I have nothing but respect and admiration for Hilary Benn, Ed Miliband, Anne Soubry, Ken Clarke and Nick Clegg in their campaign for a degree of democratic control over the Brexit mandate and subsequent negotiations. That the government and media are now calling up from the grave the notion of ‘crown prerogative’ to thwart the principle of parliamentary accountability in the name of some higher form of popular democracy is only one of many of the paradoxes of our time.
But I wish our valiant parliamentarians would not feel obliged to preface all their remarks with a ritual genuflection to the sanctity of the referendum result, which somehow has to be ‘respected’. Why do we have to ‘respect’ it? Because we’ve been told to by the Murdochs, the Dacres, the Barclay brothers and the gruesome Brexit ministerial crew?
Is there something sacred about the outcome of a referendum vote? If we had had a referendum on capital punishment, and had it been won by those who favour judicial murder, would those of us who regard hanging as an abomination be expected to drop our principled opposition overnight? Of course not. We would continue our campaign and seek to prevent any state executions by all peaceful means possible.
When a party wins a general election, do the other political parties just abandon the field and shut up shop? No, defeated political parties rightly regroup, oppose the government of the day, seek its early downfall to reverse their previous defeat and prevent what they consider to be the most harmful elements of the government’s manifesto from being adopted. It’s called parliamentary democracy.
Is there some particular reason for reacting differently to the June 23rd referendum, accepting the argument of the media and some Tory MPs that somehow for pro-Europeans to do anything other than take a vow of silence is anti-democratic or even borderline treasonous? On the contrary, the democratic quality of this particular referendum result is so seriously flawed as to have no moral validity. It is now apparent that the Leave campaign built popular support on the basis of a series of lies and misrepresentations now openly admitted by Leave campaigners with almost jovial insouciance, building on decades of deliberate misreporting in the press about the European Union. The way the Union works and what it does is certainly complicated, but this does not excuse those in power over forty years for failing to inform people about it. And this gaping information void was exacerbated in the Spring by the refusal of journalists and commentators, not least those from the national broadcaster ( reduced to a quivering hulk for fear of losing the television licence fee) to test and analyse the alternatives to membership. The dreary Remain campaign, I grant you, was excessively defensive and negative in its approach, even though its warnings that Brexit would have serious consequences for the economy now seem if anything to have been understating the economic and financial harm of our leaving the EU. In short, a juggernaut spewing untruths about the EU was unstoppable because most British voters had not the faintest idea about the European Union of which they had been citizens for two generations. On this ground alone – the prequisite of an independent press and an informed public opinion – the referendum would not have passed international tests for a fair and free voting exercise.
We now learn from no less an authority than one of Mr Cameron’s main advisers, Daniel Korski, embedded in the Remain campaign that the electorate for the referendum had been gerrymandered by the then government ( with the vote denied simultaneously, to EU citizens in the UK and to UK citizens resident elsewhere in the EU, despite a clear manifesto commitment) as the umpteenth concession to the Tory anti-Europeans and to ensure swift passage of the Referendum Bill.
And do we imagine for a single moment had the result been 52% for remain and 48% for leaving that UKIP, the Tory Right and the press barons would have become meek europhiles overnight? Here, again, we have the evidence. The petition which attracted four million backers calling into question the referendum’s validity because its result did not command the support of the majority of those entitled to vote was actually prepared days before June 23rd by elements in the pro-Leave campaign as an insurance policy to be used in the case of what appeared then to be the then likely Remain victory.
The truth is that our democracy is not based on the principle of popular infallibility. The people can get it wrong. And voters are fickle and can change their minds, as currently appears to be the case. Now in just saying this I, as a former cardinal of the Brussels curia, will be seen as the ultimate elitist ignoring the will of the great British public. But if anyone is convinced that their country has just made a huge, catastrophic mistake then he or she has the right, no, even the duty – the patriotic duty above partisan interests – to seek to overturn the offending decision.
So our MPs – struggling with this issue; understanding that when the terms of our exit are known it may well be clear that the negotiations have been an ignominious failure; with a hard, grim Brexit as their outcome; with great and lasting harm for the economy; with the prospects and horizons of coming generations blighted – may well end up leading Parliament on a collision course with the executive. They should not at this stage be intimidated by News Corporation, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph into removing from the table the ultimate weapon – a reconsideration of the June 23rd referendum ‘result’. They should leave all options open.
For those of us who still have at least an unfettered freedom of expression (even those of us who have long been disenfranchised) we should support a new ‘June Movement’ to reverse this referendum result and create the conditions under which our country may renew its European destiny . How this could be done – by parliament using its sovereign rights, by a general election, or by a second referendum, adequately prepared and fairly fought – should be the subject of separate reflection whenever the opportunity arises.