Many responses to this absurd nonsensical vote for Leave. Anger, anxiety, recrimination. Being ashamed for the country, ashamed at the way we’ll be seen by the rest of the word, ashamed maybe that we didn’t see it coming.
A sense we’ve let down young people across the country, who voted by a substantial majority for Remain. We being the old fogeys.
What we must not do now is acquiesce, accept that the people have voted, and imagine we can’t challenge the vote itself and its consequences.
Just how constitutional is a referendum in the first place? It was established by an act of parliament so it is clear by this simple fact that parliament takes precedence over referenda. We don’t have a written constitution but the supremacy of the House of Commons is clearly established. It can make legislation, and it can remove legislation. We shouldn’t assume, mustn’t assume, that yesterday’s vote is forever.
The referendum expressed ‘the will of the people’, it will be argued. But did it? The will of the people at one moment in time. The will of the people as directed by a popular press which has been pursuing an anti-EU agenda for many years, and an anti-immigrant agenda. A popular press that plays on prejudice and seeks to portray isolated instances as widespread patterns of behavior – that looks to disparage, mock and scorn at every opportunity. The damage all this does to public debate is immeasurable. And given the importance of maintaining a free press there’s little we can do about it.
‘The will of the people’ … in theory it exists, in practice it is easily influenced, ever-changing Next week, next month, it could express itself very differently.
Parliamentary democracy is arguably Britain’s greatest gift to the world. We elect representatives, they divide into different parties and groupings which debate and pass legislation which has at least been fully considered and argued in a (usually) sane and calm environment. Elections are open to populist rhetoric, and they can be divisive, but they elect parliaments which balance opinion and establish consensus in a remarkable way.
Why in earth should we want to subordinate a parliament to a plebiscite-based democracy?
Referenda polarize opinion too readily, as they have done this time, encouraging wild statements and mis-statements, sometimes total untruths. They give some kind of equivalence to both sides, however untenable the position one side might be. (I’m thinking of the BBC.) Opinions in the country are now so divided, tempers so frayed, that rifts engendered could take years to heal.
That said, now our ire has been roused we must act on it. At a more trivial level by keeping up the pressure on Boris. Boris found himself faced with a hostile crowd when he left home this morning. I hope that continues to happen. He needs to be aware of the consequences of his actions.
The next stage
Cameron will resist pressure from the EU to quickly invoke Article 50. So he should. There’s a big Remain majority in the Commons and they must ensure that no precipitate action is taken before we have not only a new Tory leader and prime minister (and I’d hope a new Labour leader) but also an election.
If the Brexit mood is maintained, then Tory MPs who’ve voted Remain may succumb to local party pressure and agree to vote for Brexit legislation in the next parliament. If they don’t, they may find themselves de-selected. But if they hold out, then the new parliament is likely to have a pro-Remain majority. In which case, back to my argument above – which should take precedence – a parliamentary majority, or a referendum vote? That could of course become an election issue in itself. Feathers will fly.
We can’t know how this will play out. But it will be interesting.
The Brexit vote
Some of us feel angry and ashamed. But rightly or wrongly, there were and are strong emotions on the Brexit side. I was very aware of that observing the count at my local council offices on Thursday night. A roughly 65:35 Leave majority.
Why so many? It’s important to know, and we must deal with their anger without indulging our own too much. Resentment at elites, suspicion of authority and expertise – a legacy of the financial crisis, and the expenses shambles. A related sense among many of being left behind, forced into part-time work, low pay. Among the more fortunate a sense of others on the gravy train, doing better, and unfairly so, than they are. Immigrants: if jobs are still there wages are lower than they would otherwise have been. And often a simple fear of immigrants, even when they may never see more than one or two in their locality.
Much of this has been played upon and wildly exaggerated by the UKIP and the media, but there is some truth here. If there is resentment, we have to address it. If government austerity measures have exacerbated feelings of being marginalized, we must deal with that too. It won’t help if we disparage and cry foul. If towns in the North-East feel that all the focus and investment is down south – they’re right. (Please divert HS2 finance into a network which serves everyone, including the North-East.) We have to get to the root of the matter. It won’t stop the Mail or Sun seeking out incidents they can exploit, but we have to limit their opportunities to do so. And we must be, in two words, more inclusive.
Several strands. All need to be addressed head-on, for what they are.
Immigration – UKIP and the closet racist agenda of Nigel Farage, making racist attitudes somehow acceptable, attempting to link the refugee crisis and Eastern European immigration in the popular mind.
Arguments about sovereignty and accountability, EU extravagance, sclerotic administration. (Mostly specious, but can be made to sound convincing.)
The neo-liberal agenda, which the Tory right has managed to squeeze through under the radar in the guise of reducing regulation.
More broadly, looking inward, looking back, shades of Empire, and a belief we can go it alone. The fairy tale land Boris would like to inhabit.
We can take up the standard from Jo Cox, be proud of Britain (and in her case Yorkshire as well!), proud of Europe and what it’s achieved and where it’s come from over the last seventy years, and be open and open-hearted toward the world.
That’s a challenge, and one I think with younger generations on our side I’m sure we can rise to.
52% doesn’t have to be a done deal.