Updated: The 1975 British referendum on membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) was a concession by Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, to the Left of his party and the trade unions. Despite a 67/33% loss in the referendum, the Labour Left had withdrawal from the EEC in the Labour general election manifesto of 1983.
In 2013 David Cameron, Conservative prime minister, promised another referendum on membership of the European Union that had grown from 9 members in 1975 to 28 members by then (Croatia joined on July 1, 2013). Cameron wanted to placate the Right of his party and to stem the growing support for the anti-EU/immigration UK Independence Party (Ukip).
David Cameron said in his 2013 speech promising a referendum:
“There is no doubt that we are more powerful in Washington, in Beijing, in Delhi because we are a powerful player in the European Union. That matters for British jobs and British security.
It matters to our ability to get things done in the world. It matters to the United States and other friends around the world, which is why many tell us very clearly that they want Britain to remain in the EU. We should think very carefully before giving that position up. If we left the European Union, it would be a one-way ticket, not a return.”
Neither the British government arguing to Remain in the EU or the Leave campaign produced exit plans in advance of the referendum held on June 23, 2016, and David Cameron announced his resignation as prime minister on the morning after the vote.
The senior Conservative MPs who led the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, were shocked by their surprise win and Johnson was expected to run for the leadership of the Tory Party. However, Gove at the urging of his wife entered the race. See video at bottom of page.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, ended up without a challenger in the second round of voting and was declared Conservative leader and incoming prime minister. May said she had voted for Remain but she had remained silent through the campaign.
May commented on her election as Tory leader:
“I am pleased with this result, and very grateful to my colleagues for their support. There is a big job before us: to unite our party and the country, to negotiate the best possible deal as we leave the EU, and to make Britain work for everyone.
“I am the only candidate capable of delivering these three things as prime minister, and tonight it is clear that I am also the only one capable of drawing support from the whole of the Conservative Party.”
May's period in office including losing the Tory majority in parliament after calling an early general election in 2017, has been a record of abject failure.
In January 2018 Cameron was caught accidentally on mic in Davos, Switzerland, saying Brexit is “a mistake, not a disaster. It’s turned out less badly than we thought.”
He had been shockingly careless and had ignored the experience of Switzerland — the home of direct democracy since a new constitution in 1848 that followed a civil war between Protestant and Catholic cantons.
Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK Permanent Representative to the EU, on 9 lessons from the Brexit debacle, in a December 2018 lecture, Brexit lessons for Britain from 30 months and 30 years
On January 22, 2019, Sir Ivan gave another lecture on Brexit. At the UCL (University College London) European Institute, he said:
"So let me conclude my rather less snappy animadversions tonight by distilling just a few lessons at least from what I have said tonight.
I have gone for four.
First, Article 50 can, for all its oddities, probably can work as an exit route. [ ]
Second, we have to understand how the EU works and negotiates, because
we shall, like it or not, not ever be floating free of ties and responsibilities in
the mid-Atlantic. [ ]
Third, baselines — where you start from — matter in negotiations. [ ]
Fourth and finally, one cannot rule out an extension of Article 50, whether a technical, short one, because we are too short of time to get the legislation through in good order. Or a longer one because it remains such a total mess and both sides at top political level conclude that a disorderly and bitter 'no deal' at this point is better avoided. [ ]"
Public democracy vs representative democracy
Dublin-born Edmund Burke (1729-1797) famously addressed the role of an MP in a 1774 address to the limited franchise of his electors in Bristol:
“You chuse a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament. If the local Constituent should have an Interest, or should form an hasty Opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the Community, the Member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it Effect.”
Kaspar Villiger (b. 1941), former Swiss president and finance minister, last year said the British vote to leave the EU, was a result of “stupidity” and he suggested that the 2016 EU Referendum was “not clear enough” for Britons to fully understand.
"The Brexit vote was not direct democracy but mischief. Neither was the question clear enough nor had solid scientific and political processes previously discussed all possible consequences and risks and strategies for the yes or no case. In addition, our people have decades of experience in making such decisions. In political opinion-forming processes, there is always propaganda, but from all sides, so that the voters can form an opinion. Moreover, fortunately, the large-scale use of funds in the voting campaign is not a guarantee for success at all."
1) A Swiss federal referendum requires a majority of votes cast together with a majority of the 26 cantons supporting the issue.
Using the Swiss system, Brexit would not have passed because, with four countries in the UK, only England and Wales supported leaving the European Union.
2) There have been cases where issues rejected in a referendum were subsequently put to another vote with for example women finally winning the right to vote in a federal election in 1971.
It also took several attempts to reduce the voting age to 18 today.
Brexiters' claim that a second UK referendum would be a denial of democracy, is nonsense.
3) The Swiss Parliament has the responsibility of implementing the result of a federal referendum and in the case of a narrow win in a 2014 referendum on restricting migration from EU countries, Swiss MPs decided not to follow the referendum result as the European Commission said it would be in breach of Swiss agreements with the EU.
Theresa May and many other senior Conservatives still serving in parliament today voted against the creation of the National Assembly when the Government of Wales Act went through parliament in 1998, despite a small majority of Welsh voters supporting the proposal of an assembly in a referendum. The British prime minister recently falsely claimed that she had supported the implementation of the Wales devolution referendum.
4) In Switzerland, it is citizens who typically gather signatures for referendum initiatives. The "will of the people" reflects debate and facts.
The British Electoral Commission said after the June 2016 vote, "One thing we have not recommended [ ] is any role for the Commission in regulating the ‘truth’ or the content of what campaigners say. At every electoral event, there is fierce questioning about the accuracy of campaign arguments, and this poll was no different. It is right that campaigners and the media should scrutinise each other’s contentions and that information is widely available for voters to do the same. But we do not believe that a role as a 'truth Commission' would be appropriate for us given the breadth of our other functions."
5) In the run-up to the June 2016 EU Referendum, Press Gazette’s research found that news coverage in The Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph was heavily biased towards stories which favoured the Leave campaign. "This meant that overall, national press coverage was strongly biased in favour of Leave."
Ireland forms a Referendum Commission chaired by a senior judge before a referendum. It explains the arguments of both sides and provides responses to media and public questions on the referendum.
6) The Swiss government says "the government and parliament of Switzerland [is] able to present a counterproposal to the specific concerns of a popular initiative. In this case, the electorate can vote yes to both proposals (possible since 1987) and then indicate in a deciding question which variant they would prefer in the event that both proposals are adopted. This enhanced form of voting demonstrates clearly that the focus of Switzerland's direct democracy is on compromise-oriented dialogue between citizens and authorities, and not on stubborn confrontation."
7) Simon Wren-Lewis, emeritus professor of economics, University of Oxford, has written that the referendum "had two fundamental flaws. First, how we left (the form of Brexit) was allowed to be unspecified. That was a mistake Cameron made. The second, which he could not avoid, is that any Brexit plan required assumptions about how the EU would negotiate, and that again allowed wishful thinking on a colossal scale. [ ]
"Leave were not required to settle on a particular alternative to being in the EU: EEA membership (Norway), being in the Customs Union or not, being in the Single Market or not, etc. For that reason Boris Johnson can claim that leaving without a deal is closest to what Leavers voted for, even though No Deal was never proposed by the Leave campaign. This lack of specifics also made it easier for the Leave campaign to spin fantasies like 'the easiest deal in history.'"
Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at King’s College, London, has outlined arguments on qualified voting here, rather than basing a referendum result on exceeding 50% of votes cast by registered voters.
Financial Times Dec 2016 — Inside Brexit: How Britain lost Europe
Declining interest in politics
When the "will of the people" is dictated by the votes of 33% of the British voting age population and a government elected by a minority of registered voters uses this mantra to push through a hugely consequential measure without compromise, it shouldn't get away with claiming it to be democratic.
Then there are disputes about funding and lies. The Leave campaign had a battle bus with the slogan that the UK paid £350m per week to the EU without pointing out that the EU pays £283m per week back to the UK. The net outflow is about £67m per week. A year later the UK Statistics Authority got involved with Boris Johnson on what he had said about the saving of £350m per week that could be used by the National Health Service.
Immigration was a concern for many voters and The Economist wrote after the June 2016 referendum: "Where foreign-born populations increased by more than 200% between 2001 and 2014, a Leave vote followed in 94% of cases. The proportion of migrants may be relatively low in Leave strongholds such as Boston, in Lincolnshire (where 15.4% of the population are foreign-born). But it has grown precipitously in a short period of time (by 479%, in Boston’s case). High levels of immigration don’t seem to bother Britons; high rates of change do."
Declining interest in politics and participation in political parties boosts the ideologues and extremists.
Tim Harford, the Financial Times columnist, writes that "any democratic system is weakened by the fact that voters are not paying close attention. But representative democracy provides a line of defence against voter ignorance, by asking us to elect someone to make considered choices on our behalf."
“When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution,” writes psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, in his book 'Thinking, Fast and Slow.'
“We pass through this life on the receiving end of a steady signal of partially reliable information that we only occasionally, and under duress, evaluate thoroughly,” writes Michael Lewis in a 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. “It’s unsettling to know that your judgment can be so heavily influenced by some random number and disturbing to realize it is probably happening all the time.”
Ipsos-MORI, the pollster, has been publishing a Veracity Index in the UK since 1983 when 18% of people said they trusted politicians. It was at 17% in 2017 with real estate agents and journalists just above the politicians.
Since the 1950s there has been a decline in both the percentage of the UK voting age population that vote and also the number that participate in political parties. The percentage of elected MPs who have no work experience outside politics (e.g. local politicians and political organisers) has also risen from 3% to 17% in 1983-2017 while MPs with a manual work background fell from 16% to 3%.
The UK voting age population (VAP) turnout in general elections was 82%, 72% and 63% in 1950, 1983 and 2017 respectively. The German rates were 81% (1953), 81% in 1983 and 69% in 2017.
Ireland’s post-war voting age peak was 85% in 1977 with 64% voting in 2011 — despite a massive economic bust — and a very low 58% in the general election of 2016.
In 2018 according to the House of Commons Library, membership of the Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties had increased to around 1.6% of the electorate in that year, compared to a historic low of 0.8% in 2013. Across the UK, the Labour Party’s membership increased from 0.4% in 2013 to 1.2% in 2017 (following the influx of members at £3 a head to the Labour Party during the leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015), before falling to an estimated 1.1% in April 2018.
The Conservatives had more individual members than any other party up to the mid-1990s, when there were about 400,000 members. The latest estimate was 124,000 as at March 2018.
The average age of Conservative party members was 57, Labour 53, Lib Dems 52 and SNP 54. More than half of the Conservatives (53%) were over 60 years old and Ukip rate was 68%.
According to the House of Commons Library, research by academics Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin shows that the Conservative, Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat parties draw most of their support from white people over 35 they categorise as middle class; while Ukip and the BNP have fewer female supporters and draw most of their support from people they categorise as working class (including those who have never worked).
Ipsos-Mori further comments on the relationship between age and social grade in regards to turnout at the EU referendum. It suggests that “the majority of 18-34-year-olds in every social class voted Remain, while a majority of those aged 55+ in every social class voted Leave.”
The results of post-referendum research found that 64% of young people who were registered did vote, rising to 65% among 25-to-39-year-olds and 66% among those aged between 40 and 54. It increased to 74% among the 55-to-64 age group and 90% for those aged 65 and over.
However, Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, and senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research, wrote last August, "only half of 18 to 24-year-olds said that they would be certain to vote in a second EU referendum, according to polls by Survation. This compares with 84% of those aged 65 and over."
Watch how the Brexiteer MP, Rees-Mogg, uses his usual slippery technique to disown a previous statement by claiming the interviewer is quoting him out of "context."
Betty Boothroyd (born 1929), former Speaker of the House of Commons and Labour Party MP, as Baroness Boothroyd in the House of Lords, spoke on the tragedy of Brexit, on January 14, 2019.
The Week That Broke Brexit Britain: A Telegraph documentary on how Britain got a weak Remain prime minister after bumbling Boris Johnson collapsed like a soufflé at his moment of triumph — its a pity that a Brexiteer did not become PM and own the subsequent chaos. Johnson, a biographer of Churchill wrote that the wartime PM “was associated with so many epic cock-ups — because he dared to change the entire shape of history.” Johnson would never be a Churchill but it wouldn't have been hard to do a better job than the hapless Theresa May.