Can a General Election Trump a Referendum?
“We will vote in Parliament to block any attempt to invoke Article 50 until Theresa May commits to a second referendum or a general election on whatever EU exit deal emerges at the end of the process.”
BBC News Website, 24 August 2016 | Brexit: Owen Smith opposes Article 50 move without vote
It is arguable that we (“the people”) should have some sort of final say – particularly since it is becoming clear that “Brexit means Brexit” could be many different things – some of which will strike the Quitters as “betrayal”. In this context Owen Smith’s position raises an interesting and potentially disturbing question:
Can a party winning a general election with say 36% of the vote claim a mandate to over-ride a referendum that voted 52% in favour of a particular proposition? And if it can’t, where would Prime Minister Owen Smith then stand?
We live in a “rotten democracy” – where the people’s votes outside the marginals don’t count – and this can lead to voices not being represented or heard. This resentment loosened the ties connecting many voters to their tribal party, so when asked their opinion in a referendum they gave an unexpected result. One that the recently departed mega-strategist, David Cameron (and others possibly blinded by the support of their phoney majority) did not expect.
Do we then allow the old rotten system to over-ride this result? It strikes me as very dangerous to say to the electorate in a general election campaign “gives us a standard Westminster phoney majority (of seats not votes) and we will use that to ignore the majority opinion expressed on 23 June”.
.. or a general election on whatever EU exit deal emerges …
Owen Smith does seem to want to make “the deal” a general election issue. This ignores the difficulty of being able to say “on second thoughts, er, ‘no‘” after seeing the results of negotiations that appear to only be possible after invoking Article 50 (irreversible notice of intention to leave).
His stance may be a little more understandable if he stated that a Labour Party under him would make a manifesto commitment to a second referendum, but that is not what he appears to be saying. For him a Labour “phoney General Election majority” would seem to be sufficient to reject a Brexit deal.
A “post Article 50 deal rejection” would presumably mean that we would then exit on WTO terms – which would seem to be the opposite to what Owen Smith desires (staying in the EU).
We seem to have little choice, either:
- We accept the result of the referendum and trigger the only way to exit under the Treaties; Article 50. It looks as if the EU of 27 being rather busy with other issues and wishing to avoid possible contagion will refuse to negotiate any post membership deals until we have committed to leave. Therefore under the referendum result we must commit to leave without Brexit being defined. or
- Parliament makes the difficult argument that Cameron (through his arrogance and stupidity) has created a stupid situation that may lead to a very unfavourable result (one not desired by a majority) and therefore parliament should not act on the referendum result. But what then? There will be uproar about a parliament (with a phoney majority) ignoring the wishes of the people. (This is actually allowed; referendums are technically only advisory.)
Ideally we would have been offered two fully defined alternatives; the status quo (Remain) and a fully worked-up Exit option (Leave). However in referenda the alternative to the status quo may often be incompletely defined. We did not even really debate different forms of Brexit. YouGov have done some interesting survey work that possibly indicates that a “Canadian” style post Brexit relationship is the most popular form of Brexit. However, it may not have won a “run-off” against the status quo (per the New Zealand flag referendum process). We will never know. Thank you Cameron – you have created a foreign policy situation that history may view as even more disastrously misguided that Suez.