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Analysis

When all else fails, ask the people

by Bill Emmott | 03.08.2017

Vernon Bogdanor, famously David Cameron’s tutor during Bogdanor’s long tenure as a fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, and now professor of government at King’s College London, is Britain’s go-to expert on our unwritten constitution. So the fact he has written in the Guardian that he thinks a second Brexit referendum is “looking more likely by the day” is liable to make people sit up and think.

Bogdanor’s Guardian article was actually an abbreviated version of a lecture he gave at Gresham College in London on June 21, the full transcript of which can be found here.

His argument is based on the crisp constitutional logic for which he is well known. In the British system, Parliament is sovereign, but it gains its powers by delegation from the people. Normally, Parliament should decide. But currently on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU there appears to be no firm majority for any specified form of Brexit: soft, hard or cancelled.

If that situation persists, there can be only one way out of the impasse: pass the issue back to the people. The debates this autumn, both at the party conferences and in Parliament, will test the severity and durability of this impasse.

Rather than such an idea being somehow undemocratic or illegitimate, it would, in Bogdanor’s view, be exactly the reverse. It would be the only democratic and legitimate option.

This makes perfect sense. It may, however, place constitutional logic too far ahead of political logic.

It may well be true that in the current Parliament, there is no working majority for any single variety of Brexit. But the political response to that fact, especially in the Labour Party, is surely likely to be to try to force a general election rather than go straight back to a referendum.

In other words, if Parliament cannot decide, the first option would be to elect a new Parliament. Only if the impasse persists would a new referendum become a leading political option.

Such a situation might well emerge, especially if a coherent centrist pro-EU force appears on the scene, either inside the Labour Party or as a new entity.

Ironically, it could be that the loudest voices in favour of putting a second Brexit referendum ahead of a general election may prove to come from inside the Conservative Party – even from Brexiters. After all, as things stand, a new general election does not look a winning option for them.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “When all else fails, ask the people”

  • Has it not already been demonstrated that a referendum is an inappropriate vehicle to decide an issue like UK’s membership of the EU?
    The house of commons should be given a free vote on the issue. That would almost certainly give a clear decision to stay in the EU. failing a clear result from such a debate in the House of Commons, a new general election should be held
    .

  • Has it not already been demonstrated that a referendum is an inappropriate vehicle to decide an issue like UK’s membership of the EU?
    The house of commons should be given a free vote on the issue. That would almost certainly give a clear decision to stay in the EU. failing a clear result from such a debate in the House of Commons, a new general election should be held
    .

  • Unfortunately Parliament handed over its right to decide with the 2016 EU referendum.
    I would be delighted if Parliament took back its rights and stopped Brexit.
    But the Leave side would then cry foul, and our democracy would be in even more of a crisis.
    It seems to me that the only way out of this mess is a second referendum, held at a time when public opinion has shifted sufficiently.

  • Parliament should be dealing with brexit and it isn’t effectively. Partly it is that Parliament is afraid and intimidated of the reactions to hemming it in, after the two nationalist murders, an attempted murder and numerous threats of it. Partly, it is the reaction that might follow which could see more violence and a kipper revival from the dead.

    But the primary reason there is little opposition is that the leaders of the opposition are shadowing May’s position so closely, that there is barely a shaved word between them.

    If you go off polls on the same question there is a very small majority for Remain, but by no means a secure one. Support for the SM is similar, but for the Customs Union it is over 2-1 to remain inside, probably as people can sense that there is more to lose than to gain by leaving it and in the short term the economy would be toast, with manufacturing in midlands, north, Scotland and S.Wales especially hit. Also, unlike the SM, the Customs Union has nothing to do with migration.

    Much as I dislike binary plebiscites to decide huge complex issues that not even most politicians understand; on which the popular press tell people a skewed version and how to vote; but on a narrow 1.9% either way outcome, it cannot be a settled view as the opinion polls were swinging either way and rain on the day could have shifted it. Also, the polls were restricted from including EU nationals here, UK citizens overseas for a decade and the 16-17 year olds who had often just voted against Scottish separation.

    It seems only another stupid vote can give a voice to the outcome and throw it out if people agree that they have been mislead and that brexit is a fools paradise.
    The Leave side told so many demonstrative lies; which are still unfolding; that the onus would be on them to show why this course in better, instead of playing the romantic buccaneer rebel outsiders, which would never fly now.