Few can deny that the United Kingdom is in a mess, politically and economically, following the 2016 referendum about membership of the European Union. More than 2,000 years have passed since the Romans first stepped ashore, the first of many invaders from mainland Europe to leave long-lasting legal, cultural, industrial, economic and political legacies but not conquer insularity.
Hovering behind the referendum on membership of the European Union and, indeed, bedevilling the instinctive perception of a whole swathe of the British people, is an emotional denial that the United Kingdom is actually part of the continent of Europe. This innate response, which correlates in intensity as one moves up the age range, was epitomised beautifully by a letter in the Yorkshire Post on 1 April 2009 - dated appropriately but not intentionally - written by a reader who had clearly finally run out of patience with one James Bovington, a regular pro-Europe Yorkshire Post correspondent. The letter went, “If James Bovington is such a fan of Europe why doesn’t he move there?”
This curious obscurantism is not entirely the writer’s fault; there is no visible acknowledgement by any of our national or local institutions of our membership of the EU nor is there ever any notice board pointing out EU funding of a development. In France, by comparison, every local authority, from the smallest village to the biggest city, flies the EU flag alongside the French tricolour, and panels setting out funding details are invariably pitched alongside the building works. I suspect that is the same elsewhere in other EU countries. Equally, apart from the Liberals’ faithful advocacy of united Europe with the UK playing a key role, which has been in every election manifesto since 1955, the parties have been fearful of vocally espousing the European vision. No wonder that the British electorate is so antipathetic.
The opposite argument was summed up by historian Richard Overy’s recent New Statesman review of a book on European history by Richard J Evans, the President of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He wrote:
For all those Brexiteers lauding the “exceptionalism” of Britain’s historical path, Evans has made it clear beyond doubt that Britain was and is a part of Europe, tied by cultural, economic, political and military bonds and sharing the experiences of other parts of the continent. There is no “history of Europe” that can exclude Britain, though textbooks and university courses too often suggest the possibility. For everyone who wants to discover just how entangled Europe’s history is, there is no better starting point than [Evans’] The Pursuit of Power.
If distinguished historians can bat for Europe it is shameful that politicians shy away from the powerful arguments.
I need at this point to put on record my lifetime commitment to internationalism, of which a united Europe is a vital part. I have never been able to find a rational argument for national boundaries, not least because they keep changing and are inevitably the outcome of political machinations rather than being handed down by God. Consequently the only identity card I carry is that of a World Citizen, which may only be a token gesture but invariably provokes much discussion wherever I am in the world.
I began in politics in 1958 early in Jo Grimond’s time as leader of the Liberal party. Jo had the great handicap of being a brilliant leader of what was, in parliamentary terms at the time, a tiny party. He managed, almost single-handedly, to create a Liberal presence. He was a remarkable platform performer capable of moving big audiences and wooing smaller meetings. He was also capable of producing unexpected comments, including on the vexed subject of Europe, on which he was passionate. The 1964 general election was the first in which electors were invited to put questions to the party leaders. Even so, they had to be relayed to the leaders by the presenter of the BBC television programmes. In Jo’s case this was Robin Day and Robin told Jo that, “Mrs Brown in Oldham wants to know whether you are in favour of a united Europe - and she would like a ‘yes or no’ answer.” Without hesitation, Jo replied, “Yes.” Robin was surprised not to receive an answer hedged around with qualifications and reservations and said to Jo, “But, Mr Grimond, isn’t that a very difficult question?” “Yes” said Jo, “it is, and I’ve just answered it!”
Later on, in 1969, Prime Minister Harold Wilson came out with the timeless comment that he would be in favour of Britain joining the Common Market, as it then was, “if the price was right.” Jo immediately commented that this was rather like waiting to decide on the Reformation, “until one discovered what the monasteries would fetch.”
Then as now, the problem for the Liberals that when they have an issue on which they are very popular, such as opposing the invasion of Iraq, they run a mile and fail to exploit it fully. If, however, they have an issue which is unpopular, the party will espouse it, and if it is very unpopular, it will back it enthusiastically! Now the Liberals have an issue on which they have an unblemished sixty year record and which is supported by almost half the electorate, and they are beginning to see the electoral rewards for that stance.
The one unhelpful aspect of the current European debacle is the curious acceptance by the majority of MPs and the parties, including even the Liberal Democrats, of the legitimacy of the referendum result. At this point I need to reveal a second long-standing belief - that no referendum, at any time, on any issue, is justified. All of them are a travesty of democracy and undermine genuine politics. They never answer the question and are always capable of manipulation. The manipulation in the EU referendum - just as it was in the May 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote - was orchestrated by the egregious Matthew Elliott, late of the ultra selfish Taxpayers’ Alliance. By definition, referenda are on difficult issues, usually when the governing party cannot carry its MPs in parliamentary votes, and, therefore, has to be reduced to a question which is incapable of a binary answer. A referendum has all the appearance of democracy but very little of its reality. The arguments for it don't stand up to cross examination.
Historically the referendum has been the tool of the demagogue. Both Napoleons, Hitler and de Gaulle all used the referendum and the plebiscite to gain the support of the public over the heads of elected parliamentarians. When they believed that the legislature would not support a key policy, they put the issue directly to the public. And they usually won.
Prime Ministers also use referenda to paper over splits in their parties. In 1975 Harold Wilson was faced with an unbridgeable division in the Labour party over Europe. The government recognised that it was impossible to push through any distinct policy on Europe but Wilson was under severe pressure to act. The result - a referendum in which over two-thirds of those who voted, but only just over two in five of the electorate, voted to stay in the European Economic Community. It solved Wilson's problem but did little to enhance the concept of "direct democracy."
That 1975 referendum on Europe demonstrated all the problems of referendums. The government chose the question, the government chose the timing and the government spent the money. All are significant in manipulating the result. The question has to be simple, however complex the issue, and is never neutral. In 1975 the question put was "Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community?" Opinion poll research afterwards suggested that this gave the government an 8.6% advantage over a question as to whether or not the UK should "come out" of the EEC. Such are the benefits of the positive over the negative!
The timing was, of course, chosen to be the most advantageous for the government. How could it have been otherwise when many of the voters at a referendum are voting on party lines or on the government's performance? To lose a referendum inevitably harms the government party's later electoral chances. For this reason also it is hardly surprising that vast sums of government money are expended to achieve the desired result. Faced with this in 1975, the opponents of European union cried "foul", finding it difficult to understand why a big pre-referendum poll lead for the antis became a large majority for the pros.
Furthermore it did not resolve the European issue. On the contrary, far from accepting that this vote had settled the fundamental issue of EEC membership and its consequences, the Eurosceptics continue to clamour for votes on each successive stage of European unity. One referendum inevitably gives rise to demands for others.
Or take the referenda over devolution to Scotland and Wales. The 1979 attempt failed, not because Scots who voted were against devolution - they voted 52% to 48% in favour - but because fewer than 40% of the electorate had voted in favour! A clause requiring this threshold had been inserted in the Bill by George Cunningham, a Scot who was then a Labour MP in London. The pro-devolution vote at the 1997 referendums would have overcome the 40% barrier in Scotland, but not in Wales. Such votes have a further artificiality: why should non Scots or non-Welsh citizens living in those countries have a vote on devolution whereas Scots and Welsh in England or elsewhere did not?
Every referendum damages the crucial concept of parliamentary democracy. A key part of the art of politics is how to enact unpopular measures which are necessary for the well- being of the public. The whole concept of the mandate exists to enable those elected to have time to prove the validity of their judgement. Difficult decisions can be made early on in a five year parliament in the expectation that they will be seen to be justified when the time comes to renew that mandate. Once the voters can have recourse to the referendum, seen at its worst in California where it can be forced by obtaining petition signatures equivalent to 5% of the total vote, it becomes virtually impossible to take crucial decisions that require time to show their value.
When we vote we, in effect, authorise an individual to deputise for us, and to take decisions for us, for a set period of time - five years in the UK. In some countries, including France and Russia, their elected representatives are actually called "Deputies" rather than Members of Parliament, in order to keep this idea in the minds of both the governors and the governed. It is important to enhance the concept rather than undermine it.
We need better politics and politicians, and we will not get them by diminishing their role and their responsibility. Even more, we need a greater emphasis on the philosophies that underpin political parties so that the voter has a much better idea of how his or her MP will approach the issues than concern them and which may well arrive before the next election. It will take a bit more effort on the part of the electors and the elected but it will be well worth it - and it will reduce the demand for the false democracy of the referendum.
The June 23 referendum on the EU demonstrated al the faults of the process and was grossly manipulated. In effect it was miss-sold. The miss-selling of Payment Protection Insurance, and of investments, resulted in compensation for the victims and heavy fines for the perpetrators. The miss-selling of the Leave case in the referendum resulted in rewards for those who did it and severe penalties for the victim - Britain's key role in Europe. No continued assertion by the Prime Minister that the result was legitimate, nor statements by parliamentarians who should know better, that "the people have spoken" can hide the fact that the case for Leave was miss-sold and that as a direct consequence, and given the narrow result, enough electors focussed their votes on opposing immigration, rather than on the case for or against remaining within the EU, to invalidate the result. No-one who was involved in the later stages of the campaign, and who was on the receiving end of anti-immigrant comments from Leave voters that parroted the "76 million Turks on the doorstep" lie of the Leave campaign, can be in any doubt as to the dubious status of the eventual vote.
The cynical manipulation of the campaign was only possible because the parliamentary act governing the conduct of the referendum was defective. Had this act adapted the provisions that apply to elections the wholesale misrepresentations would not have been possible. In particular it needed a version of the section under which a Liberal Democrat candidate at the 2010 general election successfully prosecuted his Labour opponent who was unseated and banned from public office for three years. This would certainly have inhibited the Leave campaign's lies and misrepresentations.
All this would matter less if the fact that the referendum was legally only advisory was acknowledged. The House of Commons Library's Briefing Paper 07212 published before the referendum, on 3 June, stated in paragraph 5:
[The Bill] does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the result of the referendum. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions. ... The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented."
Given this authoritative briefing, known to all parties and MPs before 23 June, why is it now cast aside?
The counter accusation to those highlighting the statements of Leave, that the Remain campaign also misrepresented facts is not in the same league. Certainly, some of George Osborne's attempts to frighten voters were over the top but, unlike Leave, they contained forecasts, rather than "facts" that were rejected by independent, respected bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Office for Budget Responsibility.
To have a constitutional change of the magnitude of leaving the EU triggered by a simple majority of referendum voters, however small that majority, requires careful examination. Referendums often have a safeguard, such as a threshold, so that a set percentage of the whole electorate is required. This applied in 1978 in the referendum on Scottish self-government in which there was a yes vote almost identical as the referendum vote. However, it did not reach the required 40% of the electorate and was therefore void. The importance of the 23 June vote surely required a similar provision. Similarly, having included 16 and 17 year olds in the Scottish independence referendum less than two years earlier, they should clearly have been included in the EU vote. There are one million votes in each of these two years - more than the majority for Leave. David Cameron's poisoned legacy is not just the huge misjudgement of the decision to call a referendum but also the complacency with which he and his government drafted the laws governing it. Both Houses of Parliament could have amended the bill but lamentably failed to do so. Had the mass of parliamentarians who favoured Remain not been so complacent of the result, they would no doubt have paid more attention to the provisions of the bill.
On the content of the Remain campaign generally, the over emphasis on economic arguments failed to make any significant impression on electors, particularly older voters whom the opinion polls showed to be significantly more inclined to vote for Leave than were their younger compatriots. I have never believed that older electors cannot be persuaded and in March, on the receipt of the first Remain leaflet, I pointed out that the contents were all worthy but that the hope and vision needed to make an impact were lacking. I then set out the points that I have used effectively:
1. We have had the longest period of peace in Western Europe in human history - not least thanks to the EU and its predecessors;
2. Do not believe war could not happen again in Europe - remember the former Yugoslavia next door when the disappearance of the federal level caused a number of the individual republics to go to war with each other;
3. We have not had military conscription in Britain for 55 years - I do not want my grandchildren to be called up in preparation for a possible war;
4. It is an astonishing achievement to draw together twenty-eight countries, three of which were in the Soviet Union - with missiles pointing at us; others were in the wider Soviet Bloc;
5. The EU has been the guarantee of democracy in countries, such as Spain and Portugal, which were fascist dictatorships within living memory; and also in Greece, which was under military rule until 1976;
6. Anyone seriously worried about sovereignty ought to argue for leaving NATO. Under its Charter we would have no alternative but to intervene in Latvia if Russia were to interfere there as it has in Ukraine. It would be the same situation if the Syrian regime were to attack Turkey. Both scenarios are not far-fetched;
7. Increasingly, major problems, such as climate change, terrorism etc, go way beyond national boundaries. We cannot hope to solve them unless on a continental basis.
There was no reply from the Remain leaders to this plea and the campaign continued on its inexorable path to failure relying on the perfectly proper but ineffectual economic arguments.
Miss-selling in the financial world arose out of the failure of banks and other lenders to explain fully what PPI covered. Giving recompense to those harmed by such miss-selling was not suggesting that these individuals were fools nor that it was their own fault. It was rather the failure of those responsible for the miss-selling to explain the complex arguments. Similarly, although many Leave supporters voted thoughtfully on the issues, enough Leave voters determined how they would vote on the issue of immigration fed by the lies and misrepresentations, to undermine the result. To state this is not to suggest that they were gullible but rather that the Leave campaign deliberately omitted to explain complex issues accurately and truthfully. The case was blatantly miss-sold, and the consequences should be the same as in the financial sphere. To state that the electors have made their decision and that it must be respected is to fly in face of the facts, with fundamentally damaging effects on the status of the UK within the EU.
The two key statements that were at the heart of the miss-selling were, first, the lie that the UK was paying £350 million per week to the EU. This figure, shown independently to be blatantly incorrect, was seized on by the three newspapers which were entirely one-sided cheerleaders for a Leave vote, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express all of which continually repeated them. It was even suggested that this sum would be spent on the NHS if the UK left the EU. Unsurprisingly there has been no sign of this transaction since the vote, indeed, it has been directly contradicted by the government.
The second statement was even more cynical, given the widespread concern about immigration. This was that there were 76 million Turks waiting at the door to enter Britain. This too was grasped by a significant number of voters disaffected with the political process. The prospect of Turkey joining the EU is far distant, indeed, with the present Turkish President and government becoming more Islamic, plus its extreme response to the attempted coup, it is probably further away than when the process first started. In any case the entry of every proposed new country can be vetoed by the UK or any other existing EU member.
The Leave.EU campaign openly boasts of diverting the focus of the Leave appeal from the question posed in the referendum on to the issue of immigration. Arron Banks, Leave.EU's financier, stated - amongst much else of a revealing nature - in an interview in the New Statesman (14 October 2016):
We always knew the referendum would come down to two things - the economy on their side and immigration on the Out side, and that if you could keep the subject on immigration you would win.
The third blatant deceit was deliberately calculated to deceive the electors. On the eve-of-poll large numbers of voters received an individually addressed leaflet through the Royal Mail which was deliberately designed to appear to come from the Electoral Commission or from the official Returning Office. It was headed "Official information about the Referendum on 23 June 2016", with the next line reading "Referendum Communication." It proceeds to describe itself as "This document" and presented "The Facts" as if they were objective items of information, even though it led with the £350 million per week lie and followed with the queue of countries falsely to be waiting to join. Only on the last page, and in extremely small type, did it state that it was, in fact, from the Leave campaign.
From the evidence of such miss-selling of the Leave case, enough electors are likely to have voted for Leave on a false prospectus. At the very least this renders the result unsafe. The result was extremely narrow, requiring only a 2% change in the voting to reverse the result. It is worth noting that in the Daily Mirror of 16th May, Nigel Farage stated that if Remain won on a vote of 52 to 48 he would demand a second referendum. Petitions are not usually a significant expression of opinion but within days the remarkable total of four million voters had signed a petition asking for a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats, with their sixty year consistent advocacy of Britain to be a full partner in a united Europe, could legitimately put themselves at the head of this huge army of people who agree with the party's stance - particularly if the party is prepared to accept the case for rejecting the referendum result as unsafe.
In the two day debate on the Referendum in the House of Lords on 5th and 6th July, twenty-one peers spoke in favour of rejecting the result. These included Lord Armstrong, the former Cabinet Secretary. Three other senior peers, Michael Heseltine, Roy Hattersley and Dick Taverne are on record as regarding the result as illegitimate. Parliament's moral authority in rejecting the attempt to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, and in voting on the initiating of Article 50, will be greatly enhanced if the miss-selling case is widely accepted. Equally, Tim Farron's and the Liberal Democrats' commitment to a second referendum on the outcome of the negotiations, with the option of a vote to remain, will be considerably assisted if the powerful factual case for rejecting the result of the 23 June referendum is promoted.
Finally, there is the hugely important need to address the underlying disaffection with the whole political process by a swathe of working class voters, in particular male voters. This disaffection has simmered for decades but boiled over at the referendum when they felt able to express their feelings directly. Their estrangement from their traditional Labour loyalty had already shown itself in Scotland at the 2015 general election with the virtual clean sweep of Labour seats by the Scottish National Party and in England by the first signs of UKIP’s growing strength in traditional Labour seats. Now this group formed a powerful segment of the Leave vote. Its legitimate concerns have simply not hitherto been sufficiently recognised by mainstream politics. As far back as 1973, Sir Alec Clegg, the former Chief Education Officer for the West Riding of Yorkshire, stated:
Some of the industrial towns of the north are places that combine maximum need with minimum resources and overwhelming dereliction ..... There are whole areas of our country affected in this way and nearly all of them are in the industrial north. They lack both the charm of the countryside and the amenities and entertainments of the town. Furthermore they are areas of no political consequence. The ‘left’ know that they will not lose them and the ‘right’ know that they cannot win them, and so both political sides can ignore them, manipulate and exploit them politically, socially, economically and educationally, without fear of reprisal.
(His observations came in an article headline 'How equal is opportunity?', published in The Teacher, 26 January 1973)
The Labour party signally failed to confront the problem that a significant proportion of its support was not just out of sympathy with any nuance of socialist belief but held views way to the Right of the Conservatives party. Why face the intellectual challenge of persuading them of the correctness of Labour values and policies when they consistently voted Labour? Exactly the same problem confronts progressive parties in the rest of Europe. Their failure to engage with a growing far right populism has led to the dangerous growth of nationalist parties that espouse the values that came to prominence in 1930s Germany and Italy and are openly in vogue in Russia and Hungary today. These were - and are - parties that see the ills of the “dispossessed natives” being caused by a minority group that are not truly of the “host” country. Cleverly they now espouse many socially liberal domestic policies alongside their populist antagonism to immigration and minorities. Parties that are nationalist and vaguely “socialist” have an alarming resonance with the past.
It is necessary to understand the basis for the unhappiness and frustration of these urban working class men. Much of their status within their communities stemmed from their employment in tough industries that have almost entirely disappeared: ship building, steel, mining, cotton and wool, and clothing. These industries cannot return in any numbers, not least because those in Asia that we previously exploited now, rightly, demand their place in the industrial sun. Also, British consumers have a hypocritical attitude towards them. They bemoan the loss of the heavy industrial sector but demand the lowest prices for their consumer goods, just as they complain about the loss of the corner shop but steadfastly shop at the supermarket. Most replacement employment, such as it is, or social benefits, do not enable these individuals to maintain their local position and has been one cause of the demise of working men’s clubs and other community facilities. It is all too easy then to put the blame on immigrants, despite all the evidence that it is the structural global changes that are the main causes.
My guess is that the immense and complex negotiations over Brexit, with the added inevitable delays by parliamentary manoeuvres, will prevent any definitive settlement being concluded before the next General Election in 2020. At this point the demand by the Liberal Democrats, and supported by other important voices, for a further referendum may be subsumed into an election campaign focussed particularly on our relationship wit the European Union. This means that the huge challenge of engaging rigorously with the Leave voters, and particularly with those who saw immigration as determining their vote, has just over three years to succeed. I fear that I see little sign of this task even starting.
Some of the material contained in this article was used by the author in “Out on a pack of lies” in Liberator magazine 381, November 2016. The main arguments against referenda were also contained in his article in “The Yorkshire Post” 2nd April 2004.