It’s a bit late to talk about the Brexit referendum but there’s still a lot we can learn from it. A great deal has been said about the failings of the process and the failings of the system. The sad result has been that referendums have been given a bad name. Personally, I think this is a shame because we surely need more democracy rather than less.
I’m not going to argue for either side of the Brexit argument, but I want to reflect on the process and give my take on how we might have tackled it differently.
A key issue is the difference between “legitimacy” and “mandate”.
The referendum was designed as a “simple majority” contest between “leave” and “remain”. A brief campaign allowed both sides to set out their case, the public voted and Parliament had to respond.
The referendum delivered a very “legitimate” decision which it was very difficult for experienced politicians to argue against. On both sides of the house we have “remainers” who are now committed to leaving the EU because they believe in democracy – but also think that Brexit will be bad for their people.
The referendum delivered a “legitimate” decision, but only a partial “mandate”. Politicians were clear that people wanted to leave the EU – but were less clear about what that might mean.
Was the result a protest vote? Were people more concerned about immigration, austerity or democracy? What did the 52% really want? Would the 48% be happy to go along with any form of Brexit the government could negotiate? What was the “mandate” for negotiations? Leave at all costs, or seek the best deal for working people? Will Brexit only be a success if it gives us an extra £340 million for the NHS?
Putting aside the rights and wrongs of the current situation, it seems to me that the government are in an impossible situation and it can’t be easy…
So, back to closing that stable door…
Having spent my adult life designing decision-making processes, what would I have done?
Firstly, there would have been at least two stages. The process would have begun with a simple majority referendum asking people to give Parliament a direction of travel – not an instruction for immediate action but an indication of preference. “I would like…” rather than “Leave” or “Remain”. We need to acknowledge that there can be a difference between preference and reality. Sometimes we all need to live with a situation that we might not have chosen.
It is probable that this would have produced a mandate for Parliament to think about leaving the EU. In all likelihood there would have been more than 52% who would have liked the idea of leaving. But there is a difference between “liking the idea” and making a decision with all the facts available.
At this stage the government would have been given a year to negotiate terms with the EU. This would have produced an agreement that could be put to the people.
A second referendum would then give a concrete choice between remaining as we are, or adopting the new deal – which may have been a complete break, a “soft” Brexit or a new agreement on migration.
This referendum would be mandate for a major constitutional change, so a two-thirds majority would be required.
People would have been following the negotiations and a detailed impact analysis would be available. The second vote would be a real test of the national will.
It’s possible that the second referendum would deliver a decisive vote, but it’s also likely that vote would be split.
If the public delivered a 66% plus vote for the government’s deal, the prime minister would then invoke article 50 and move ahead – confident that the people are committed to the deal.
If the vote was inconclusive there would be one final chance for renegotiation. After a further year a third referendum would take place. This would be the last chance to get a clear mandate. If the situation remained unclear, the process would be ended with an agreement not to look at it again for at least ten years.
It is now two years since the original referendum vote. The government is divided and so is the nation. It will take years for us to recover from the damage that this process has caused. The financial cost has also been astronomical.
If we’d followed my suggestion we’d be finished by now and the direction of travel would be clear – one way or another. There would still be a few grumbles but the nation would be less divided.
Of course others would say that the referendum was never intended to produce unity in the nation, or the best plan for the UK – but I’m not going to be cynical…