Professor Anthony Grayling, Philosopher and Master of New College of the Humanities
To combat the kind of thinking that seems to be prevalent among some – and perhaps too many – members of Parliament, to the effect that the outcome of the EU referendum is actually or virtually ‘binding’ and mandates the UK government to take the UK out of the EU, it is important to contest the use of the cant phrases ‘the will of the people,’ ‘the people have spoken,’ ‘the democratic majority,’ and the like.
The reason is the perfectly simple one that the referendum outcome does not mandate the UK government to take the UK out of the EU and does not express ‘the will of the people.’
First, as everyone knows, the referendum was explicitly and expressly advisory. I say ‘as everyone knows’ but it would seem that some MPs do not grasp this, nor, nor – more seriously –the Government itself, which is behaving as if the referendum had been advertised in advance as mandatory if the barest majority of votes cast were for ‘Leave’. The implication of the referendum’s being explicitly and expressly advisory only is that its outcome should be debated by the UK’s sovereign body, Parliament.
Requests to the Prime Minister to say why this is not happening have not been answered, and they emphatically should be, because the constitutional failure in the Government’s acting as if Brexit is a merely automatic consequence of the referendum, without consulting Parliament as the conditions of the 2015 Referendum Act entail they should, is profoundly serious. Parliament as an institution should challenge being side-lined in this way by the administration, which is accountable to it.
Secondly, a simple inspection of the figures involved in the EU referendum voting show that use of the phrase ‘the will of the people’ and its cognates in connection with it is about as barefaced a misstatement of the reality as there could be. Those figures are: 51.9% of votes cast in a turnout of 72% represents just over 36% of the electorate, which in turn represent just over 25% of the UK population (together with Gibraltar). This is an absolute minority of the people, not ‘the people.’
And then we recall the following facts: that significant and relevant sections of the population were disenfranchised – 16-17 year olds, and expatriates; that a significant proportion of those who did not vote almost certainly were happy to accept the status quo given that all prognostications were for a Remain vote; and that the toxic nature of much of the Leave campaign’s claims and promises, and the long history of tabloid media attitudes to the EU, were serious distortions which require investigation, but certainly cannot be allowed to stand in any justification of the outcome.
The upshot of these points is simple and straightforward. The EU referendum does not express ‘the will of the people.’ It does not constitute a mandate for the government to take the UK out of the EU. Indeed the fact that the government is acting as if the UK leaving the EU is an established fact, and its acting accordingly, by-passing Parliament altogether, is arguably unconstitutional. And it is a highly material fact that the government’s acting in this way is causing serious damage to the economy, itself an act of gross irresponsibility.
There should be a debate and a free vote in Parliament, in which MPs should be held to their stated pre-referendum views on the importance to the UK of continued EU membership. That is the obvious and urgent step now required. So the question has to be asked again: why is Theresa May and the government refusing to do this? What constitutional crisis might they be precipitating by not doing it? How can Parliament see its sovereign authority dismissed and bypassed in this way, and what are we as voters and citizens – of the UK and the EU – to say when we hold every one of Parliament’s members to account for the debacle which is unfolding before us at this moment?