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What to do about the referendum result?

"Parliament should not take this snapshot of emotion as an instruction to quit the EU"

By AC Grayling  

A demonstrator wrapped in the EU flag takes part in a protest opposing Britain's exit from the European Union in Parliament Square following yesterday's EU referendum result, London, Saturday, June 25, 2016 ©Tim Ireland/AP/Press Association Images

Read more: How Brexit should be done

The “Leave” vote in the EU referendum has precipitated us into strange and uncertain times. This prompts radical thoughts: about referendums, democracy, and options.

Whatever motive prompted 52 per cent of UK voters to “Leave”—and in my opinion those motives could not have been rational ones, for I see none—they have by their choice offered us the country desired by Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail. I would guess that even some of the “Leave voters” do not relish that prospect—which means at least half the population does not.

The “Leavers” have also, either not caring about the future of the rest of Europe, or worse still (along with the aforementioned) gladly, offered serious damage to our fellow Europeans and the great project of peace, cooperation and prosperity that the EU is seeking—imperfectly and haltingly: but needing everyone’s willing participation—to achieve.

Perhaps worst of all, the decision has harmed the young of Britain, who were overwhelmingly in favour of “Remain,” and whose future is threatened by the “Leavers,” who have as little right as reason to stand in their way.

The shock, dismay and bitterness of those who wish to “Remain” is explained by these facts. The “Leave” vote has created the strangest of feelings among those many who now, even if only fleetingly (but some seriously) consider leaving the UK: a poll of intending “Remain” voters before 23rd June found that 71 per cent of them had considered the option of leaving the UK in the event of a “Leave” vote. The strange feeling in question is the sense of having become as refugees, refugees in what they had thought of as their own land but which is being taken away by people whose views and desires are alien to them—and which thereby have made them the aliens. Where could we go, where shall we go, is the question they ask, as all refugees ask whose homelands are lost.

That sense of deracination, of finding that your own country has left you and moved off in a direction you cannot accept, is hardest for “Remainers” in England and Wales, but less so for those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, because each of these places has an escape route. The “Leave” vote, as must have been obvious to those who cast it if they paused to think, was a vote for the end of the United Kingdom. Scotland and Northern Ireland can, should, and therefore probably will, leave the UK and “Remain” in the EU.

These are the facts and the pursuant likelihoods. Let us now think of some further considerations.

The UK is constitutionally a representative democracy. We elect members to Parliament with discretion to act on behalf of their constituents and country; if they do not act satisfactorily, they are not elected again. Parliament is sovereign. It makes the decisions and the laws that implement them. Referendums are alien to the British constitution. They are snapshots of emotion and sentiment at a given point of time. They are not binding on the sovereign body. It is within the power of Parliament to decide whether, in such a close outcome, they would be acting in the best interests of the country to take the result as an instruction.

I think Parliament should not take this snapshot of emotion as an instruction to quit the EU. It should look at the demographics, especially at the overwhelming support for EU membership among the young, and act in their best interests. If this means that some of them will lose their seats at the next election, they will have done a huge service by risking their own throats instead of that of the country.

Crude thinking which confuses democracy with ochlocracy—rule by the crowd: which is what is rule by referendum is—together with fear of the rough ride that such a bold though legitimate and proper course of action would initiate, might make Parliament too timid to do this.

However: a petition for a second referendum already with—in less than two days—over a 1,000,000 signatures is being presented to Parliament. Parliament is obliged to debate any petition with over 100,000 signatures. This gives us hope. Recall: back in May Nigel Farage himself said that if there is a narrow margin—a 52-48 per cent split, he said—there should be a second referendum. Let us see him stand by his words.

But even here the crude confusion of democracy with ochlocracy, and that fear of the rough ride such a bold course of action would initiate, might indeed make Parliament too timid to do this. So let us think of yet other and different steps.

A petition has started for London to secede from the United Kingdom and “Remain” in the EU as Scotland and Northern Ireland will sensibly do. That might look like an absurd suggestion: but London is more populous and considerably richer than a number of existing EU countries, and it is overwhelmingly “Remain”: for a Europe of regions enjoying subsidiarity over local affairs, the suggestion of an independent EU-membered London is far from absurd.

This is a serious option. I would back an independent London as an EU member state. Additionally, however, one feels concern for other parts of the UK that are overwhelmingly “Remain”: Oxford and Cambridge, for chief examples. If we are going to Balkanise, let them be with London as a single entity.

Indeed, “Leavers” and “Remainers” are deeply divided in so many respects that accepting the logic of this division is a small step in light of what has happened. If we are going to go with the (questionable) piety that a referendum is an absolute democratic instruction that must be obeyed, then let us be democrats to the hilt, and effect the dismemberment of the country in line with how it voted.

It was after all a vastly significant vote, a history-changing one: so if we are fully and completely to be ochlo-democrats let us precisely follow the democratic will of the different parts of the anyway-soon-to-be-defunct UK. There is nothing novel about the idea: it returns us to something like the status quo ante the Norman invasion, and it is the solution that should be put in place in Iraq, Syria and south-eastern Turkey among other places. It is nothing more than pursuing the logic of a referendum to its absolute conclusion.

One way or another, the outcome of the referendum should not be considered a done deal. There is far, far too much at stake for the peoples of these islands, Europe, and perhaps indeed the world at large, to think otherwise.

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