Remember the 2016 EU referendum campaign? Of course you do. Who can forget the mercilessness of daily arguments, from the effects on selling bananas to our place in the world? The only peace that seemed to sustain was the hope that a vote would bring finality, after all it was a ‘once in a generation’ vote. Once you had voted, you were promised that the debate would cease, the outcome was the final word on the matter.
Two and a half years later, do things feel very settled? That once in a lifetime final decision doesn’t feel quite so final. The divisions remain. The familiar debates rage on. Even with an apparent route out of the European Union in sight, offered by the Prime Minister, the nation’s atmosphere feels disconcerted.
We could surely fill libraries with the newspaper articles, blogs and other means we have tried to understand the political climate. All manner of narratives have been offered, from a ‘proper Brexit’ not resulting from EU negotiations, to the idea that conditions lay the foundation for the Leave vote that need addressing. These narratives expound on the nature of the debate but seem to ignore something. If the debate itself has left us unsatisfied, couldn’t the method that introduced the debate be the cause as much as the debate itself?
The British Constitution is a complex masterpiece. But more than this it is a living masterpiece. There is no one place you can define its spirit. Instead, it is the result of complex evolution, brought by those who are subject to it. From the Magna Carta to the judicial principle of habeas corpus, all are considered, deliberate revisions by those under the British Constitution with the ability to do so. A referendum by contrast lacks all the British Constitution’s sense of richness. It lacks flexibility. A mere statement of numbers to a particular view, devoid of the power to affect active change.
With that to consider, is it any wonder Parliament struggles to deliver an outcome that satisfies the people or Parliament itself? Numbers may lack ideology and emotion but politicians surely don’t. Whether we like it or not, the living nature of our constitution cannot be silenced. It is completely dependent on the active will of our political class to be carried out. But two aspects of the situation make the task of implementing a referendum particularly difficult. First, we have a situation in which it can’t even be decided whether the result should be implemented at all. Ken Clarke MP, notorious in his support for the EU, dismissed the result as an opinion poll. Secondly, all this division is heightened by the hung Parliament the 2017 General Election stunned us into. Every argument becomes louder, every rebellion more powerful when that precious Commons majority is eroded.
Parliament doesn’t even have a wealth of experience with referenda for guidance either, being only the third UK-wide referendum in the past 45 years. Even then, this is the first referendum that hasn’t given Parliament the result it encouraged. The majority of MPs in the 1975 referendum on the membership of EU’s predecessor, the EEC, backed a remain vote and got it. In 2011 the largely unmemorable referendum on Alternative Voting backed the status quo too. Both results merely serving as a nod to the wishes of the Parliament of the day.
Let me be clear, I firmly believe that there is nothing other than a democratic duty for the UK to leave the European Union. I see leaving the European Union as an important step in making our nation sovereign and prosperous. What I lament is the crisis that has led to a possibly irreparable harm. Who knows what might result? The consequences of a second referendum, an Article 50 extension or no Brexit at all could be calamitous. Could we have hung parliaments for a generation if the result isn’t honoured? I wouldn’t underestimate the prospect. And that could be a softer possible consequence for UK politics.
Considering the uniquely troublesome circumstances, I admire the resolute boldness of the Prime Minister in trying to achieve a deal aiming to unite a fractured nation and constitution. At the same time having to wrestle with the same debates over the EU raging all around her. The loudest voices often being friendly fire by those who should be supporting her efforts.
This makes it all the more disappointing that leaving the EU didn’t happen by the other way in which the issue could have been owned. One of the two main parties, or even both, could have committed themselves to leaving the EU in a manifesto without the impetus of a referendum result. If the Conservative Party leadership had listened to those who keep it functioning and electable, its membership base in both the backbenches and the party at large, leaving the European Union would have had a mandate to appear before the country. Even the Labour Party could have made leaving the EU possible. Jeremy Corbyn has had a well-documented history of socialist Euroscepticism. Unfortunately, he has had to sacrifice this tenet to appease the Blairite pro-Europeanism that possesses his parliamentary party.
And yet here we are. The biggest attempt to exercise democracy has instead become a backlash to the problems that exist within it. The political class has failed in its function. As arbiters of our constitution they have failed to understand the very DNA of our constitution and act according to it. As being the representatives of the people, the majority of Parliament have failed also. By failing to listen to those they represent, both the major parties have been humbled by a result that defied their worldviews. Who knows where this will end? But if something isn’t done soon, the damage could be irreparable.