One of the outcomes of the referendum on June 23rd has been politicians lining up to say that the people have spoken and their verdict must be respected. It’s a variation on the theme that Brexit means Brexit; and one of the results of that is that debate is now largely limited to the question of what type of Brexit. But is that really a necessary concomitant of ‘respecting the voice of the people’?
There’s a comparison with the result of the 1999 referendum on the setting up of the National Assembly. Those who disagree are still free to argue that it should be abolished, and to set up parties and campaigns to that end if they wish. Respecting the vote of the people seems to me to mean only two things in this context, namely (a) a decision taken by direct vote of the electorate can only be reversed by another direct vote of the electorate, and (b) that there’s little point holding another vote unless or until there are clear signs that public opinion has moved. And at present, all the signs are that there’s growing support for the Assembly rather than a huge wish for its abolition. But that doesn’t – and shouldn’t – stop people making the argument if they wish and trying to change opinion.
Take another example. If there were to be a referendum on the return of capital punishment tomorrow, I have a horrible feeling that I’d find myself on the losing side and that such a proposal would be carried. (There couldn’t be a referendum on that as things stand, of course, because no-one, as far as I’m aware, has yet suggested that the UK should opt out of membership of the Council of Europe, which bans the use of capital punishment.) But if it were to happen, would anyone seriously suggest that all debate from that point on should be limited to discussing what type of rope to use? Of course not; those opposed to the move would continue to make their case and seek to reverse the decision.
In both cases people see (or would see) themselves as being free to disagree with the decision taken, and to continue to argue for the course of action which they believe to be in the best interests of the country as a whole, with a view to changing the decision. So why are we seeing so little of that approach over the question of EU membership?
I’m clear that the outcome that I want to see for Wales is direct independent membership of a changed and developing European Union, alongside other new states appearing from within the existing member states, such as Scotland, Wallonia, Flanders, Catalunya, and Euskadi. I understand and accept that that’s currently a minority view; but minority views do not become majority ones by not being expressed. Yet at present no politicians or parties in Wales are arguing for that outcome; they’re all too busy ‘accepting’ the result of a single referendum and debating the terms under which a UK outside the EU relates to the remaining member states of the EU.
If a majority decided by a democratic vote that the earth were flat, that wouldn’t make it so. And surely no-one would suggest that the decision had been taken and the only question for debate was how to cope with the changes involved in moving from a round earth to a flat one? Democracy is a lot more nuanced than that.
It’s an exaggerated parallel, of course. But it seems not far off the position of many of those who argued that we should remain in the EU. If they thought leaving was a bad idea until June 22nd, why is it not still a bad idea now? Have they changed their minds or are they just afraid to say what they think?Standing up for the best interests of Wales isn’t the same as saying that the people are always right. Sometimes, it involves telling people that a particular decision is a bad one, explaining why, and persuading them to change their opinions. I call it leadership. Why do so few politicians apparently have the courage to provide that?