It seems to be widely taken for granted that the recent referendum has given government a mandate to take Britain out of the European Union. I believe that view rests on a failure to understand some crucial differences betweeen this vote and the ballot for a general election.
I’ve been advocating radical constitutional reform for twenty years or so and my core argument has been that we need to establish proper foundations of democratic accountability. The ‘occasional democracy’ that determines who governs us seems to me to be grossly inadequate: whatever the interval is between elections it will be too short for the government to give its full attention to the job, and too long for the people to be properly sovereign. One redeeming feature of our current system, however, is the fact that we always do get another vote. We might have to wait five years but we’re not irrevocably committed to the choice we made at that one moment in time when the ballot was held.
With general elections we’re not even committed to wait the full five years: we can agitate for a new election to be called and Parliament can hear us and pass a vote of no confidence. But leaving the EU is fundamentally different to a general election because we cannot unilaterally reverse the decision. We can plead to be readmitted but, once we commit ourselves to going, it is out of our control.
If a salesman talks us into signing up for a service we don’t really want, the law allows us a cooling-off period in which to change our minds. If we buy something over the internet that we’ve never seen, the law gives us an opportunity to reject it if it doesn’t fit the description we were given. Those laws are based on a recognition that individuals’ decision-making processes are imperfect and are often influenced by misinformation and momentary bias. Why should the cautionary principles that operate in the commercial sphere not also apply to our decisions in the political sphere?
From that perspective, I’d say it would be irresponsible for Parliament to authorise government to invoke Article 50 without further confirmation from the public, whether through a second referendum or through a general election. True democracy is not about simply obeying the will of the people as it was expressed at one single moment, nor is it about following it blindly as it twists and turns in response to events. As far as I’m concerned, the responsibility of Members of Parliament is to consider what is the enduring will of the people they represent and vote according to their judgement on that.
But how is Parliament to determine the will of the people when 28% of the electorate declined to vote? Are they to be ignored? A glib answer is to dismiss them as apathetic and say that they had their chance and only have themselves to blame if they’re distressed by the result. But what about the ones who had not yet woken up to the issue emotionally and didn’t vote, not from apathy, but from diffidence, because they recognised that they didn’t understand it well enough to make an informed judgement? (Many of them might in fact have given the question far more thought than some who didn’t actually care but voted anyway, because they were pushed into it by family, friends or a hectoring media bombarding them with a message that they had a duty to do so.) Should we not give some thought to how democracy might respect their will?