We need a Confirmatory Referendum, and we need it now

The result of the June 2016 referendum was unsafe at the time and is even more unsafe today. The adverse impact on the country of leaving the EU is going to be enormous. It is madness for the country to continue in its current direction unless we can be certain that that is what the majority of the UK population wants. We need to have a confirmation referendum on whether the country truly wants to leave the EU, and we need to have it at the earliest opportunity. Not to have one until the end of the negotiation period would be far too late.

Taking the result of the referendum at face value, that the majority of the UK wanted to leave the EU, was patently unsafe at the time. Within hours of the result being declared, many people admitted that they had used the referendum to lodge a protest vote against the Tory Government of the day. We had suffered six years of Tory austerity that had distributed the burden of recovery unfairly. The Tory party had persistently belittled the complaints of those who felt uncomfortable by high levels of immigration. And the Remain campaign looked sufficiently like a Tory party campaign that voting against one felt like a vote against the other. Almost all media outlets believed their own propaganda that it was unimaginable that the UK would vote to leave. This gave people the impression that a vote against Remain would be a free protest vote against the Tories. It is no wonder that so many disgruntled voters voted to Leave. It was the best chance they had to plant a kick on the backsides of Cameron and Osborne. They never intended us to leave.

It is becoming all too clear that the adverse impact of leaving is likely to be enormous: economically, politically and socially.

  • Economically: At the start of the referendum, claims and counter-claims as to the economic effects of leaving pointed in all directions. Now, eighteen months later, only a small rump of dyed-in-the-wool Leavers claim that the economic effects will be anything other than seriously bad.
  • Politically: Having been a bad-spirited member of the EU for decades, the UK crowned the forbearance and tolerance of our partners by discarding any concern for their interests and the difficulties Brexit would cause them. In return, the other 27 are showing us that any future dealings between them and us will be, at best, civil.  We can have no expectation of their future goodwill or cooperation. That bad spirit will infuse all our future dealings with the EU and its constituent nations. These are our closest political neighbours.
  • Socially: The referendum has shown the UK in its worst light, as a nation of small-minded people pining for an irrecoverable age of glory and empire, ignorant of the realities of our position in a 21st century world-order. That cannot be how we wish to be seen.

It would be madness for the UK to undertake such a momentous change in national direction and leave the EU unless that is clearly and soundly supported by the electorate. The only way we can get a definitive testing of the views of the country would be to have a confirmatory referendum. We cannot wait for the next general election to provide us with that opportunity. A general election would cloud the issue, mixing a vote on leave/remain with the usual vote for political party. And a general election would provide a result based on First Past The Post and not on a simple majority, leaving the result vulnerable to the vicissitudes of constituency boundaries.

But to have a confirmatory referendum only at the end of the negotiation process would also be far too late. That could only ever be a take-it-or-leave it vote, i.e. take the deal negotiated or walk away without a deal. After two years of complex negotiation, the EU is not going to return to the table to negotiate a different deal. If we did decide then that we didn’t want to leave, the EU would be well within its moral rights to refuse to allow us that option. What is much more likely is that they would tell us pointedly that we had negotiated to leave and that leave is what we must do. If we wanted to rejoin, we would have to negotiate our entry to the EU just like any other country  that wanted to join.

Any confirmatory referendum has to take place as soon as possible. There has been so much bad will generated between us and the EU by the process of our leaving that the longer we leave it to change direction, the less chance there is our EU partners would allow a return to the status quo ante. They would want us to pay a penalty for the harm and hurt we had caused. The EU has long at the biased deal the UK had won over the decades of its membership, and almost certainly, if they were to allow us to return, it would only be on the basis of no special rebates and opt-outs. We might be allowed to return but with a deal significantly worse than the one we had enjoyed beforehand. Try selling that to the UK electorate!

It is clear that the only course that can avert enormous self-inflicted harm to the UK is a confirmatory referendum at the earliest opportunity. If that were to show that the majority of the electorate still wanted to leave the EU now that it is clearer what leaving entails, then at least we would know it was the free-and-fair result of a proper and informed democratic process. The existing mandate is most certainly not that.

John Leach