Friday 18 January 2019

The right to vote for a fantasy?

There was a report yesterday that the Electoral Commission is drawing up contingency plans for a second referendum on Brexit.  It’s a sensible thing for them to be doing, albeit that it’s potentially another example of the amount of time and money being wasted on Brexit which could be used more productively elsewhere.  At the moment, I’m not entirely convinced that there will be a second referendum – the Prime Minister hasn’t ruled it out enough times yet.  However, once she has ruled it out a sufficient number of times for us to be certain that it’s going to happen, attention will turn to the question to be asked.  
This is far from being as straightforward as many are assuming; whatever the chosen question, there will be those who will cry foul.  According to Craig Murray, Downing Street is working on a plan to use the alternative vote system, asking electors to rank three options in order of preference (ignoring any potential options other than no deal, no Brexit, or May’s deal).  Once the least popular (probably no deal) is eliminated, the votes of those supporting it would be allocated to the remaining two options.  Whilst holding such a referendum might look like a change of plan by May, it turns out that it’s just another way of getting her own way, the assumption behind it being that there would still be a leave majority which would end up coalescing around her proposal.  And if she’s got it wrong, and there is no longer a leave majority and Remain win the day, it lets her off the hook for cancelling Brexit since she can argue that she gave people the chance to support two alternative types of Brexit.
But the possibility that opinions have changed isn’t the only potential flaw in this putative plan.  It depends on ‘no deal’ remaining on the table despite the obvious parliamentary opposition to it.  That goes some way towards explaining her refusal to even countenance taking the option off the table to enable productive discussion with opposition politicians.  Yesterday, she went so far as to declare that it is ‘impossible’ to remove the option; a statement which did nothing to convince people on her own side, such as former Minister Nick Boles who is bringing forward a Bill to do precisely that.  Theresa May telling lies in pursuit of her own aims?  Surely not.
There is another point to bear in mind as well.  The results of referendums aren’t always easily predictable.  As Cameron found out, calling a referendum between the obvious ‘correct’ answer and an answer which he thought so unlikely that he couldn’t even be bothered to define it accurately doesn’t stop people from voting for the undefined.  And including an option (no deal) on the ballot paper the outcome of which would be a short-term economic disaster doesn’t stop people voting for it either.  It might look like an improbable outcome, but it’s not an impossible one.  There is currently no majority in parliament for a no deal Brexit, but any MP supporting the calling of a referendum which includes that as an option is implicitly committing to vote for that outcome if it’s what the electorate decide.  And a government which even proposes such a referendum would be acting wholly irresponsibly now that the implications are as well-known as they now are.  May’s refusal to rule out such an option may start out as a cunning ploy to get support for what she does want, but recent history tells us that we cannot depend on it not coming to pass.
That does, of course, raise another important question about the nature of democracy.  If the majority of people, in full knowledge of the potential consequences properly and authoritatively spelt out, want a no deal Brexit, why shouldn’t they be allowed to have one?  Of course, proponents of such a course of action will continue to lie and mislead, but don’t people have a right to believe the lies if they prefer?  At the extreme, if people want to vote for every household to be given a free unicorn, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so?  That last might look like a silly question, but how different is it really to the fantasy for which some people were persuaded to vote in the last referendum?  I find this question of restricting the rights of electors to vote for whatever they want a difficult one in principle; in practice, the only answer that I can give is that no government should ever give the electorate a chance to vote for something which that government is not prepared subsequently to enact.  Cameron did it and left the mess for someone else to clear up.  I wish that I could believe that May will not repeat the same mistake - or, worse still, that she isn't prepared to enact a no deal Brexit.


East Neuker said...

Re your final paragraph, any vote for a hard Brexit would only be in England and Wales. Scotland voted 60% Remain, and is now polling at about 70%. So, yes, let a separate England and Wales have their Brexit, alongside an independent Scotland in the EU, and a United Ireland, also in the EU. Polling shows strong support in Scotland for independence if a hard Brexit is the alternative. Let it be so.

Unfortunately, the British neo fascist establishment will use force, dirty tricks and naked power to try to prevent those outcomes, at least in Resource rich Scotland. I'm not sure they care about Ireland, but they might trash NI just out of spite. If you know the history, they're quite capable of that.

I have to admit that I don't understand Wales, especially the pro Brexit vote, so will make no comment on that.

dafis said...

Neuker Wales'pro Brexit vote was largely made up of

a)a solid bloc of Anglo white flight settlers, the sort who can't stand immigrants of any shade impinging on their culture yet see nothing wrong in coming to Wales and pissing all over our language, culture, heritage etc

b) an alienated native working class and "under class" who have been ignored by Westminster and Cardiff Bay to varying degrees.Much reviled by Guardian types for "not appreciating" EU funded projects, mainly roads and buildings, but without proper jobs many of these "gifts" are just useless reminders of their abandoned status.

c) linked to b) in some ways, segments of other occupations and social groups who see EU and UK government as remote and found the Brexit referendum gave them an opportunity to "poke 'em in the eye". I also came across this phenomenon in Cornwall in the days around 23/06/16

d) JRM types, though there aren't many of these to the square mile in Wales other than in Cardiff which backed Remain !