A snapshot of public opinion one day in June should not condemn us to 50 years of error and misery. Before referendum day, I said the winners would be those who told the most convincing lies. Leave did. We are all democrats, but only up to a point. Referendums are blunt instruments that favour the lowest common denominator of malleable public opinion. There are no takers for a poll on a return to capital punishment.
The UK Parliament traditionally obeys the decisions of referendums, although they are under no obligation to do so. The Brexit vote deserves the same respect as the vote which chose to name a state-of-the art ship Boaty McBoatface (it was named RRS Sir David Attenborough instead). There is a crescendo of anger rising in the Celtic nations against Theresa May’s Little Englander myopic insistence that a Hard Brexit must fall on the whole of the United Kingdom. Scotland is outraged that their 62 per cent rejection of Brexit will be ignored. Moderate opinion in Northern Ireland is aghast at the nightmare of a ruinously expensive, but ultimately unenforceable, hard border that will reverse improving relations with the Republic.
Referendums are not a reliable measure of public opinion, and do not deserve the respect of Holy Writ. On Tuesday, at the Public Administration Select Committee, the Brexit Leave team leaders were the main event. William Norton and Matthew Elliott whimpered that the promise of £350m a week for the NHS was a distant aspiration. Both have form. They also led the infamous “No” referendum case on the alternative vote 2011. They protested in horror at the suggestion that voters were fooled by posters saying our brave boys in Afghanistan would be denied protective equipment, and delicate babies would be denied health care, if the country voted for AV. By any standard, this was wild hyperbole. This conclusion was based on the gossamer-thin thread of an argument that that AV would cost money and Government would fund it from two politically suicidal budgets.
With the joys of instant rebuttal via iPad, I showed them the adverts of a soldier as a target for the bullets aimed at him by AV supporters. (To be fair, the “Yes” to AV campaign was also wildly off target, with a plea that it would stop MPs fiddling their expenses.) Voters obediently chose the biggest lie. The chance a fairer voting system that would reflect the opinion of the public is lost, probably for a generation.
Referendums should no longer trap governments. In September 2015, the Tory government firmly stated its decision. They asserted their right to over-rule the public’s majority view. Wales is already regretting its decision to vote Leave. The 48-52 vote was heavily influenced by the promise of billions of pounds for the NHS, and the crude incitement of racial fear and hatred. The Welsh academic Roger Scully asked in a July poll that searching question: “Imagine there was another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU tomorrow. How would you vote?” The result was 46 per cent Remain, 41 per cent Leave.
Opposition parties are reluctant to appear to be bad democrats. They fear that attacking the Brexit result would be politically inept now. Time will embolden them. If Hammond’s promised “bumps” in the financial road ahead turn out to be a giant sinkhole into which the UK economy falls, caught in a tailspin of lost jobs and the falling pound, public opinion will demand a new vote. Second thoughts are always superior to first thoughts.
Paul Flynn is the MP for Newport West.