had no precise, or even moderately imprecise, words behind their proposed changes. All they offered was a leap in the dark.

    Yet a majority of British voters accepted this highly risky leap. The YES campaign disguised the risks they offered masterfully.

    The consequences of this sleight-of-hand are unknowable but will certainly be unsettling.

    The political elites failed British voters by neglecting to point out how unsound was the entire practice of the foreign, irregular, and unfamiliar, referendum process.

  12. Many seem unaware, or had forgotten,that there had been the AV Referendum in 2011. That set out the terms for its result to be enacted. Paradoxically, it was a first past the post arrangement, and no qualifying participation had been specified. The 'No change' vote was the larger, so the law which would have enacted the new form of representation was not triggered.
    The Fixed-Term Parliament Act 2011 specifies that a 2/3 majority of the electorate (total number of MPs) is required to trigger the calling of a General Election.
    Here are two cases, be it in a 'normal' statute, or a referendum,
    where Parliament has set out how those two pieces of legislation are to be interpretated.
    The 2015 Referendum Act did not indicate how the 'result' was to be interpreted.
    That lack of specicifity, I suggest, rendered its interpretation
    a political act by the executive.
    Mr Cameron seems to have indicated that fact by stressing that he would "honour the Referendum".

    In the absence of a first past the post 'rule' then a promise to honour the Referendum suggests it would be treated as a public opinion exercise.
    Indeed the 'result' would have no effect until it was passed into legislation.
    In the event,only 37.5% of the electorate voiced the desire to leave the EU.

    Here's legislation which speaks to a major constitutional change, yet it had no qualifying turn-out, and no qualifying majority.
    We may never know whether this was the result of a naïve lack of political nous,a cynical sleight of hand to be practised on the voters, or something emse.
    We may be led to believe that a number of voters treated the exercise as a protest against an elitist political caste who had no regard for 'ordinary' people.
    That political elite had the last laugh when it decided the outcome, and then falsely claimed its deification as the 'voice of the people'.
    But, it's still not law, and it ought to shouted from the roof-tops, that a confirmatory vote would not have been a denial, but an affirmation, of our democracy.
    The Conservative government, with its 'thumping majority' may still find that its undemocratic 'Get Brexit done' comes to nought.


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