As soon as the results of Britain’s EU referendum were announced, the chorus began.
Very few people — at least, very few people who disseminate their thoughts through international media — thought Brexit would pass. But pass it did, by a tight margin if not an impossibly close one. And soon after it did, once Brexit’s ramifications for the financial markets were made clear and exaggerated stories of Leavers’ regretting their votes filtered out, the question began to make its way around: What if Parliament refused to vote to leave?
The referendum, you see, was not legally binding. Some referenda, such as the 2011 plebiscite on the Alternative Vote, have been. But the Brexit referendum was of a different sort; it was, strictly speaking, simply advisory, and Parliament is under no legal obligation to abide by its terms. To many, having experienced a bitter and unexpected defeat with global consequences, it seems delightfully simple and tempting, if politically fraught, to ensure that Parliament ignores the referendum’s result and keeps Britain in the European Union.
This line of thought is not out of place in the history of the EU. Indeed, the bloc has a habit of ignoring, bypassing, or otherwise working around losses in referendums on one of its new initiatives. In 2005, for instance, voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the proposals for the drafting of a European Constitution. The EU took this defeat in stride and ensured its next major constitutional change, the Treaty of Lisbon, would face Brussels-friendly national parliaments, not Eurosceptic electorates. The only deviation from this pattern came in Ireland, where the treaty was put to a referendum and voters rejected it. After the EU made a few concessions to Ireland, the country’s electorate duly obliged by approving the treaty in a second vote a year later.
The list of flagrant workarounds of the democratic process goes on. Observers of European politics will no doubt remember the referendum drama that accompanied last year’s Greek debt crisis. Facing enormous protests in his own country, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras decided to hold a vote on the harsh conditions attached to the bailout package offered by European authorities. The Greek electorate voted heavily against the package. A week later, in the early hours of a European-imposed deadline day, Tsipras accepted an even harsher deal.
So it’s not far-fetched to think that the EU might manage to wrangle itself out of the Brexit mess yet, and that it might do so by negating the referendum or by holding a new one (that would, it is thought, go the EU’s way). And that hope is bolstered by the voices of many in Britain who, finding themselves on the losing end of the referendum, are desperately searching for ways to keep Britain in after all.
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Chief among those who have called for a parliamentary negation of the referendum — in essence, an abrogation of the voice of the people — is David Lammy, the MP for the diverse and heavily pro-Remain North London neighborhood of Tottenham. Writing in the Guardian Sunday, Lammy called on his fellow MPs to “stop this madness” — that is, Brexit — “through a vote in parliament.” Not content with the results of the first try, he argued that, “now that the dust has begun to settle and the reality of a post-Brexit nation is coming into view . . . we need a second referendum at the very least.”
To rip up the referendum’s results now . . . would be the height of political pettiness and the nadir of political principle.
Lammy’s is not a lone voice crying out for supposed sanity in the wilderness. No, now the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third or fourth largest party depending on whom you ask, has made negating the Brexit vote central to its campaign platform for the next general election. To Tim Farron, the party’s leader, the people didn’t really mean they wanted to leave the EU when they voted to leave: Instead, they were simply releasing a “howl of anger” at politicians and institutions they dislike. Accordingly, the referendum result is invalid, poorly considered at best, and the people should be given another chance to sit down and think through what they’ve done. Maybe they’ll think harder the second time around. Or maybe Parliament should just do the thinking for them.
Nicola Sturgeon, the pro-independence first minister of Scotland, has adopted a similar stance, though one distinctly colored by her role as Scotland’s foremost elected official. Scotland voted Remain, and heavily so; now, Sturgeon is searching for a way to keep Scotland in the EU. She will do so, she says, by holding a vote in Scottish Parliament to deny Westminster Holyrood’s “legislative consent” to an EU exit. Never mind, of course, that this move would have no legal power in any sense: Unlike the American system of constitutional checks and balances, the British constitution gives the Parliament, and Parliament alone, ultimate sovereignty over the United Kingdom. Sturgeon’s denial of legislative consent might place Parliament in the unenviable position of explicitly overriding the vote of Scottish Parliament, but it is unlikely to constitute a “block” or “veto” of Brexit.
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Many say, also, that a 52-48 result is by no means definitive — that four points doesn’t constitute a sufficiently resounding margin of victory to decide political questions as vastly important as this one. I have some sympathies with this view. Perhaps the Brexit referendum would have been better run along the lines of Scotland’s 1979 referendum on devolution: In that vote, the pre-election stipulation was that 40 percent of the total electorate, not just of voters, would have to vote Yes for the referendum to pass; in the end, a majority of voters but only 33 percent of the electorate voted Yes, and the referendum consequently failed.
But that is a moot point. Simply put, the referendum happened. It occurred on terms that Parliament had overwhelmingly approved beforehand; the European Union Referendum Act, which established the referendum, passed by a vote of 544 to 53 in Parliament, with the support of all parties except the Scottish Nationalists. Yes, running it along the lines of the 1979 referendum might have been a better idea, but the fact is that the country’s entire political system, including those now casting doubt on the referendum’s legitimacy, decided not to do so. That is immutable fact, and one cannot change it post hoc.
#related#To rip up the referendum’s results now — to claim that the terms of the vote were illegitimate because the outcome didn’t go your way — would be the height of political pettiness and the nadir of political principle. It would establish that the people’s voices only matter when they speak in the right direction. What the question of a second referendum comes down to is nothing less than the democratic system itself. One cannot believe in democracy and also call for Parliament to “stop this madness.”
In times of crisis, we learn to differentiate the principled from the partisan — those whose allegiances lie with the principles of democracy and those whose allegiances are simply with the narrow interest of their faction. The aftermath of the referendum has proven that many who profess democratic loyalties, on both left and right, are willing to sacrifice those loyalties when the people disagree with them. That urge must be resisted.
— Noah Daponte-Smith is an intern at National Review.