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The long-term consequences of this Brexit farce look increasingly bleak

Britain’s political system is not equipped to deal with the fallout

By Peter Kellner  

Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

A small group of us, brought together by Carnegie Europe, were dining in a Brussels restaurant as news of Tuesday night’s Commons votes came through. As one EU hand put it, “it’s as if Theresa May were captain of the Titanic, asking the iceberg to move.”

At present, the Brexit saga appears to have no happy ending. Maybe the EU will give way on the withdrawal agreement; more likely it won’t. Maybe the Brexiteers in the Democratic Unionist Party and the Economic Research Group will throw in the towel and back the prime minister’s deal; more likely they won’t. When the issue is finally settled—next month? later this year?—maybe the losing side will shrug its collective shoulders and say, “fair enough, we were beaten fair and square”; more likely—and this is the really terrifying thing—more likely they won’t.

While we wait to see precisely how the EU says “non” to May’s demand to rewrite the withdrawal agreement, let us consider the long-term consequences of the events that are now unfolding. They look increasingly bleak.

It is often said, and rightly, that a defining characteristic of an effective democracy is the right of voters “to throw the rascals out.” One requirement for this to work is that the “rascals” accept defeat. If they don’t—if they allege foul play—then trouble looms.

This is the prospect that the UK faces later this year or next year. If we leave the EU without a further referendum, then millions of voters will feel cheated. The most obvious complainants will be the two million voters who were too young to take part in the 2016 referendum and who overwhelmingly want the UK to remain in the EU. They will not be alone in feeling perturbed. Millions of others will, with reason, say that the Brexit we got was nothing like the Brexit we were promised. The phantom £350m a week extra for the National Health Service is just the start.

Conversely, what if we do have a fresh referendum and decide to stay in the EU after all? Then Leavers will say that the 17.4m people who supported them in 2016—the largest ever mandate by a British electorate for any government or policy—has been ignored.

One does not need to endorse the complaint from either side to predict turbulence. The point, rather, is that, rightly or wrongly, the eventual losers will NOT say “fair enough.” They will start a new, and bitter, campaign to overturn the outcome. Remember: part of David Cameron’s case for holding a referendum in the first place was to lance the boil of divisions over Europe, both within his party and among voters generally. How’s it going, Dave? And do you seriously expect a new, calm, national consensus to emerge when the immediate battles are over?

This is not just a debating point. Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum was strategically stupid; but, almost as bad, the way it was set up was tactically catastrophic.

To explain: referendums generally pitch the status quo against a defined alternative. When Scotland voted for devolution in 1997, it was the culmination of a detailed debate in which Scottish civil society agreed how devolution would work. When Ireland voted to amend its abortion laws, and some US states voted to legalise marijuana, it was clear what would happen. Two decades ago, when Australia voted to keep the Queen as head of state, it was not because they hated the idea of a home-grown alternative: rather it was because a referendum posed a specific alternative; voters thought this would mean a washed-up, second-rate politician: they liked the idea of change, but not THAT change.

The problem with our 2016 referendum is that it did not define “Leave.” Voters were free to imagine—and campaigners were free to predict—any range of possibilities. The specific nature of the mandate from 17.4m voters was never pinned down.

This has left parliament in a constitutionally ambiguous position. Do MPs have the right—indeed, duty—to judge for themselves what is best for their constituents, as Edmund Burke would have advised? Or should those who fear the consequences of Brexit swallow their misgivings and simply execute the result of the 2016 referendum. In this instance, should MPs be representatives or delegates?

As the UK does not have a written constitution, we have no rules that decide how to resolve a conflict between direct and representative democracy. Without such rules, we cannot reasonably expect the eventual losers to take their defeat lying down.

Which is one big reason why the agonies of Brexit are likely to last long after we finally decide whether, and if so how, we leave the EU. UK politics are likely to be in turmoil for years to come.

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