The Brexit referendum was badly designed and unfairly won. So why is there so much deference to it?

MPs should stop deifying the 2016 vote and back a fair and democratic second referendum.

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We are probably about to take the huge step of leaving the EU that a majority of the population no longer want. We will do so because certain political forces have elevated a rigged, corrupt and unfair vote into something all powerful, that demands to be obeyed. If you doubt this, think of all those who claim a second referendum would be undemocratic: a statement which is a contradiction in terms, unless 2016 has some unique, special status. The purpose of this post is to argue it does not deserve this status.

The UK is a representative democracy that very occasionally holds referendums. Although referendums have been reserved for constitutional issues, it is not the case that constitutional issues are always decided by referendums. Instead they often tend to be used by governments to put to rest major internal debates over constitutional issues. Cameron promised to hold a referendum on EU membership in order to (temporally, as it turned out) silence internal debates within the Conservative party.

I discussed why the referendum was badly designed here. Leave were not required to settle on a particular alternative to being in the EU: EEA membership (Norway), being in the Customs Union or not, being in the Single Market or not, etc. For that reason Boris Johnson can claim that leaving without a deal is closest to what Leavers voted for, even though No Deal was never proposed by the Leave campaign. This lack of specifics also made it easier for the Leave campaign to spin fantasies like “the easiest deal in history”.

The result of the referendum would have its impact on two main groups above all others: UK citizens living in the EU, and EU citizens living in the UK. The only people in that group allowed to vote were UK citizens living in the EU and registered in a UK constituency less than 15 years ago. However, Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK were allowed to vote. In the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, EU residents were allowed to vote. How do you describe excluding UK residents who would be most affected by a referendum as anything other than rigging that referendum?

Vote Leave broke election law in at least two ways – yet neither of the main political parties seem to care (one for obvious reasons, the other less so). We still do not know whether the Leave campaign was funded by Russian money or not. To dismiss this by saying the extra spending probably didn’t influence the result misses the point. If all that happens after one side breaks spending rules in an election is a fine, then we are on the road to US style elections where money plays a very big role. That in turn leads to a plutocracy of the kind I describe here and which Jimmy Carter has recently talked about. The penalty for overspending has to be very large, and the obvious penalty is to cast doubt on the validity of the vote. Rather than speculate on whether law breaking influenced the result, we should just say the vote was corruptly won.

But there was a much deeper unfairness with 2016 than Leave campaign spending, and that is the behaviour of much of the media. Most of the right-wing press effectively groomed their readers long before the referendum with constant stories, often simply false, of an interfering Brussels bureaucracy: so much so that the EU set up a website to correct untruths. During the campaign most of the right-wing press (80 per cent by daily readership) were effectively part of the Leave campaign, providing what is best described as propaganda. The influence of the press was particularly important because, unlike a general election, most people before the campaign were uninformed about the EU. This propaganda might have been counteracted with information provided by broadcasters, but the BBC in particular decided to balance truth with lies. Elections where information is replaced by propaganda are not fair. 

For all these reasons 2016 was not a free and fair referendum. But the same political forces that had championed Leave in the campaign went about deifying the (narrow) victory. Brexit quickly became the “will of the people”, as if the 48 per cent who voted to Remain – and especially EU residents whose future was put in doubt – had either ceased to exist, or have become traitors. This alliance between Brexiteers and the right-wing press is the main reason why support for Leave has stood up despite everything that has happened since: who wants to be a traitor? An indication of how successful this continuing campaign has been is that, if you ask people about how the economy has been since the vote, they will probably mention first the pre-vote Treasury short term forecast that predicted a recession, rather than actual events like the fall in real wages caused by the Brexit depreciation.

Once it became clear that the Leave campaign’s claim that the EU would allow us to retain the benefits of being in the EU after we left was pure fantasy, it was natural for the Brexiteers and most of their press allies to migrate to advocating No Deal. It is the only outcome that might give the UK some more sovereignty – or perhaps US regulations – albeit at a terrible economic and political cost. Project Fear easily transfers to what might happen with no-deal.

In a rational world, and dare I say in any real democracy, the possibility of no-deal would be eliminated with ease by MPs, who would simply mandate the executive to Revoke Article 50 on 27 March if no other way forward had been agreed. That this has not been done, and that all sensible MPs dare propose (and narrowly win) is something weaker, is indicative to the hold that the 2016 referendum still has on MP’s attitudes.

When this is all history, will people struggle with how a narrow victory in a rigged, corrupt and unfair referendum could lead MPs to vote for a Brexit that a far greater majority of people no longer want? Not really. It is pretty obvious how people with lots of money to spend combined with extreme neoliberals and little Englanders to subvert the political process in the UK. Just add to this a tendency of too many on the centre-right to appease the far right – from Cameron who allowed a rigged referendum that was badly designed to May who constantly set policy to please the Brexiteers in her party – and you get the subversion of democracy that is Brexit.

This piece originally appeared on Simon Wren-Lewis’s blog Mainly Macro.

 Simon Wren-Lewis is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford. He blogs at mainlymacro.