Experts from across the Brexit divide agree that Cameron should have allowed far more preparation timeby Alan Renwick / July 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
If there’s one thing about Brexit that unites both Leavers and Remainers, it’s the view that the exit process is not going smoothly.
One reason for the current travails is that no proper planning for Brexit was done before the referendum. David Cameron called that vote not to give voters a genuine choice, but to shut down a debate that risked pushing him from office. He barred civil servants from preparing for the possibility of a Leave victory. No serious thinking took place about what the process of exiting the European Union would look like or what final outcome might be pursued.
The lesson to learn from this experience is that no politician should ever again call a referendum so nonchalantly. These votes are serious matters. They can profoundly affect the nation—both through their outcomes and through the impassioned debates they often engender. They can enliven democracy and give voters a direct say on an important policy decision. But they can also inhibit reasoned discussion and turn a complex issue into a binary bunfight.
Over the past year, an Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit at University College London, has been mulling how to do referendums better. Comprising 12 senior people with deep and varied experience of referendums—including impartial experts and politicians from all sides in the biggest recent referendums—the Commission has examined experience in the UK and internationally. Its report, published in early July, makes almost 70 recommendations, all agreed unanimously, on the role referendums should play and how they should be conducted.
Central to those recommendations is the principle that any decision to call a referendum should be preceded by careful preparation. As the Commission’s Chair, Joseph Pilling, says, “There should be thorough discussion of what problems need to be resolved, what the best potential solutions might be, and whether a referendum is indeed the best mechanism for making a decision. This discussion should take place in parliament, across civil society and in the wider public, as well as within government.”
Cameron nodded in this direction when he proposed a referendum on EU membership in his Bloomberg speech. He rejected an immediate vote, saying “How can we sensibly answer the question ‘in or out’ without being able to answer the most basic question: ‘what is it exactly that we are choosing to be in or out of?’” He said his renegotiation of membership terms would clarify the future of “in.” But he offered no debate on what membership terms the country might want. Nor did he propose any equivalent clarification of “out.”
Instead of promising an “in-out referendum,” Cameron might have followed recent Irish practice, by calling a citizens’ assembly to work through the issue in depth. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly, which led to the abortion referendum in May, comprised 99 members of the public who mirrored the Irish electorate. Over five intense weekends, they heard from experts and people with relevant experience, deliberated in depth, and reached conclusions on how they wanted Ireland’s abortion laws to change. Their recommendations were seminal in revealing how far public opinion had shifted, emboldening the government to propose major liberalisation, and laying foundations for reasonable debate.
A similar exercise on the UK’s relationship with the EU might have revealed a preference for a particular kind of Brexit, which could have been put to voters. Or it might have proposed a radically new form of EU membership, potentially strengthening Cameron’s hand in his negotiations with EU leaders. At the least, it would have allowed the options to be carefully worked through and evaluated.
As Commission member and former Chair of Vote Leave Gisela Stuart puts it, “We were forced into a choice between two options. An opportunity to define a new relationship between the UK and the EU based on people’s real aspirations was missed. We were given a vote to secure Cameron’s grip on power, rather than a vote to decide the country’s future.”
A referendum following a process such as Ireland’s could have had much deeper democratic foundations. It would not have circumvented difficult negotiations with the EU. But it would have delivered richer debate, greater clarity, and a stronger mandate for the government to deliver the outcome.
Of course, the Brexit referendum, with all its faults, has happened. It cannot be re-run. But anyone considering a future referendum should pay careful heed to the Commission’s recommendations. Some might say politicians will never cede control in the manner implied here. But contrast what happened to Cameron with how Ireland’s considered referendum process enhanced the position of Leo Varadkar. Sometimes, enabling a serious national discussion benefits leaders as well as the country as a whole.