Just as ignorance of the law is no defence in a criminal trial, ignorance of the consequences is no defence in a referendumby Peter Kellner / August 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
According to Philip Hammond, those who voted for Brexit in last year’s referendum “did not vote to make themselves poorer.” Neither, for that matter, did they vote to reinstate a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, or for cancer patients to wait longer to be treated, or for various other drawbacks that have come to light in recent weeks.
In a way, Hammond, and the others, are right. Most Brexit voters do not want these things to happen. But by the same token, most heavy drinkers do not vote to have a hangover; most smokers don’t vote to get lung cancer; and, to indulge in anniversary-itis, most of the paparazzi who chased Diana through the streets of Paris 20 years ago this week did not want her to die in a car crash.
The point is that actions have consequences. Intentions matter, but they do not tell the whole story. If people do something intending good-outcome A to happen, but bad-outcome B happens instead, do they bear responsibility for things going wrong? It depends on whether the result can reasonably be said to flow from their behaviour. Thus the drinker, the smoker and the paparazzi bear at least some of the blame for the consequences of their actions. To that extent, they did “vote” for the hangover, lung cancer and Diana’s death, even though they did not intend for these things to happen.
The same applies to last year’s referendum. The way things are going, unless parliament forces the government to change course, we may well end up with a version of Brexit that gives us a weaker economy, trouble in Ireland and more people dying from cancer. Voters would be right to be appalled, but wrong to be surprised. There were plenty of warnings of the dangers.
True, there was also much misinformation—most notoriously the ludicrous claim that Brexit would boost spending on the NHS by £350 million a week. However, it is wrong to say that voters were blameless victims of the campaign, because few of them had the time, inclination or expertise to analyse the various issues, claims and counter-claims. We live in a representative democracy. We vote for politicians to deliberate and decide policies on our behalf. They are supposed to take the time and care to reach sensible decisions. If they get it wrong, we can eject them at the next election.
Referendums deviate from this practice. They remove decisions from the politicians and hand it to the people. With that decision comes responsibility for the consequences. If the result is deemed to be binding on parliament, and catastrophe ensues, then so be it. This may not be what a majority wanted but, in terms of the consequences of their actions, it is precisely what they did vote for. Just as ignorance of the law is no defence in a criminal trial, ignorance of the consequences is no defence in a referendum.
There is another way to view what is happening. It is the unspoken logic of Hammond’s view. We could say: “people’s intentions cannot be ignored. The referendum vote was not a decision to leave the EU come what may. It was a vote for rising prosperity, a far better funded health service and far less immigration, with few if any drawbacks. It was, therefore, a conditional and not an absolute mandate. And, indeed, the referendum was technically an advisory vote, not a binding decision. MPs have every right, constitutionally, politically and morally, to judge whether the eventual terms of Brexit that emerge from the current negotiations satisfy voters’ intentions. If a majority of MPs decides that most voters’ expectations of a better life are more likely to be met by remaining in the EU—or, at least, within the single market and the customs union—then that is how they should vote.”
Labour has finally begun to grasp the logic of this conditional view of the referendum, by calling for the UK to remain within the single market and customs union for at least a transitional period. This would unquestionably be better for the economy in the short term than the UK jumping off the hard-Brexit cliff in March 2019.
Yet this is far from perfect. Global companies making long-term decisions on jobs and investment may not be satisfied by purely transitional arrangements if they think this merely postpones the leap off the cliff. On the other hand, an agreement to leave the EU but stay permanently in the single market and customs union has its own problems. This may be welcomed by business, but would we, as citizens, be happy to abide by future rules on trade, product standards and so on that we have no say in setting?
The only satisfactory way of remaining in the single market and the customs union is to stay in the EU, and continue to keep our place at the table in Brussels. If, instead, the outcome of last year’s referendum is what is Labour now drifting towards, and we continue outside the EU to apply rules and tariffs that we have no say in, then the paradox will be one that our politicians may find it hard to defend. In that event, Brexit, which was supposed to give us more control over our affairs, will end up giving us considerably less.