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Brexit referendum – was this good governance?

by AppliedCG

On 23 June the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a single issue referendum. The result has shocked everyone in the UK, not least those who voted to Leave, who had no real expectation of winning. Indeed, so convinced were they that they were going to lose that they set up a website to gather support for a second referendum. This website then became the vehicle for those disappointed Remain voters who quickly registered over 4 million pleas for a re-run of the Referendum.

This is a big issue, requiring a big article. So we have divided it into two. In this first part, we look at the history and background of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the terms of reference of the referendum and how other countries use them. In the second part, we go into detail on the issues considered in the referendum, the key stakeholders and how they have been affected, and how our ACG approach would assess this as an exercise in governance.

What is the background to Britain’s relationship with the European Union?

Britain’s history as an island nation which was last successfully invaded by a hostile foreign power in 1066, has nurtured an independence, not to say isolationism, which was massively reinforced by the creation of what has been called the greatest empire ever known (at least by the British), and a global empire on which “the sun never set”.

The fact that from 1066 onwards, Britain’s history has always been intimately tied up with the rest of Europe, west of the Urals, is generally ignored, except by diplomats and those engaged in foreign policy. Britain has thus had an uneasy relationship with Europe since the end of the Second World War, with Churchill urging the creation of a united Europe, albeit one that didn’t include Britain which still had its empire (then morphing into what it called the British Commonwealth. Thus Britain regarded itself as the second greatest power in the world after the United States and one of the top three, including Russia. Hence when the leading UK politicians of the day observed the emergence of the beginnings of a federal Europe, the Foreign Office policy was torn between wanting to be part of a common trading community but reluctant to make the sovereignty concessions that were inevitably required. As the Schuman Plan was adopted, Britain found itself progressively excluded from developments and tried to disrupt this coming together of the previously warring nations.

As they observed the prospective creation of the Coal and Steel Community – the kind of transnational organisation which Churchill had proposed for France and Germany – under leaders like Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer, the British politicians took the defensive position that “it will never work out”. Indeed, when what was to be the Treaty of Rome was being hammered out at Messina in Sicily in 1955, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, R A B Butler, notoriously described it as “some archaeological excavations” at an old Sicilian town in which Britain had not taken part. They had been invited but preferred not to be part of a process which they hoped would fail.

This was a pity, since it would soon become accepted wisdom, that Britain should indeed be an integral part of the emerging European Economic Community, and by 1959 the new Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, had started a diplomatic process to try to get Britain into the EEC. He was prevented by France’s General De Gaulle, whose veto put the process on ice till he lost office, and it wasn’t until 1973 that the Conservative premier, Edward Heath succeeded in achieving this goal. However, at that stage the opposition Labour Party regarded Europe as anti-Socialist and when they came to power in 1974, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, resorted to a referendum to deal with his rebellious back-bench MPs. Being a consummate political operator, he won his referendum and Britain was progressively transformed from being the “sick man of Europe” to one of the most successful over the next twenty years. In the process, over two decades, Britain contributed actively by successfully promoting the implementation of the principle of the Single Market and by encouraging the newly independent states of Eastern Europe to apply for membership and thereby acquire democracy and prosperity.

Ironically, as the Labour Party came to support the development of the European project, the element in the Conservative Party which had always been against the development of a united Europe and for whom British participation was anathema, progressively built a strong minority position in the party. And in the Conservative administration of the early 1990s they made life very difficult for the Prime Minister, John Major as he became involved in the Maastricht negotiations to create the future European Union. The Conservatives were out of office from 1997 till 2010 and when they were re-elected it was without a majority. They had to govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who were very pro-European. So, during this time, the so-called Euro-sceptics in the Conservative Party had to bide their time, but though the country as a whole rated the EU as around 19th out of 20 on their list of concerns, this didn’t apply to the right wing of the Conservative Party and they forced their leader into promising a Yes/No referendum if the Conservatives were re-elected at the following election in 2015. Against the odds at the time, the Conservatives won a small majority and Prime Minister, David Cameron, committed himself to two referendums. The first, to try to put the issue of Scottish independence to bed, was won with a small majority, though the issue didn’t go away. The second was, against the odds, lost. Cameron was nothing like as shrewd an operator as Harold Wilson, and had to resign with three weeks of the vote.

Britain’s attitude to Europe has been most unfortunate in many ways. As the oldest democracy in the world, Britain has a lot to contribute to the peaceful evolution of the unification of Europe. Indeed, George Orwell, in his book The English People published in 1944 said “if the English took the trouble to make their democracy work, they would become the political leaders of western Europe”.

There is still among the oldest generation a nostalgia for the greatness of the time before the Second World War, a memory of childhood books recalling the days when “Britain ruled the World”. Sadly, as Sir Henry Tizzard, chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, said in 1949: “We persist in regarding ourselves as a great power, capable of everything and only temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties. We are not a great power and never will be again. We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall soon cease to be a great nation” (quote from This Blessed Plot by Hugo Young, pub 1998).  And, of course, there is the famous quote in1962 by Dean Acheson, formerly American Secretary of State: “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role”.

 Fifty years on, plus ça change.

What were the terms of reference of the Referendum?

 The referendum was a deliberately simple question to deal with an extraordinarily complex subject. The Government’s website set out the question as follows:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

In terms of who would be eligible to vote, it said

British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens aged 18 or over who are resident in the UK or Gibraltar will be eligible to vote. UK citizens resident overseas will also be eligible to vote, provided they have been registered to vote at a UK address in the last 15 years.

 Notwithstanding the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds in the Scottish Referendum in 2014, this was not permitted in the EU referendum.

How do other nations use referendums?

 The only country to make frequent use of referendums is Switzerland, where they are used regularly and there is thus familiarity with the practicalities of employing this constitutional device. Elsewhere, countries tend to steer well clear of this form of “direct democracy”.

Switzerland allows petitioning to trigger an optional referendum (with restrictions on the minimum number of people required to support it and time limits) most commonly regarding government expenditures.

Constitutional changes, or plans to join multinational communities trigger mandatory referendums.

Usually the mere threat of a referendum will cause governments to propose action to head off the referendum. But, normally, Swiss voters seem to behave rationally, for instance in the 2014 referendum proposing a) restricting immigration to 0.2% of the population, b) abolishing tax advantages for rich foreigners and c) an attempt to raise gold holdings by the central bank to 20% of total reserves, all to be held in Switzerland. All three initiatives were comfortably defeated.

Most countries give themselves the right to use referendums from time to time, but on matters affecting their constitutions, they invariably insist on a “super-majority”, that is, significantly greater than 50%. This, of course, was not included in the planning of this UK referendum.

In fact, in the UK, the current Conservative government has recently enacted a Trade Union Act, passed into law in May 2016, which the government website describes as follows:

People will be protected from undemocratic industrial action as the Trade Union Bill receives Royal Assent today (4 May 2016) and becomes the Trade Union Act.

The government announced a series of modernising reforms last year (2015) to ensure strikes can only go ahead as a result of a clear and positive democratic mandate from union members: upholding the ability to strike while reducing disruption to millions of people.

The Trade Union Act will ensure industrial action only ever goes ahead when there has been a ballot turnout of at least 50%.

In important public services, including in the health, education, transport, border security and fire sectors, an additional threshold of 40% of support to take industrial action from all eligible members must be met for action to be legal.

In practice, the turnout in the recent EU referendum amounted to 37.4% of the eligible electorate.

According to the Electoral Commission, there were 46.5 million eligible voters and the Leave campaign won just 51.9% of the vote. Hence 17.4 million voted to leave, representing 37.4% of the eligible electorate. So the results wouldn’t pass the Government’s test for democracy in the unions!

Click here for Part 2 of this article where we go into detail about the issues, effects and governance of Brexit.

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