Dear Mr Mulholland,
Thank you very much for your detailed two responses from 19 and 26 July to my earlier inquiries regarding the UK EU-referendum of 23 June 2016.
I am writing to you again, however, to explain at length why I am not satisfied with these responses.
I appreciate that politics is about compromise but I urge you nevertheless to take up a much firmer position in defence of the position for which you yourself argued prior to the referendum, in agreement with the Liberal Democrats and the vast majority of MPs and peers, as well as the vast majority of national and international expert opinion. This position, of course – your position, and mine – is that it is in the UK’s best interests to remain a full member of the European Union. I consider this to be of such fundamental constitutional importance, with consequences certain to be profoundly damaging to the UK if Brexit is allowed to pass, that compromise surely cannot reasonably and responsibly be entertained on this matter.
I am calling on you, once again, to argue and act in Parliament for the result of this highly dubious, advisory and legally non-binding plebiscite to be ignored and for a statement to be made by the Government to this effect at the earliest possible moment.
You assert that “it was always envisaged that the outcome would be a binding one based on a simple majority.” You write further that “it was always intended that it would be a first-past-the-post referendum, with the outcome based on a simple majority. Whilst I understand the frustration about the result, the Remain campaign had made clear to the Brexit campaigners that the result would be decisive and that it would settle the issue”.
I have read the text of the 2015 Referendum Act and I have found nowhere in the legislation that explains the legal status of the Referendum. The text appears to state nowhere that the result Referendum would be legally binding, and it also appears to specify nothing about a threshold for adoption of the result as law or as relevant to law-making – whether a simple majority or super-majority. This in itself, I think, is a shambles.
However – and in contrast – I note further that House of Commons Briefing Paper 07212 by Elise Uberoi, dated 3 June 2015, ‘European Union Referendum Bill 2015-16, under section 5, p. 15, headed ‘Types of Referendum, states explicitly the following:
“This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions. The referendums held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1997 and 1998 are examples of this type, where opinion was tested before legislation was introduced. The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented, unlike, for example, the Republic of Ireland, where the circumstances in which a binding referendum should be held are set out in its constitution. In contrast, the legislation which provided for the referendum held on AV in May 2011 would have implemented the new system of voting without further legislation, provided that the boundary changes also provided for in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituency Act 2011 were also implemented.”
Unless I am mistaken, there exists no legally valid or official parliamentary deliberative text or document that states that the referendum would be, in your words, either (1) “a binding one” or (2) “a binding one based on a simple majority”.
You write that “it was always envisaged that the outcome…”. I ask: by whom was “it envisaged”? Where and when? And what does “it” refer to? I do not understand how hearsay be in any way legally and politically relevant evidence in this instance. Can you point me to an official source that states the result of the Referendum would be “binding” or “binding based on a simple majority”?
I also ask: how can anything said or “made clear” by the Remain campaign to the Brexit campaigners be in any way legally and politically relevant or obligatory, on such a fundamental constitutional matter? Are you seriously saying that the future and fate of this country should be left to rest on a kind of gentlemanly ethic of honour, owed by one set of campaigners to another?
It is highly debatable that the Brexit campaigners would have observed the same honour if the result had been the other way (Mr Farage explicitly said that he would not do so). But even if the result had gone the other way, I dispute that it is relevant to say that I and other Remain voters would not have complained. I complain not because the vote hasn’t gone my way and I don’t like it but for the following far more relevant and fundamental reason: a 48% vote for Leave would have been even less of an acceptable democratic mandate for fundamental constitutional change than the actual 52% vote.
Why is the actual 52% not an acceptable mandate? Here is why:
51.9% (in fact 51.89%) based on a voter turnout of 72.2%, amounting to just 37.4 of the electorate, is not a mandate for legislation of an absolutely major kind, effecting change to a profound constitutional status quo of the entire sovereign state of the United Kingdom.
If an historic, deeply embedded 40-year constitutional status quo is to be changed, any onus of the argument must fall on those calling for change to prove that change is necessary – and to demonstrate this with an overwhelming majority. If only 37.4% of the electorate are found to want change, while the remaining 62.6% of the electorate either do not want change or are indifferent on the matter, the argument can in no way be presumed to have been have settled in favour of change. No onus of the vote falls on people who either actively value a status quo or passively have no objection to it. If I don’t like something, it is up to me to object to it – and if I say nothing, I can rightly and properly be presumed to be content with it.
It should therefore have been absolutely proper for the 27.8% of the electorate who did not vote in the Referendum to have been counted as consenting to ongoing UK EU-membership, yielding a total of 62.6%. And it is an utter disgrace that no specification of this kind whatsoever was written into the legislation.
On 23 June 2016, either by voting or not voting, 62.6% of the electorate indicated no wish for the UK to leave the EU. This is a clear majority.
If, as is constantly said, MPs are bound to respect the 37.4 of the electorate who voted for Leave, or the 51.89% of the ballots cast, it is equally true that MPs are bound to respect the 62.6% of the electorate who did not vote for Leave at all. Surely this is the figure you are bound to respect. The 37.4% of the electorate, or 52% of the ballots cast for Leave, is a minority – not a majority. The 27.8 % of the electorate who did not vote amounts to 13 million. Silence by 13 million people toward a fundamental constitutional status quo cannot be interpreted as rejection of that status quo. If the 27.8% or 13 million had wanted the status quo to change, they should have said so. They did not. Therefore their abstention, plus the 34.7% or 16 million who explicitly expressed no desire for change, yields 62.6% or 29 million for Remain – versus merely 37.4 or 17 million for Leave.
To interpret silence by 13 million people as an active “yes” to change is to put words into their mouths. I would not consider this to be democracy. I would consider this to be a hijack of democracy. The government has no mandate or right to speak and act on behalf of 13 million who said nothing, on top of the 16 million others who explicitly said “no” to UK exit from EU.
It is entirely false to say (as is very widely said) that on 23 June 2016, “the people of the UK decided to leave the European Union”. 34.7% of the electorate, or 27% of the population, does not amount to “the people of the UK”. Nor does a simple binary yes/no vote amount to a “decision” of the people. Not enough people in the UK media and public at large appear to understand the basic constitutional principle that if a status quo is to change, an overwhelming majority of the electorate must vote for it to change – which was not the case in the UK on 23 June 2016.
Therefore I ask: If a simple majority of MPs is not sufficient for a General Election to be called ahead of the fixed term or for any major proposed piece of legislation, how can the extremely slender margin of 51.9% of ballots cast be in any way acceptable for an utterly fundamental change to a constitutional status quo?
As you must well know, the Government’s own 2016 Trade Union Act stipulates a threshold of 40% of votes by union members for industrial action, even for something as relatively minor and non-disruptive as a ban on over-time work. The 37.4% of the entire UK electorate who voted to end UK EU-membership – affecting a vastly greater number of citizens, for years to come – would not even have passed this threshold.
As you must surely know, no developed country would have accepted anything less than a 2/3 super-majority for constitutional change as profound and fundamental as this. No developed country would have accepted anything less than a 66% or 67% threshold, plus the consent of a supermajority of elected representatives and the consent of all affected regions with devolved administrations (in our case Scotland and Northern Ireland).
Unfortunately, the UK’s lack of a written constitution appears to be one major reason why no provision for a supermajority was given – but I suspect probably not the only reason.
I ask you to explain to me: why was the legislation presented to parliament as an advisory referendum – “a pre-legislative consultative” plebiscite, with no requirement for any result to be implemented, if different from the status quo – and yet presented to the media and the British public as a binding one? If the referendum was intended to be binding, why was no threshold specified for a result to be implemented on this binding basis? One would have thought that if the referendum had been intended to be binding, it should have been extremely clear on this extremely important matter.
Could it be that Mr Cameron was bullied into providing no such a specification by the Europhobic wing of his party – this wing knowing that if a specification had been provided, it would have had no chance of winning? And could it be that Mr Cameron caved into this bullying in the deluded confidence that Remain would have been sure to win anyway, even on a simple majority, and also not counting non-voters, UK ex-pats, resident EU nationals, and 16-18 year olds? And you and your party and other parties also did nothing to object?
Please don’t say to me now: “we are where we are, let’s just get on with it and make the best of it”.
I am extremely concerned that the truth of the matter may be that now, in the wake of the referendum, the government has already made its “policy decision”, without giving any account or justification of it to parliament and the British public and without any contestation of it so far by your or any other party in the House of Commons. I am very concerned that the government may now have simply decided to implement the result of the Referendum as its “policy decision” without any further ado. It has so far not given any account of the sense in which – according to Briefing Paper 07212 – it intends to respond to “an opinion of the electorate”, which the Referendum was supposed to “enable it to voice”, as one “influence” on its “policy decision”, and to defend or justify the validity of this “influence”.
As you must well know, it is the duty of political representatives in a parliamentary democracy not only to take account of the wishes and opinions of the electorate but also to form an expert judgement as to the best interests of the nation. As an MP, you have a right and most especially also a duty not only to consider electoral opinion but also to bring to bear your expert judgement of the underlying needs and interests of the country. You are not obliged to rubber-stamp what an electorate appears to want. You are obliged to consider policies that may ultimately be in the best interest of the country even if they are, or appear to be, unpopular. Abolition of the death penalty or progressive general taxation policies, for example, may be unpopular with large sections of the electorate but this does not mean they have to be rescinded.
You will be aware of Edmund Burke’s words to the electors of Bristol in 1774: “Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
You will be aware of Burke’s appeal to representatives to deliberate with “enlightened conscience”.
You will also be aware that “the Code of Conduct for Parliamentary Members” states, under Duties of Members (III), para 6, that members have “a special duty to their constituents” as well as “a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole”.
And further, regarding the possibility of a Prime Minister invoking use of a royal prerogative in order to expedite ratification of a decision, you will be aware of the following words of William Blackstone (from Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765, vol 3, Art 2, Sec 1, Clause 1, Doc 2) (bold print emphasis by me):
“In the exertion therefore of those prerogatives, which the law has given him, the king is irresistible and absolute, according to the forms of the constitution. And yet, if the consequence of that exertion be manifestly to the grievance or dishonour of the kingdom, the parliament will call his advisers to a just and severe account. For prerogative consisting (as Mr. Locke has well defined it) in the discretionary power of acting for the public good, where the positive laws are silent, if the discretionary power be abused to the public detriment, such prerogative is exerted in an unconstitutional manner”.
You will recall that on 15 June, your party magazine Lib Dem Life, tweeted the following statement from The Washington Post:
“Countries usually don’t knowingly commit economic suicide, but in Britain, millions seem ready to give it a try. On June 23, the United Kingdom will vote to decide whether to quit the European Union, the 28-nation economic bloc with a population of 508 million and a gross domestic product of almost 17$ trillion. Let’s not be coy: Leaving the EU would be an act of national insanity.”
If this was your judgement before 23 June, I ask you to consider whether the plebiscitary vote in this “pre-legislative consultative” Referendum – a vote of just 37.4 of the electorate, or 27% of the population of the UK – genuinely gives you reason, as an MP in our sovereign parliament, to abandon your judgement or in any way to cease to stand up for it in parliament and act accordingly.
I note further that on 8 August, in The New European, your former party leader, Nick Clegg, asserted that “we should not try to fight yesterday’s battles”. Inasmuch as “Theresa May’s Government has a mandate from the British people to pull Britain out of the European Union”, pro-Europeans “must accept the verdict of the people”. The referendum has provided “a mandate to withdraw”, albeit “not a mandate on how to do it, or what our new relationship with our neighbours should be, … Therefore we have a duty to hold the Government to account for the way in which it conducts the negotiations”.
I am not in the slightest way satisfied with this statement of Mr Clegg – for the following reasons.
I have already explained the first reason. 37.4 of the electorate can in no way be called a mandate of the “the people”, not even for a fairly minor piece of legislation, let alone for an absolutely fundamental act of constitutional change. But the second reason, no less important, is that “accepting Brexit, while holding the government to account for it”, is not coherent. You will have read the many hundreds upon hundreds of expert statements as to why Brexit will spell economic, social, political and constitutional disaster for the United Kingdom. All of this expert evidence suggests just one conclusion: Brexit is beyond accountable. The Referendum was a Conservative Party political gamble by Mr Cameron, for whose failure and dire consequences the entire country has been forced to pay the price. It is not possible to “account” for Brexit or “hold it to account”.
I have little reason to disbelieve so far that your party, and sadly a very large number of other MPs, are engaged in either one of two things, or possibly both. Either (1) you are allowing yourself to be cowed by a highly intimidating and aggressive but electorally essentially marginal popular platform and its mouthpieces in the tabloid press. Or (2) you are placing an interest in party electability and popularity ahead of the best interests of the country.
On the first count, it is incumbent on you to show courage, not cowardice. On the second count, it is incumbent on you to think about a higher responsibility to the nation, and furthermore, rationally, to consider very seriously whether acceptance of Brexit will really make your party more electable or popular in the medium to long term. In the short term, it might do so, but in the longer term, in view of the near-certain prospect of massive economic and social turmoil, for which any party that supports or accepts Brexit will be held responsible – the Conservatives in the first instance but also all other parties that accept it – it may very well not do so.
As Professor A.C. Grayling and many others have explained (it shouldn’t need explaining but apparently it does), a fundamental principle of modern government is that democracies are not, or should not be, decided by any “tyranny of the majority”. You must surely know that this is a principle deeply engrained in British, American and French liberal democratic politics since the 18th and 19th centuries, with roots in ancient Athens. Majorities are “tyrannical” when based on a very slender margin; when they destroy or silence the concerns, wishes and interests of minorities; when they are not really valid majorities at all because they fall significantly short of the appropriate threshold; when they rest on diminished turnout; or on less than an appropriately inclusive franchise; or are achieved by improper or questionable means. If passed into law, the Leave vote in the UK EU-referendum would surely be a prima facie example of such a “tyranny of the majority”. It meets virtually every single one of the criteria. It is all the more a “tyrannical” majority for being a spurious majority: a minority (37.4% of the electorate), masquerading as a majority.
You will also surely appreciate that in modern countries with large populations, an advantage of representative democracies, as opposed to direct democracies, is that they enable problems of tyrannies of the majority to be solved and overcome through checks and balances, through an exercise of critical detachment and expert judgement on the part of representatives, as a restraining effect upon popular opinions that may turn out to be influenced by powerful but essentially transient and incoherent mass emotions of the day.
A corollary to this is that provisions inhere in modern parliamentary democracies for mistakes to be corrected over time. Such provisions allow for democracy to be a process – a process of self-correction over time. General elections are usually sufficient for mistakes to be corrected on a periodic basis. In our present case, a referendum has occurred, and referenda are supposed to carry a more definitive and enduring legacy. But even referenda too – including most especially referenda with a merely advisory rather than binding status – remain subject to this principle of correction over time, if their result is deemed significantly questionable and not in the best interest of the nation.
Now, you will surely agree that Mr Cameron made a terrible mistake in gambling the entire fate of the country on the promise of a referendum designed essentially to produce internal Conservative Party order – and probably also to purchase votes in the 2015 General Election from his party’s rival on the far right, the United Kingdom Independence Party. Further, I find it very hard to imagine that you could disagree that the legislation for the referendum was mistaken – or, at the very least, highly faulty – in specifying no threshold for implementation and no clarity as to its binding v. advisory status.
Therefore, I am asking you now to consider that you are not obliged to repeat or to entrench this mistake. You are not obliged to abide by honour to something you yourself know to have been mistaken. On the contrary, I think your obligation is to act to correct it. Just as there is nothing hypocritical in my calling for the result to be disregarded, so there is nothing hypocritical in your acting to do so – even after the fact. I did not vote in 2015 for the party that promised the referendum. I never wanted a referendum to take place. But since it did take place and I could do nothing to stop it, I had no choice but to take part in it and vote in it for Remain. In calling for the result now, after the fact, to be disregarded, I am simply continuing to exercise my agency as a citizen – just as I did in 2015 by not voting Conservative. Similarly, I think it also remains within your rightful agency too – a far greater agency than mine – to call for parliamentary override of the result, to the extent that you believe the opinion apparently voiced in the referendum to be wrong for the country. I and other Remain voters are not obliged to accept the result – I and other Remain voters will continue to refuse it without cease – and still less are you obliged to accept it.
You may object that to override Brexit in parliament is to ignore the 52% of ballots cast and therefore to act undemocratically. But I ask you: is not to go through with Brexit to ignore the 48% of ballots cast and therefore, equally, to act undemocratically? Indeed I ask you, for all the reasons I have given above, is it not in fact to act even more undemocratically?
Further, I ask you to note the following issues that make the 52% figure still more dubious and highly likely to have been trumped by a vote for Remain, had they been given due consideration:
- non-enfranchisement of UK expats (recall that reform of the law on ex-pat voting rights was a Conservative party promise that was not kept)
- non-enfranchisement of non-UK EU nationals in UK
- non-enfranchisement of 16-18 year olds
- reports of Leave voters regretting decision
- demographic change, highly likely to result in expansion of the typically Remain-voting youth and shrinkage of the typically Leave-voting elderly, in the very near future
Now I will turn at some length to two more generally related concerns: (1) the social context of the vote to Leave; (2) other EU states, disturbing historical precedents, and the threat to liberal democracy.
Social context of the 37.4% vote to Leave
As you know, the Leave option on the ballot paper specified nothing about what Leave voters would be voting for. It specified nothing about what Leave would entail, positively and concretely – no plan of any kind. At a minimum, the ballot paper should have specified two positive options, equivalent to what is currently being described as “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit”. But it did not.
As a result, you must agree that the ballot paper was little more than an invitation to the electorate to act with gross irresponsibility – essentially to stick two fingers up to the establishment.
A high likelihood exists that a large number of Leave voters did not express an answer to the specific question on the ballot paper at all. A strong likelihood exists that they gave no definite response to the specific question of UK membership of the EU but rather a response to a whole range of vague irrelevant associations of this question – such as a response to the EU in general; or to the “establishment”, to “experts”, the “metropolitan elite”, “globalism” or “globalization”, etc.
I must reiterate: responding to the EU in general is not the same as responding to UK membership of the EU. My own response to the EU in general is not 100% positive – it is somewhat qualified. However, my response to the specific question of UK membership of the EU is 100% positive. Any protest act in itself is legitimate but protest must be directed to the specific object protested against. The EU in general or “the establishment” or “globalization” were not the relevant objects. If Leave voters had wanted to protest at these things, they could and should have made use of the appropriate opportunities to do so – voting in European elections, voting in our UK general elections, joining a trade union, going on strike, lobbying an MP, participating in demonstrations, joining a grass-roots reform organisation, and so on. As any student knows, a response to a question in an exam has to be not just a true response in itself but also a relevant response to the specific question asked.
You will probably know that Lord Ashcroft’s poll of voters from 24 June – analysed at some length by Daniel Dorling at Oxford (geography) – indicated quite clearly that the largest sections of the Leave vote came from members of the upper three income groups A, B and C1 (59%), defined as “middle class”, and just 24% from members of the lowest two income groups D and E, defined as constituting the largest part of the “working class”. You will also know that all the large densely populated inner-city regions of the comparatively socially deprived North – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, inner Newcastle, plus most of Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to Remain. The general overall finding is that Leave voters came to a greater extent from the comparatively well-off South than they did from the socially deprived North. As a consequence, the result cannot significantly be interpreted as a social-democratic vote of protest by the poor at the rich and does not warrant acknowledgment or acceptance as such.
As commentary has suggested repeatedly, the alleged vote of protest should have been recognised as little more than a reaction to a perceived elite in favour of another elite – the much more real elite of the right-wing Europhobic faction of the Conservative Party, now led by an unelected Prime Minister. The prime motives or influences were very largely not poverty or social deprivation but attitude and mentality: bigoted mentality, founded in deep ignorance of the true nature of the workings of the EU, of the UK’s relationship to the EU, and of European politics, economy, law, society and culture in general. The attitudes were predominantly ones of an English, insular, small-minded post-colonial/post-imperial nationalist arrogance and nostalgia, void of any genuinely well-informed understanding of European history – or indeed of British history (because European history is, of course, British history).
The vote was, in every sense of the word, a vote of reaction – a reactionary vote. As you will probably know, Lord Ashcroft’s poll revealed high correlations between a vote for Leave and disagreement with such things as multiculturalism, environmentalism and feminism, as well as of course immigration and “Muslims”. Indeed further correlational analysis, reported by the BBC, indicated that the single most accurate statistical predictor of a vote for Leave was a desire for restoration of the death penalty. I am sure you will agree that it is outrageous that the fate and future of the entire United Kingdom should now be left to be determined by these kinds of views and prejudices in society at large.
You will appreciate that the bases of the principle of a universal franchise – either in a referendum or in a general election, are not absolute but, in an important sense, conditional. The franchise is not extended to children or to the clinically insane or to convicts serving jail terms for severe crimes because these categories of people are not considered capable of making responsible decisions in public life. Extension of the franchise is conditional upon the presumption of a capacity to make proper and responsible use of it, and this presumption is in turn informed by considerations of the content of complexity of the choices to be made. If the complexity of the choices is such as to be beyond the reasonably expected capacity of the average citizen to understand and to vote upon responsibly, a government has a reason and right to hesitate before implementing the choice as law if it considers it to diverge from the general public interest. In general, consent to a proposal must be informed consent, and if significant evidence exists to suggest the consent offered was not properly informed, it may be considered invalid.
I note in the above regard that Lord Ashcroft’s poll revealed that 7 out of 10 voters for Leave stated on the day after that they believed that “the vote would not matter very much”. I take this to suggest that a large majority of Leave voters may not have been particularly bothered about the matter either way, or that they were not particularly passionate involved in the process, or that they believed that the vote would not make much difference to the condition of the nation. By contrast, less than a quarter of Remain voters polled the same. Now if, as I am sure you will agree, the fact of the matter is that UK departure from the EU will, if contemplated, make an enormous and profound difference to the condition of the nation, this poll suggests to me that a large of Leave voters were not particularly well informed about the consequences of their decision at all – and therefore that their consent to the proposal should be deemed highly questionable.
Please note further that in drawing attention to the above, I am not showing “condescension”, as an alleged member of the “elite”, toward the ordinary common citizen of the UK. I indeed come from a white middle-class socio-economic background in the South but I attended a comprehensive school and reached the position I am now in, I think, through the normal meritocratic process. General meritocratic social structures in the UK have, to be sure, been grossly and very lamentable curtailed in the years since I graduated from university in the early 1990s but I do not think they have been entirely abolished or destroyed or rendered such as to make it impossible for the typical young or elder citizen from any given socio-economic background, advantaged or deprived, to come to a similar conclusion. The issue, therefore, is not one of condescension by an alleged member of an elite. It is rather, I think, one of a danger of pandering by a very real elite – the members of the pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative Party – toward the popular voice of a mass of English nationalists and anti-immigrant xenophobes for the sake of apparent electoral advantage.
To incorporate or to appease this voice is not to show empathy or sympathy for the marginalized and socially excluded. It is nothing more than to pander to the bigoted and small-minded in order to purchase consent to an agenda that does not have the best interests of UK democracy and society at heart. This voice is not marginalized or excluded. On the contrary, it is everywhere to be heard and seen, on a constant a daily basis in the gutter press, incessantly amplified and manipulated by some of the most powerful, wealthy and noxious corporate media actors of our country – Mr Murdoch, Mr Dacre, Mr Desmond – who now have been granted a seat of influence at the very centre of our government.
Political representatives have a responsibility to listen to the people but, equally, the people have a responsibility to behave in the public domain in a mature and well-informed manner. The need is not only of representatives not to look “down”: the need is also of the people, where and when appropriate, to look up and not to ignore or disrespect informed authority. The responsibility cuts two ways. It is reciprocal.
In particular, it is not enough to blame the Lave campaigners for lying to the British people. It is also important to hold the Leave-voting British public to account for believing those lies. Lies can be detected, and citizens have both a responsibility and a whole range of real opportunities – through self-education and research – to check for their existence. If they do not so, citizens themselves are must also be held culpable. I believe it is appropriate to discern an analogy to Nazi Germany in this case. The Nazis lied to the German people but the German people themselves also had a responsibility not to believe those lies. This is why German public life since the war has always fundamentally considered guilt for the Third Reich to be shared by both the Nazi elite and the entire German nation, even after the passing of generations. The issue, in the German case, just as much as in ours on the brink of Brexit, is one of collective civic responsibility.
You and other MPs therefore have no responsibility to accept or appease Leave voters motivated by highly questionable prejudices. Quite to the contrary, your responsibility is to show zero tolerance of such views. If you tolerate them, or appease or pander to them or let yourself be frightened or intimidated by them in any way, you have failed deeply in your responsibility.
I do not need to repeat to you that all evidence of the impact of immigrants on the UK economy (to say nothing of UK society and culture) is overwhelmingly positive; that immigrant labour does not remove employment from UK nationals; does not depreciate wages by anything more than a tiny amount; generates more employment through more business (contrary to the “lump of labour” fallacy); generates billions of much needed tax revenue; places no extra burden on social services relative to levels of funding and in fact makes less average use of social services than the average UK national does (due to higher rates of both health and employment); and provides invaluable of supplies of both high- and lower-skilled services on which the UK economy is utterly dependent (EU nationals having on average higher educational qualifications than UK nationals themselves). You know this and I know this, even if apparently large numbers of UK Leave voters do not know or wish to know this. And insofar as you do know this and have a power to act in the best interests of our country as an MP, you have a duty to act upon your knowledge.
Other EU states, disturbing historical precedents, and the threat to liberal democracy
Looking on the UK with the benefit of distance, every foreign press report on Brexit sees quite clearly that this referendum was not democracy in action but a travesty of democracy. Foreign press reports quite rightly see a terrible populist invasion and conquest of pluralistic liberal democratic process in Britain by the forces of myopic popular inwardness, manipulated by cynical actors within the Conservative Party intent on turning the UK essentially into a tax haven (“a buccaneering, low-tax, free-trade nation”, in the phase of Mr Hannan), stripped of every last vestige of social democracy.
You will surely not disagree that this is a generally accurate picture. Nor, probably, will you disagree that other EU states generally correctly observe that while they themselves suffer from problems of acute socio-economic inequality and exclusion very similar to those prevalent in the UK, their electorates in these countries do not poll to leave the EU in significant numbers because they see that leaving the EU provides no solution to these problems whatsoever. Polls in continental European states since the UK referendum, in fact, have seen a very considerable strengthening of public belief and trust in the benefits of the Union as a supra-national institution – as widely reported.
What these states instead see in the UK, surely quite rightly, is a shocking lack of public understanding of EU institutional arrangements and of European politics, society, culture, history and economy and in general. Rightly, they attribute the UK referendum result less to any failing or omission of positivity on the part of Remain campaigners than, in the first instance, to contradictory messages and manoeuvrings on the part of Mr Cameron and, in the second instance and most especially, to a vicious campaign of UK anti-EU propaganda and gutter-press incitement stretching back over many years – either actively welcomed or tolerated or insufficiently resisted by the Conservative Party during its many intermittent years of office since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Other EU states are dismayed at the way in which the basic and generally entirely positive public consensus that existed in favour of the EU in UK since it joined the EEC in 1974 came to be steadily poisoned in the UK by Europhobic platforms. Further, they are rightly angry at the burden of time and resources that Brexit negotiations will place on them in future if they take place, as well as at the UK government’s astonishing and surely deeply selfish lack of solidarity toward common European challenges over the past year – Mr Cameron forcing them to accommodate yet more UK demands last autumn at a time of incredible strain, caused by the tragedy of war in Syria and asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
But most crucially of all, I think, other EU states see right now a real possibility of the reoccurrence of some profound threats to liberal democracy in the UK, very similar to those they themselves experienced several decades ago in the early 20th century.
The dire nature of these threats indeed can truly not be underestimated. The UK did not suffer the same extremity of economic, social, political and cultural turmoil as other states in the 1930s. As a consequence, Britain today does not have the same intensity of emotional memory of the fragility of national liberal democracy in the face of mass popular discontent and the threat of violent manipulation of such discontent by actors on the far right. We remember the war but we do not remember as strongly the social, economic, political and cultural problems that helped cause war in the states affected – because we did not experience these problems to the same extent. Other EU states consequently recognise better than us, I think, in modern industrial societies with large populations, parliamentary democracies operate within an environment not only of rational arguments but also of very powerful, non-rational emotional forces, and that when such forces start to impinge on parliamentary discourse and conduct at high levels, the consequences can be extremely dangerous.
The current phenomenon of “post-truth” or “post-factual” politics is only the latest manifestation of this recurring problem of the usurpation of mature political judgement by mass popular emotion, fantasy and volitional force. I do not think that liberal democratic institutions in Britain right now – first and foremost the House of Commons but also cultural institutions such as the BBC – are sufficiently alert to the gravity of these dangers. You will have already witnessed the extent to which fair play by the BBC, in its attempt to give “balanced” coverage to the two sides of the debate, was shamelessly manipulated by the Leave campaign by means of statements of blatant mendacity and selective disinformation. It is imperative to realise that under the current circumstances, liberal democracy in the UK is greatly in danger of being hijacked by powerful and potentially violent forces on the right, hostile to the very principles of liberal democracy itself. You must realise that in the face of patent coercive intimidation by the Leave campaign and its mouthpieces on the far right and the tabloid press, a purely discursive and well-intentioned stance of liberal reasonableness may not be enough to staunch the threat of a takeover of pluralistic democratic political life by mob power.
If you think these problems can be addressed somehow in a UK outside of the EU, by allowing Brexit to pass, I think you are gravely mistaken. For the very cause and origin of these problems, as a systemic threat rather than just a sub-systemic or marginal threat, outside rather than – as now – inside Westminster, is Brexit itself. Brexit is now the very definition of these problems, and they can only truly be addressed if Brexit is abandoned.
I believe we have now reached stage at which it is incumbent on you and other MPs with conscience simply to force the matter – or let yourself be forced. If you and others do not use your democratically legitimate force in parliament to cancel Brexit, you will be subject to the illegitimate force of the mob – and you will be responsible for this. Inaction is not an option any more. Aggressive anti-pluralistic actors are not parties that can reasonably be negotiated with. The UK has seen decade upon decade of pious talk about the mistakes of appeasement in Europe prior to the Second World War, and yet a very real lesson of the 1930s seems in danger of being forgotten in the UK today, namely that we appease populists at our peril. Recall that the Weimar Republic in Germany attempted to survive in its final years by means of a type of combined plebiscitary and presidential-prerogative rule. Do we really want to repeat this risk in the UK today?
The referendum vote sent out a terrible message to the world about the political intelligence and integrity of the UK public. The UK now needs to undergo a European learning process, very much like the learning process undergone by other European states after 1945.
The best way it can start this process is for you and all other MPs in parliament to reject Brexit with immediate effect.
I stress again: parliament is entirely within its rights to overrule the plebiscitary vote and to authorise the special use of force to suppress any violence that may erupt in the event. Liberal democracy has every right, need and duty to take whatever means necessary to supress threats to its very fundamental conditions of existence. Consider, in any case: riots will be almost certain to ensue if Brexit passes and the economy collapses.
David Lammy, of the Labour Party, seems to me to be the only MP so far who has properly and publicly recognised the problems I have outlined in this letter and spoken out about them with the requisite courage. His is the example I believe you should follow. I quote his widely reported words from 25 June:
“Wake up. We do not have to do this. We can stop this madness through a vote in Parliament. Our sovereign Parliament needs to vote now on whether we should exit the EU. The referendum was an advisory, non-binding referendum. The Leave campaign’s platform has already unravelled and some people wish they hadn’t voted to Leave. Parliament now needs to decide whether we should go forward with Brexit, and there should be a vote in parliament next week. Let us not destroy our economy on the basis of lies and the hubris of Boris Johnson”.
I invite you finally to think for a moment, please, on a more personal level. Over a space of 12 years, I had the marvellous opportunity to work and study in 5 different EU states, before eventually settling down to good job at the University of Leeds. My former partner gave birth to a child in Germany and she and I were able to make full use of both the German and the British systems of free natal care, free health care, child benefit, maternity and paternity leave, and subsidized pre-school nursery education.
You must realise that if you and other MPs allow Brexit to pass, you will be depriving millions of other UK citizens, especially young UK citizens, of the same opportunity. Existing relationships, marriages and families among UK and non-UK EU nationals will be placed under severe strain and new ones will be ever less likely to form. The EU’s achievement of the right to free movement of citizens across nation-state borders is something for which generations in the past literally gave their lives. If you allow Brexit to pass, no Briton will have ever have this right again. If you have children, you will know that you will be depriving them of it.
I think that the setting of the referendum on 23 June, followed shortly thereafter by the onset of the summer recess period – with the additional distracting feel-good factor of UK success in the Olympics – has enabled the government to make cynical use of the passing of time to suggest that Brexit is a fait accompli for the nation. It is not. If you believe that Brexit is not right for the country, you must not allow it to become a fait accompli.
Please also do not accept or participate in any false or misleading uses of language such as the now near-ubiquitous media talk of “the UK decision to leave the EU”, references to “when” the UK will leave the EU instead of if it will leave, or references to the current period as “post-Brexit UK” when it is in fact nothing more than “post-referendum UK”. We have not already left the EU and there is not the slightest defensible reason why we should ever do so. This is a viciously manipulative language which has the effect – and often seems intended to have the effect – of normalizing and legitimizing something that is entirely contested and, as I think you will agree, entirely illegitimate and plain wrong for the country.
In an annex to this letter I am copying links to just a few of the many hundreds of statements of expert judgement arguing the same. Then, in a second annex, I am appending a table of the arguments pro and contra accepting Brexit, as I see them.
In respect of this table, I ask: is it not obvious that while there might be some arguments for accepting Brexit, these are far far outweighed by the arguments for refusing it?
I call on you, once again, to plead in Parliament for the result of this highly dubious plebiscite to be ignored and for a declaration to be issued by the Government stating the UK’s full and absolute continuing membership of the European Union, with immediate effect.
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Leeds
Annex 1: links
Kenneth Rogoff (Harvard Law) https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/brexit-democratic-failure-for-uk-by-kenneth-rogoff-2016-06
Jeremy Kinsman (former Canadian High Commissioner to the UK) https://www.opencanada.org/features/brexit-post-mortem-17-takeaways-fallen-david-cameron/
Tom Pride (political blogger – a genuine voice of the informed common citizen)
Jürgen Habermas (single most significant European social & political theorist of the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century – writing about the populist problem throughout Europe but beginning with Britain and Brexit) https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/07/core-europe-to-the-rescue/
James Madison (“The Union as a Safeguard against Faction and Insurrection”, from The Federalist Papers, Article 10 – statement on problem of the tyranny of popular majorities) http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed10.asp
Annex 2: Balance of the arguments for accepting v. refusing Brexit
|Popular vote||Democracy is representative, not only direct. MPs to use best judgement|
|Campaign fought on promise that result would be respected||No provision in legislation for binding implementation. Briefing paper defined it as ‘consultative’. No formal legal promise to implement|
|We’ll get re-elected (in the short term)||Electability questionable in view of very high likelihood of substantial economic damage, long protracted uncertainty during negotiations, constitutional crisis & breakup of UK|
|Riots on streets if overturned||State fully within its legitimate democratic right to suppress riots if they occur. Riots also likely in any case in response to massive socio-economic turmoil if Brexit accepted|
|Near certainty of massive economic damage. Evidence since referendum: plunging sterling, credit rating downgrade; rising inflation, rising unemployment; rising cost of imports; investment withdrawal or on hold; science funding suspended; recruitment suspended. All this before even any triggering of A50.|
|Breakup of UK highly likely. Scotland independence. Irish Good Friday agreement & years and years of peace process erased at a stroke. Border between Republic and NI impossible to police.|
|Near impossible task for civil service. Very likely that simply not executively deliverable. Almost all other business of government to be sacrificed, & even not clear that it can be done.|
|More favourable arrangement with EU than current one extremely unlikely. All Brexit options inferior to Remain, either politically or economically, including from Brexit’s own standpoint|
|Basis of popular vote highly questionable. Superabundance of mendacious campaign by Vote Leave. Ref result very largely due to poor levels of public education and understanding about the EU & Europe generally, & noxious anti-EU propaganda accumulated over many years, esp. from tabloid press. Parliament has an obligation to show leadership in intelligence & maturity in quality of popular public political discussion.|
|Basis of legislation highly questionable – 37.4 of electorate, no expat vote, no EU citizens’ vote, no 16-18 year old vote. Binding ref for fundamental constitutional change should require genuine universal franchise + 2/3 majority.|
|Profound governmental mistake by David Cameron – a reckless internal party gamble that went wrong. Mistake must be corrected. Very wrong to entrench it. Democracy is a process of self-correction – just as the English legal system is a process.|
|Young people, crucial to future of UK economy & society, gravely affected by being denied freedom of movement. Will also amount to deprivation of UK citizenship rights – legally highly problematic.|
|Massive damage to UK standing in the world – diplomacy, foreign policy & security, soft power, culture & image|
|Terrible legitimation in future for racist & xenophobic attitudes in UK public – already very sadly in evidence on a substantial scale|
|UK has huge moral obligations of solidarity to rest of EU. Huge burden on other EU heads and peoples to accommodate UK gov wishes – which they didn’t vote for. Turbulence in world economy for which Brexit vote is responsible – not fair to other countries.|