Another referendum about Brexit can never work because they’re a tool unfit for democracy

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The MPs who are tweeting about having taken back control having defeated the Government on the need for a “meaningful vote” in Parliament may be congratulating themselves a bit prematurely.

Britain’s biggest problem at this moment is not that we are leaving the EU, even though we are doing so in a shambolic and unpredictable way. Instead, our issue is that we have a political culture that is prepared to allow a country to be exposed to this level of uncertainty and risk. The first problem wouldn’t exist without the second. We need to unshackle the UK from its unhealthy habit of occasionally turning into a plebiscitary democracy.

A government hostage to referendums – is skittish and unpredictable. This fact alone takes vital options out of Britain’s hands. The EU27 have made it clear that the Article 50 process could only be halted if they were confident that the UK are acting in good faith and not requesting a pause to regroup for a better deal.

If the Government ended up having to propose a second referendum, the EU27 would see a Parliament that is hostage to the idea that these decisions should still be made in this way. They would know that they were not really negotiating with parliament, but with what Simon Wren Lewis calls the unorganised plutocracy that exists outside of democratic structures.

They will see that the Government is not able to give reliable undertakings that it won’t be back with a new Article 50 in a few months, and they may leave the UK to dangle. On the other hand, if the illusion that this version of Brexit is “the will of the people” can be trashed, a clumsy and damaging Brexit-by-referendum will never be possible again. 

For all of their failings, the EU’s political bureaucrats have a much more sophisticated understanding of what the “will of the people is” than to believe that it is “what people say they want in a referendum.” The UK’s negotiating hand has been weak because the EU27 don’t believe the hype about plebiscites. They don’t believe that British people really want to leave in the first place, and every negotiator loves to face a divided team on the other side of the table. 

The polarised political trench warfare rages with all of its arrogant certainty, on both sides, indifferent to the fact that there has never really been any coherent “popular will”. None of the different versions of “out” are obviously any more popular than the alternative of “in.” Even the question of EU membership itself was one upon which most people were fairly ambivalent. As with other minority obsessions (see Catalonia), the free pass given to referendums has allowed every political chancer a route to achieve something that they know they won’t get through a respectable democratic process.

We all have our prejudices about Brexit, but none of us can say with any real confidence that leaving the EU – properly – would end badly. Neither can we accept that the Brexiteers won any real arguments when they got their 52 per cent of the vote. They just won a ballot on a blurry issue that was nowhere near the top of most voters’ priorities. There is no definition of popular sovereignty that I know of that would permit one such binary vote to trigger a dramatic and irrevocable change to policies that a Parliament has pursued for over 40 years on a range of complex issues including economic, foreign and trade policy.

Even if the ideal of leaving the EU is genuinely popular (it probably is) and is a priority for a clear majority of the populace (it probably isn’t), good democratic processes depend upon much more than just gauging of the reflexes of voters. As Henry Ford supposedly said, “…if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” In politics practicality is as important as desirability. A Brexit that people want has to be done in the right way, with the right preparation, by people who know enough about the EU to deal with its officials. Watching British ministers shamble through institutions and processes that they don’t even understand underlines what a debased decision it was from a democratic point of view.

These failures are not a consequence of making the wrong decision. They have happened because the decision was made in the wrong way. This should not be seen as a “remainer” argument either. Anyone who really wants to leave the EU properly and successfully should be in agreement with this. David Davis certainly was, and said so in a devastating fashion, when discussing regional assemblies in Parliament in 2002: “Referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting… we should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards.”

Davis’ whole speech at the time is worth reading. It’s surprising that, in the intervening years, he has forgotten all of the things his 2002 position implied. For example, any government confident of consistent public support for this would have had room to prepare. It would have used its influence in the EU to nail down some clarity about what the Article 50 options actually were before asking anyone to decide anything. Voters would have known what the EU27’s red lines were, and what the divorce bill would be prior to a decision, because, as we’ve seen, nothing that has happened so far was ever going to be a negotiation in the first place. EU insiders confidently predicted the EU’s stance on all of these things right from the start and have been vindicated.

A parliament that were confident that this was a democratic priority would have set select committees the task of learning the impacts on the economy and what the differences in policy options were outside the “pooled sovereignty” of the EU (for example, on taxation, policing, employment / consumer standards, etc). All of the options on the Irish border and the “variable geometry” possibilities for the neighbours, the nations and regions would have been agreed (not least with the veto-holding Irish) before any triggers were pulled.

Representative democracy works because MPs have the option to stand for parliament saying that they plan to take the UK out of the EU. They will usually only do so if they’re fairly confident that the voters will re-elect them after it had happened. When MPs aren’t handcuffed to an inflexible mandate and can use their judgment a bit, it gives government an infinitely more appropriate feedback loop with the public than any referendum ever will.

This is the cornerstone on which liberal democracy – history’s most successful political project – is built.

Parliament needs to step up now. It needs to hold, and win that argument in preparation for this possibility. Unless Britain has a credible reputation for being a country that doesn’t make decisions using referendums any more, no British Prime Minister will be able to reassure the rest of the EU that we’re not just stalling. MPs got us into this shambolic version of Brexit by agreeing to a referendum in the first place. Everything that happened following that act of cowardice was a direct consequence of it.

If we now let them fudge this again this by ducking a decision that they should take ownership over, then the seeds of another, worse, disaster will be sown. If we exit Brexit, it has to be the job of Parliament – and Parliament alone. Fixing the best course for Britain without any more referendums would mean that Parliament really had “taken back control.”

Paul Evans is the author of “Save Democracy – Abolish Voting” published by Democratic Society Editions (£6.99)