David Howarth / Jul 2016
Tom Paine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The central question now in British politics is deceptively simple: when should Britain invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union, triggering (though not ending) the process for withdrawal from the Union? The arch-Brexiteers – UKIP and the anti-European candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party – say Article 50 should be invoked straightaway, or at least as soon as a new Prime Minister has been installed. They are supported, with an irony so far unnoticed in the UK, by arch-federalists and Anglophobes in Brussels and Paris, whose interventions have now gone beyond clumsy and now look deliberately designed to force Britain out before it changes its mind. On the other side, the most pro-European elements in British politics argue for maximum delay, hoping that something might turn up to prevent Brexit or at least to make re-entry easier. Former Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, for example, proposes that Article 50 only be invoked after a general election in which the political parties (whatever they are that point – at least one of Britain’s main parties is on the edge of breaking up) have presented to the electorate their precise positions on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
Many pressures will be brought to bear on the British government on Article 50. Some businesses will take the view that uncertainty about Britain’s relationship with the EU is worse even than the worst possible eventual trade relationship. They will argue for an early resolution of the issues, not minding at all if negotiations fail and Article 50’s default option – that Britain leaves the EU without any agreement – kicks in. In contrast, for businesses that need to stay in the single market delay might be better than an unsatisfactory premature conclusion. The balance of forces between these two positions is currently unknown. Much of business relied heavily on the uncertainty argument to justify its opposition to Brexit, but that argument operated largely as a shield against having to answer the real question of where their interests lay, in or out of the single market. That question now arises for answer.
But economic pressure is not the only factor in the decision. A matter of political principle and morality is also important. Does the British government have to invoke Article 50 at all? The referendum was technically advisory and the consequences of Brexit increasingly look disastrous. Why not just ignore it? The political scientist Vernon Bogdanor has countered that since Brexit was voted through largely by the poor and uneducated, rejecting the referendum would amount to reversing the nineteenth century expansion of the right to vote and would leave the poor questioning whether democracy had anything to offer them.
But that reply raises another question. For how long after a referendum is a government under an obligation to implement its result? Because Britain has no formal constitution, the answer to that question is not a matter of law but of politics.
Some, including former Foreign Secretary William Hague, who supported Remain, say in effect that the referendum is for ever. In the classic British Conservative way, he says that the question needs to be treated as settled so that we can all move on. Calling another referendum, in the style of Ireland, would be interpreted as a cynical attempt to ask the question over and over again until the public gives the ‘right’ answer. And using a new parliamentary majority to overturn the result would, on this view, be undemocratic.
The problem with Hague’s argument is that, whatever the position for referendums in general, the referendum of 23 June 2016 produced a result with an in-built ‘best before’ date. The young voted very differently from the old. According to various estimates, between 59% and 73% of young voters chose Remain whereas between 60% and 64% of older voters chose Leave. Depending on the assumptions one makes about turnout (the much quoted figure of 36% for younger voters being very much a low estimate, other surveys suggesting figures of up to 70%), if no one changes their mind on the issue, Leave’s majority will have been reversed merely by the process of Leave voters dying and new Remain voters reaching the age of 18 in as little as three and a half years and within ten years at the very outside. How can such a referendum bind the young? In the words of Tom Paine, ‘[A]s government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it.’
Moreover, electors are already changing their minds. Leave voters, presumably shocked and surprised by the reactions of the markets, by Leave campaigners admitting their promises on immigration and health spending were mere ‘possibilities’, by outbreaks of racist violence and by the emotional response of bereft young pro-Europeans on the streets of London, are already shifting to Remain. The pollsters Opinium asked voters barely a week after the poll whether they were still happy with the way they had voted. 87% of Remain voters said they were ‘completely’ happy but only 65% of Leave voters felt the same way. And that is before the full economic and social effects of Brexit have become clear.
The issue is whether it is morally acceptable to press on with invoking Article 50 in the knowledge that in all probability doing so will, either now or soon, frustrate the popular will. Vernon Bogdanor rightly warns that it is dangerous to create a situation in which the poor and uneducated question the legitimacy of democracy. But how much more dangerous is it for democracy to be questioned by the young and educated?