Trouble with Referendums: who is accountable for its delivery?

Nick Cohen makes a point I shared privately with several Leave friends during the EU Referendum campaign last year:

Vote Leave dissolved as soon as the contest was won. The referendum thus dispensed with the most basic democratic requirements. The winners were not accountable for the promises they made. In their history of the campaign, Jason Farrell and Paul Goldsmith quote the Leave campaigner Gisela Stuart saying that she thought the referendum was an ‘abuse of democracy’ because no one who campaigned to leave was accountable for what happened next.
It seems a little rich of Ms Stuart to wring her hands now the rest of us must live with the consequences of the Brexit she fought for. But her point remains a good one. The leave campaign could make the most fantastic promises and tell straight-out lies because it need never live with the consequences.


He continues:

In these circumstances, Brexit can mean whatever you want it to mean. Because the referendum boiled down all the complexities to a deceptively simple question, because the men and women who brought us leave are not answerable for their actions, the scope for demagogic politicians to claim the people have been betrayed is vast.
More than a year on after the referendum, with the Article 50 clock ticking, we still do not know what British policy is.

The really queer aspect is how it compels political representatives to act against their own better judgement, on the advice of what was and remains an opinion poll.

Power without responsibilities. Hmmmmm.

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  • Brian O’Neill
  • AndyB

    The only people who were bound by the result were the Government, but not Parliament. I think that’s why Theresa May called the election, because by putting her vision of Brexit into the manifesto she hoped to bind the House of Lords (by convention) not to block it on the grounds that the public had agreed with it by giving her a majority, and also forcing her own party’s loyalty on the same grounds.

    How the convention that the Lords doesn’t block bills in the Queen’s speech works out with a minority Government I don’t know – but since May’s hand was perhaps the most overplayed in British politics for decades, she only has herself to blame.

  • Korhomme

    Just by chance, there is a review of Guilty Men (Brexit edition) up today. The original was about the guilty men in the late 1930s; this is a similar polemic. It’s not just that having ‘won’ most decamped, but also that their positions were as much for personal and party advancement and the referendum was a vehicle for this. Review here:

    http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/08/04/book-review-guilty-men-brexit-edition-by-cato-the-younger/

  • Msiegnaro

    A fiercely anti Brexit campaign was ran by everyone including the political parties, the media and the establishment. The fact that Brexit won and there is now few to mobilise this result illustrates that the silent majority are not fairly represented in politics.

  • Pang

    Ideally a referendum should be about two (or more) clear alternatives. It was clear what voting ‘Remain’ would deliver, but voting ‘Leave’ meant whatever people wanted it to mean. Dave should have had some semi-negotiated version of ‘Leave’ for people to consider. People would still have muddied the water by including irrelevant details (like in every EU referendum in the Republic), but it would have been a real choice.

  • Pang

    The British had their chance to adopt proportional representation in an earlier referendum. They chose to keep the current system which delivers two parties & keeps a lot of views silent.

  • Msiegnaro

    The problem is with this system no parties represent the average person. They are all run by highly funded machines and therefore the possibility of an average electorate getting elected without big party backing is zero. Brexit gave these people a voice.

  • Nevin

    “Trouble with Referendums: who is accountable for its delivery?”

    Quite.

    The EU ‘evolves’ via referenda – and the small fry keep voting until they get the right answer.

    The 1998 Agreement was ‘sanctified’ by referenda whilst Ahern and Blair were in the process of appeasing loyalist and republican terrorists. This appeasement crucified the UUP and SDLP and left us with the Chuckle Brothers. The electorate didn’t have to vote for the hardliners but when governments, including the EU, reward the baddies with goodies it’s perhaps not surprising that the people follow their leaders.

  • ted hagan

    I suspect many Brexit supporters didn’t believe the guff spouted by their campaign leaders either, or gave much thought to the consequences. Cameron lit the touch paper and millions of struggling voters were given the chance to vent their pent-up frustration at what they saw was the cause of their woes, the EU.
    Rather like the Trump phenomenon in the States.
    The Brexit leaders simply seized a chance they should never have been given.
    Woe betide them, and the UK.

  • Dónall

    The UK Government could always (1) desolve (2) refuse to implement (3) call for another referendum (4) compromise. There is no need to leave the customs union and an with an almost 50/50 result it would seem wiser to compromise therefore healing a very divided electorate.

  • IRF

    Under the Good Friday Agreement, the government has accepted that people born in NI have a right to Irish citizenship. Because the Republic of Ireland is to remain an EU member, the British Government position effectively means that they accept that people born in NI also have a right to EU citizenship. Yet the government’s present position is that they are proposing stripping that right away from citizens of NI (along with the rest of the UK). How can they possibly square this circle, without making a special case for NI (i.e. by accepting that the ECJ will still have jurisdiction over NI at least)?

  • Zeno

    When did that happen? You got a link? I find it difficult to believe myself.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Perhaps the insular (and some may say arrogant) English could learn from an overseas senior practitioner in how to run binary referendum campaigns: Ireland.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    A voice calling the EU whipping boy. Kind of knee jerk. It’s good to exercise a voice but it’s equally good to consider the likely consequences to words and actions.

  • IRF

    The Good Friday Agreement was ratified in 1998.

  • Zeno

    A link to the government to strip people of the right to IRISH citizenship.

  • IRF

    No, it’s EU citizenship which is being threatened by Brexit. I’ve amended my origial post for clarity.

  • Msiegnaro

    Not sure if that was meant for me?

  • murdockp

    If in time it turns out to be greater than 50% Irish passport holders than British passport holders living in NI does that mean the conditions for a border poll have been met?

    This is the reality of what is happening

  • the rich get richer

    The Elite were doing very well before the referendum , so well in fact that it never occurred to them that those who were not doing so well or badly would put a spanner in their works…….

    Elites out of touch running the show doesn’t end well…..

    A lesson that the Elite running the Eu are unlikely to learn………

  • ted hagan

    Britain had a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, which is not proportional representation.

  • ted hagan

    England’s pain is Ireland’s gain?
    Not this time, I fear.

  • ted hagan

    People born in NI have always had the right to Irish citizenship, and this fact was always accepted.

  • james

    “If in time it turns out to be greater than 50% Irish passport holders than British passport holders living in NI does that mean the conditions for a border poll have been met?”

    In short, no.

    The convenience of having an extra passport hardly equates to wanting to effect massive constitutional change. In fact, being able to avail of an Irish passport while having all the benefits of living in the UK actually probably decreases the desire for a UI. If Irish passports were not available to NI folk more people might actually be swayed to the gamble of a UI. In effect, the ready availabilty of Irish passports is actually great news for unionists.

  • Neil

    Big data won the referendum. Whether or not brexiteers are in general especially easily to manipulate is open for discussion.

  • Georgie Best

    People had so little respect for their own country that they did not insist on the Brexit crowd clearly indicating what they were going to do, if they wanted people to vote for them.

  • murdockp

    The counter argument is they are not ‘nice to’ have documents they are a strong statement of intent regarding irish citizenship and eu membership.

    I would like to know what tests would result in the border poll criteria being satisfied.

    Common sense would suggest passports would be a good pointer of voter intent.

    What other indicators do we have ?

  • murdockp

    After brexit is is hard to see what these benefits are likely to be especially once the economy crashes.

  • Neiltoo

    As opposed to Scotland where PR has resulted in one party being delivered and a lot more views silenced?

  • james

    “If 1000 people joined the Manchester United supporters club it is reasonable to assume the are fans of the club.”

    Not a great analogy.

    I personally support Liverpool FC – though if membership of MUFC supporters club gave me the right to travel and work in any European country I’d consider quietly paying the subscription. I’d still support Liverpool, though. Can’t stand Man U.

  • Damien Mullan

    I think, to be completely sincere, we must lay the blame for this debacle at the foot of Harold Wilson too. It was Wilson, who like the many Tory leaders and Prime Minister’s since, lacked the courage to deal with internal party divisions, internally, instead, he threw it unto the public, he abdicated his responsibility as leader of a Parliamentary Democracy.

    It was shameful and cowardly.

    Voters in the UK have falsely, on two separate occasions, been duped into believing the supremacy of plebiscitary democracy, that both a majority of people and parliament were of a similar mind in 1975, is the only saving grace that can be extended to that particular exercise. The referendum result of 2016 is therefore the more serious, although it was not the original sin, it nonetheless proves the deep flaws in implanting alien and incompatible systems of democracy around any singular issue.

    I may not be British, but as an Irishman, I can appreciate the enormous contribution British Parliamentary Democracy has made the world over, and the Irishmen who contributed, notably Edmund Burke. It was Wilson, a Yorkshire man, an Oxford graduate, in PPE no less, who first took to wielding the scalpel to the British Constitution, David Cameron, another Oxford and PPE graduate, merely followed in the wake that had already been made.

    It therefore astonishes most, that these graduates in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, could have disregarded the deepest philosophical and political underpinnings of British Parliamentary Democracy.

    The British Constitution has suffered as much reputational damage as the British trait of pragmatism and restraint.

  • Neiltoo

    “I suspect many Brexit supporters didn’t believe the guff spouted by their campaign leaders either, or gave much thought to the consequences…”

    Like many who comment here I think that you attribute beliefs to Brexit supporters based on what reinforces your view of the EU

    I, like many other people who voted to leave, was not influenced by the campaign in any way, and the campaign leaders were not as you suggest ‘my campaign leaders’.
    My position is simple, the EU is a profoundly undemocratic organisation which the people of the UK (and many other countries) were never given any choice about being members of. Over the years it has changed (for the worse) time and time again and yet we were never allowed a say.
    I, and many other people, were always going to vote leave.

    Cameron, as you said lit the touch paper, it was the wrong time and the lack of preparation for a possible leave vote will forever haunt him (and possibly the nation). When the UK gave Hong Kong back to China the brightest minds from both nations took 10 years to come up with a plan. This, by comparison, was infantile.

    The problem was that there was only going to be one chance to get out of the EU. I suspect my crystal ball isn’t any better than yours, so I don’t know how it will all play out. There are many possible outcomes, some good, some bad. I thought long and hard about many possible outcomes but it always came back to a matter of principle.

    Deciding something based on ones principles used to be considered honourable, it is now more likely to get you laughed at.

  • Damien Mullan

    “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” – Edmund Burke –

  • Joe Sousek

    The UK has never had a referendum on PR. The Alternative Vote is in no sense a form of PR.

  • ted hagan

    As the man said, principles are all very well but they don’t pay the bills and there are plenty of people in the UK who are about to find that out over the next number of years. The lack of forethought that has been carried out on Brexit is making the UK a laughing stock.

  • eamoncorbett

    Well put.

  • Neiltoo

    Times change!

    In the same speech he said:

    “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest…..”

    I don’t think anyone would describe parliament in those terms today.

  • Neiltoo

    I think rather that it has made Cameron’s Govt. a laughing stock.
    What will make the current Govt. a laughing stock is if they don’t grow a pair and stand up to the EU. There is no real negotiation, simply a process where the UK will be punished for having the temerity to leave. That will end badly for everyone.

  • eamoncorbett

    By voting leave you effectively put huge pressure on U.K. export manufacturers who depend on the EU for their livelihood. These companies employ thousands and its their incomes and job security that are threatened with the leave decision . Fox and Johnson will probably wreak havoc if they don’t get their way on the Single market and customs union . This thing is so important now that it will require Blairites, Tory Remainers and the SNP to use their majority position to block the type of Brexit that the hard Brexiteers want , if this cross party consensus does not materialise you can expect the worst , tariffs on almost everything.

  • eamoncorbett

    Could you explain that one please ?

  • eamoncorbett

    One of the main problems is May has aligned herself with the hard men because she doesn’t want to end up like Cameron .
    She has lost control of the party , hence the confusion at the negotiations process.

  • Damien Mullan

    Actually, I don’t see the change, other than the strict party political system, which would be new to Burke.

    Burke is making a criticism that you are reiterating. But then so has every critic and opposition leader, Walpole surely felt it in his foreign policy, even Pitt the Elder would feel it, after having dished it out himself.

  • 05OCT68

    One of the reasons post Brexit that the ability to hold both passports should be scrapped.

  • 05OCT68

    Ye canny make an omlet without breaking a few eggs.

  • Hugh Davison

    Passports are primarily travel documents. They are used by travellers to identify themselves at borders.

  • ted hagan

    The government can’t stand up to the EU negotiators because it is riven with the same schism that the referendum was meant to heal. Please one side and they alienate the other. The Tories are in an almost impossible bind, hidebound, weak, and stuck in a maze with no exit.
    Any suggestions about the Border just for starters, because there are many, many more imponderables down the road?

  • William Kinmont

    Would the EU not have only pre agreed some dreadful exit deal to clearly influence the outcome. Similarly now if we have some pre arranged referendum or vote in the UK to ratify any deal then EU will hold out . If we did reject final deal in a vote does this mean no brexit or does it mean EU should give further concessions until the deal is acceptable to UK voters.
    I was for remain but now accept that position has to be to get best deal possible.

  • lizmcneill

    You’re saying Ireland should allow the UK to dictate who has the right of Irish citizenship? Sovereignty! But not for themmuns!

  • 05OCT68

    I’m not saying that at all, I suggest to stymie the Brexiter hypocrites that only one passport can be held at any one time.

  • lizmcneill

    How would it possibly be enforced and what good would it do if it was?

  • Neiltoo

    Ideas with regards to the border are above my pay grade! I have hope that those that can will step up to the plate, so to speak.
    There are as you say many imponderables but then there always are, Brexit or no Brexit.
    Imponderable should really be a homonym. It’s defined as something that is difficult or impossible to estimate. So, difficult or impossible, those are in essence opposites, only time will prove which applies.

    Those that favour Brexit are often said to have neglected to plan for all the details, to make light of the difficulties. That is human nature when one wants something badly. You can see the same traits in any discussion about a united Ireland.

    Despite being brought up in a Unionist environment I have become very open minded about a UI (mostly I think because I spent 20 years working all over the world and if I learned anything it was how small and irrelevant Northern/Ireland seems to pretty much everyone that doesn’t live here)
    Those imponderables are the scary bit though, and I see oh so many more of them in a UI than in Brexit.

  • Neiltoo

    If we all had to consider the butterfly effect before casting a vote we would never get to the polling station.

  • 05OCT68

    I don’t know, as for what good it would do? well nothing in real practical terms But post Brexit things have changed in my mind. A person from NI that voted for Brexit all the while knowing that they can get an Irish passport to negate any downside is an unprincipled hypocrite.

  • lizmcneill

    Not everyone who has both passports voted leave.

  • 05OCT68

    Pre Brexit it wasn’t an issue for me, post Brexit sorry that was a game changer. Ian Og campaigning for Brexit than telling people to get an Irish passport if they can ended it for me. The DFA should invest in more shredders. Remember Brexit was pick a side, they choose.

  • Pang

    I stand corrected.

  • The worm!

    Scaremongering balony!

    Firstly, the EU is just about the most unstable, unreliable, export market that any business would be foolish enough to depend upon.

    Secondly, the weaker pound since within days of the referendum has been a huge shot in the arm for all export businesses. Add in the boost to tourism and increase in local trade due to price pressure on EU imports and things haven’t looked better for years.

    You really need to stop getting your business “news” from the BBC!

  • Conchúr

    Oh dear.

  • Conchúr

    The SNP managed to win a majority in Holyrood despite the voting system being designed to prevent that.

  • eamoncorbett

    The EU is the most unstable,unreliable export market, why do foolish companies such as Nissan, Toyota, Vauxhall etc export their British built cars into this huge Tarriff free market , they must be stupid .
    Tariff free for the moment that is.

  • The worm!

    Of-course they’re not stupid, they’ll export in to every market they can avail of.

    The term I used was “depend on” which if you’re unaware is a very different thing.

    Talking of scaremongering balony, is there a closure date for any of the British car plants yet?

    Thought not!

  • aquifer

    Thanks for the reference, but what about the co-conspirators, the strange DUP funders?

    Lets have Boris’ £350m per week for the NHS, and where will the needed immigrants come from post EU? Can successful fraud lead to a binding contract or can the serious crimes agency just have the guilty men’s doors kicked in at 4am? Or if treason, lets just have MI5 and the SAS drag them off for a ‘debriefing’.

    Leave the DUP grazing in their fourth greenback field with their electric fences, they clearly did not know who they were dealing with.

  • Korhomme

    Boris’s £350 million seems to be a payment of about €40 billion to the EU. But, hey, who’s counting?

    As for fraud, all’s fair in love and Brexit. I don’t see the heavies knocking on the doors at 4 am any time soon.

    And the DUP and their mysterious funders? Shady people in shady places buying favours from those whose minds are hermetically sealed against outside influence.

  • Georgie Best

    We pro EU people eat omlettes.

  • 05OCT68

    F*#k Yeah!

  • 05OCT68

    I’d have thought that anyone that held both would have been a remainer, Its the wans that hold British passports voting to leave all the while knowing an Irish passport was available to them to negate any Brexit disadvantages. Hypocrites that don’t want free movement to the UK but wan’t free movement for themselves within the EU. A mindset that does not want criminals entering the UK, have they forgot about the Costa Del Crime, or foreigners coming to the UK without integrating, have they forgot about little Britain in Benidorm. A peculiar mindset the even when they are abroad they some how aren’t foreigners. Ye only need wan passport anyway so chose wan.