Brexit has thrown-up a lot of questions for British culture, government and the individual Brit to answer. What does British identity entail? What is our place in the world? Does the Union exist in name only? The question I most ask myself is ‘am I unwittingly being undemocratic in lending my support for the revocation of Article 50 or a second referendum?’ This doubt over my own opinion could just be healthy scepticism, or it may’ve been brought into mind via the constant messaging from the conservative party and those further right stating that any dissent or scepticism about leaving the EU is going against the “will of the people”. This could be the case, however, it is always prudent to test one’s own view point, no matter the cause of wanting to test it, against evidence and thought.
Those who signed the petition to “revoke Article 50” – now nearly at 6 million signatures — and those who enacted their democratic right to protest on 23 March, by attending the “put it to the people” march, have all been accused of the same thing: being against democracy and believing that the people who voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016 are all stupid and shouldn’t have been allowed to vote. These criticisms, at default, label myself and comrades as epistocrats.
Epistocracy is rule by people who are knowledgeable; translated: rule by experts, people with accredited skills, experience and who are educated. If, indeed, I did want to bring to birth an epistocracy, then why Would I, and the millions of people besides me, advocate for a second referendum that would again give the vote to the very same people I thought shouldn’t have the right to vote? Additionally, why would I be happy with our parliamentarians, who were voted for by these “ill-informed beings,” passing a motion that revoked Article 50? Well, if I were an epistocrat, I wouldn’t support any of these options; I would simply argue that the educated civil service should be the sole proprietors of such decisions. This criticism, then, is demonstrably wrong. I want the electorate or our representatives — expert, or not — to do what I reason to be the right thing.
Another reason I feel comfortable in advocating for the revocation of Article 50, or another referendum, is that the 2016 referendum – that now claims the title “will of the people” — was not legally binding in the context of our democratic rule of law; The European Union Referendum Act 2015 did not say one thing or even allude to the legal process of triggering Article 50. To quote the bill itself “it does not contain any requirement for the UK government to implement the results of the referendum”. In other words, a citizen would not have been able to go to court and get a ruling that compelled parliament to implement the result. Only the UK government and parliament could’ve decided to set in motion the process that would see us leave the EU. And it did, during March of 2017, nearly 9-months after the referendum result. Parliament, then, remained sovereign, setting fire to the lie that this is all about an immoveable “will of the people”. The democratic reality is that Brexit is the “will of parliament”. Revoking Article 50 or giving the electorate another referendum question is, therefore, their democratically elected right. If you argue that this hypothetical decision would be illegitimate and undemocratic, you would also have to conclude that the initial triggering of Article 50 also was.
All General Elections are legally binding and are guaranteed by law. Thus, if evidence of serious cheating is brought forward to an election court, overseen by high court judges, and can prove guilt, then the result can be overturned. Yet, because the 2016 referendum was only an advisory vote and not legally binding, the election court has no jurisdiction over the legality of any result it spewed-out. Which brings me to my next argument for why I remain a democrat despite holding the opinion that Article 50 should be immediately revoked or a second (legally binding) referendum should be given to the electorate.
Vote Leave, the leading campaign branch that was in favour of voting to leave the EU, was found guilty by the Electoral Commission of breaking electoral law during the Brexit campaign. It was fined £61,000, with two people also being refereed to the police. The Electoral Commission’s report established BeLeave — another campaign group, tax payer funded, who favoured voting to leave – were acting as an unofficial arm of Vote Leave, when they should’ve been acting as separate entities with separate finances. We, as the electorate, have been evidentially defrauded, with no instrument available to prosecute the result’s validity. Only parliament can right a wrong by taking on-board the Electoral Commissions findings and revoking Article 50. I think conservatives who have overtly taken a blind-eye to this subversion of a public vote should heed Thatcher’s words when she said: “being democratic is not enough, a majority cannot turn what is wrong to right. In order to be considered truly free, countries must also have a deep love for liberty and an abiding respect for the rule of law” [my italics].
The leave campaign, in addition, flooded the market of ideas with demonstrable falsehoods and promises that could not be delivered: Turkey was joining the EU, we have no control over our boarders, 350 million a week could be saved and given to the NHS, etc. During the 2016 referendum campaign, Brexit was anything to anyone; it was an idea that was completely abstract, which allowed the Brexiteers free reign to purport whatever their imagination said Brexit was to their listeners. Such a magic trick could not be played in a second referendum.
Theresa May’s negotiated EU Withdrawal Agreement handily disposes of the abstractions previously surrounding Brexit, giving us something tangible to muse and debate over. This agreement is what leaving the EU looks like and not just what Boris Johnson imagines it ought to look like.
Any second referendum should, firstly, be legally binding and, secondly, pose the question of whether to ratify the EU Withdrawal Agreement or revoke Article 50 altogether. Neither option requires anymore negotiation – as the EU have agreed to both above – and could be enacted the morning after the referendum. The referendum debate would revolve around two known entities rather than being between something that was known (being in the EU) and something that could’ve been any kind of unicorn. This condition would make a second referendum more honest, fruitful and probably less divisive. If the 2016 referendum was to advise, then the 2019 referendum should be to confirm. And if what gets confirmed is the ratification of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, then I would support that decision as democratically binding.
I guess I’m not a fascist or an epistocrat after all.