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Analysis

Corbyn may be wrong to say there won’t be second referendum

by Jennifer Hornsby | 13.10.2017

Jeremy Corbyn said that “there will not be a second referendum” yesterday on the same day it was decided that Parliament would debate a petition on holding one. And again on this very day, the journalist Stephen Bush said: “I completely accept that the Brexiteers have won the right to drive the car off the cliff.”

Bush was writing in his i column, and his argument was that no one should suppose that defeated Remainers ought actively to welcome the referendum result. Very good. How then could he grant Brexiters a right to implement their will? And how could Corbyn know that there won’t be another referendum? Well, perhaps the leader of the opposition didn’t know that there was to be a debate, so didn’t intend to frustrate the “will of the petitioners”.

One can see why Bush and Corbyn must be wrong by seeing that the government’s own initial response to the petition was wrong. It said: “It is now its duty to implement the will of the people”. This is untrue.

(a) The will of the people is not established by the votes of 37% of the eligible electorate.

(b) Even if the government did have a duty to take the UK out of the EU, it could not be a duty to take it out in a manner determined by one wing of the Conservative party.

(c) The result of the referendum vote confers no duty on the government, still less on Parliament. As MPs were reminded in the House of Commons Library briefing on the Referendum Bill all the way back in 2015: “It does not contain any requirement for the UK government to implement the results of the referendum.”

During the debate on that bill, the SNP’s Alex Salmond proposed an amendment whose effect would have been that the result of the vote would only be taken as a vote to leave if each of the UK’s four nations voted to leave. The amendment was withdrawn, thanks to the then Europe minister, David Lidington, saying that it “does not make sense”. It didn’t make sense, he said, because the “referendum is advisory”.

But if the merely advisory status of the referendum really did provide a reason for disallowing the amendment, then the failure of both Scotland and Northern Ireland to vote to leave the EU must have meant it wasn’t automatic that the result of the vote should be implemented. In other countries, with different constitutional provisions, thresholds are imposed in determining referendum results. Not so in the UK where the results need not be implemented. The result of the EU referendum so shocked people, however, that there was no pause for reflection on what it actually entailed.

The debate on the petition is on December 11. So there is plenty of time for Corbyn to retract what he said and for MPs to vote on the side of the petitioners. Before the debate happens, it is vital that people should be clear what’s wrong with all the “will of the people” guff. The words are used so often that it is made to seem as if democratic principles now dictate that the UK should leave the EU. They don’t.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon