This week, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Theresa May, faced a vote of confidence in her leadership of the Conservative and Unionist Party of the United Kingdom and, by extension, her leadership of the government of the United Kingdom. Her party reaffirmed her leadership and she continues as the Prime Minister of the nation.
A number of those who had opposed her leadership from within the Conservative Party and, in consequence, had called for a vote of confidence in that leadership, refused to accept Mrs. May’s continuing role and openly stated that she should immediately resign from it. She has not.
In particular, opposition to Theresa May’s leadership comes from members of the European Research Group (ERG), a right-wing movement within the Conservative Party implacably opposed to British membership of the European Union and which has, for many years, been lobbying for British withdrawal from that organization.
Interestingly, and perhaps conducive to the decision of Conservative Party to undertake a vote of confidence in Mrs. May, was the fact that, immediately prior to that decision being taken, Theresa May had pulled a vote in the House of Commons on the final deal involving British withdrawal from the EU. Mrs. May herself stated that she had taken this action because she realized that her deal had little chance of being passed by the House of Commons. Such an eventuality would have had hugely important outcomes for Mrs. May – personally and for the government of the UK.
Knowing the weaknesses of her brokered deal with the EU, on the day after its withdrawal from the House of Commons Mrs. May undertook to visit and speak with several important leaders within the EU. Ostensibly, the purpose of such visits was in order to obtain concessions from the EU that would enable her deal to be more palatable to the House of Commons. In the event, such concessions were not forthcoming.
Such an outcome makes it quite probable that Mrs. May’s deal will fail to pass the scrutiny of the House of Commons. This fact was known by Mrs. May herself before she decided to withdraw it when she did. This suggests that, knowing the likely outcome for her deal, Theresa May will simply not present the deal as initially intended.
Should this scenario develop as specified in the above, then it presents a situation of immense importance. Since the due date for the UK to leave the UK is scheduled for March 29, 2019, there would be little time for a new deal to be brokered – even if the political will to do so existed in either the UK or the EU.
In such a situation two major possibilities present themselves in the immediate future. The first is that the UK exits the EU without any deal in place. This is often referred to as the “Hard Brexit” – one that favours the UK’s future economic reliance on the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) rather than those of the EU (but note that it is reliance on the rules of another organization and not economic sovereignty for the UK). The second possibility is that the UK revokes Article 50 of the European Union’s Constitution and decides to remain as a member state of the EU.
It is sobering to note that within the House of Commons it appears that there is presently no particular preference for any one of the options open to the UK’s future relationship with the EU, that is: (1) Mrs. May deal for exiting the EU (the “Soft” Brexit), (2) exiting the EU with no deal (the “Hard” Brexit), (3) remaining as a member state of the EU, or for what are commonly called the “Norway” and “Canadian” options. For reasons stated in the above, options (2) and (3) seem to be the only practical options now available.
Many of those who favour the UK leaving the EU consider that option (3) is illegitimate. They argue that the result of the EU Referendum, put to the British people in 2016, is sacrosanct. It is a once-for-all decision and that to go back on it would be an affront to the rule of democracy. The bulk of senior politicians on the “Leave” side of the argument have depicted, often with glee, that the referendum result was finally decisive in determining the future of the UK.
There have been a number of outrageous or grandiose statements made in opposition to a second referendum. Perhaps the prize should be awarded to a middle-aged man on the BBC’s “Question Time” television programme who stated that there should not be another vote on the matter of the referendum because it would disgrace the memory of all those who voted “Leave” and have since died. He made no reference (though another member of the audience did) to the two million or so young people who, since June 2016, have become eligible to vote. It is generally estimated that 85% of these young adults would vote for the UK to remain in the EU!!
Further, as Dr. Andrew Blick of Kings College, London, the Senior Research Fellow of the Federal Trust, states:
“The referendum result was in no way legally binding, and there are a number of ways in which its political authority and democratic legitimacy can be challenged.
“At the time it took place the public were not – and could not be – fully aware of the nature of the choice that faced them. The binary nature of the question posed was not appropriate to the range of possibilities that the referendum engaged, particularly on the ‘leave’ side. A departure from the EU could lead to a broad spectrum of potential outcomes.
“For these reasons, it is difficult to claim that the vote of 2016 created a precise instruction on behalf of the UK as a whole to exit the UK on any given set of terms. Even if it had done so, it was not fully within the power of the UK to achieve them, since they involved securing the compliance of outside forces, in particular the EU and its 27 remaining member states”.
It is of further interest to observe that despite the fact that many politicians on the “Leave” side of the Brexit argument and, perchance, also members of the ERG, called for the vote of confidence in Theresa May as the leader of the Conservative Party – thereby exercising their democratic prerogative – they would deny the British people their democratic prerogative to vote again on the matter of EU membership.
The first referendum on that question was held before Mrs. May became the leader of the Conservative Party – so the observance of sufficient time between elections was not a consideration for the ERG and many “Leave” politicians in the Conservative Party when it came to the matter of their leadership! Is this a case of a privileged opportunity for a privileged few?
During and since the EU Referendum there were and have been allegations that lies were told by the respective viewpoints. In the case of accusations against the “Leave” campaign it was said (and displayed on the side of a campaign bus), for example, that more money – to the tune 0f £365m per day – would be available for the NHS if the UK did not have to pay-in to the EU budget; that immigrants from Europe were taking jobs away from native Britons and were keeping wages low (an advertisement on the side of a street-touring van invited “illegal” immigrants to return, with government assistance, to their home countries). Accusations against the “Remain” campaign included the claim that economic forecasts following Brexit were manufactured and false and that the campaign was “scare-mongering”.
It would seem to this writer that, if such as the above were the case, then it is a further reason to hold a second referendum – the lies on both sides can be identified and the nation can decide the issue based more on truth and the actual situation facing the country in the event of Brexit taking place. So too, it would seem relevant to also ensure that guidelines, if not rules and regulations, for conducting a referendum should be more stringently followed.
Ira Straus is the Chair of the Center for War-Peace Studies, which examines the use of complex electoral systems in holding plural societies together. In the 1990’s, as Executive Director of The Democracy International, he said:
“Referendum theory, in the spirit of classical direct democracy, indicates there should be a second referendum on the several options. Modern representative democratic theory, and the British constitutional tradition, indicates that Parliament should deliberate on all options and set up its own procedures for choosing among them.
“Either way, all options need to be considered. This immediately raises basic questions: What options count? How to winnow down the options for a process of voting? With what processes to word them, amend them, and aggregate support around them? In what order to vote from among the most serious options available?
“These questions are not unique to this case. For every issue that comes up, these same questions must be deliberated on. This is the main work of parliamentary assemblies: to prepare the terms for voting.
“In the present case, the options are getting winnowed down to three: the PM’s Brexit Deal, No Brexit, or a No-Deal Brexit. The procedure is probably coming down to a Parliamentary vote on the PM’s Brexit, followed, if her deal is rejected, by a popular vote on the remaining two options. There is not yet however a consensus on this, nor the specifics worked out for it; matters discussed below.”
The above comments seem most apposite.
In a prepared speech within the past twelve hours, the former New Labour Party Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has again called for a second referendum. He warned the EU leaders to be prepared for the “probability” of the UK delaying its departure from the EU bloc. He insisted that Article 50 should be extended beyond March 30, 2019, in order for the UK to engage in further negotiations or undertake a second referendum (Blair’s first option).
Mr. Blair’s main argument is the belief that, should the House of Commons be unable to come to a decision about which deal for leaving the EU is acceptable to the UK, then, in order to resolve the impasse, the decision should be put back to the people in a second referendum.
This is what democracy is about. The people of the United Kingdom and Europe should be given the opportunity and be prepared to think again.