(Note by John Pedler, former British diplomat, now a consultant based in France: dipconsult@ hotmail.com. Author of ‘Our Broken World’. The best round-up I have seen of the deeply flawed referendum campaign is John Lanchester’s ‘Brexit Blues’ in the London Review of Books. His conclusions are very similar to mine – I regret that he has not, so far, gone on to make a case for the result to be considered invalid).
The requirement for a referendum if it is to reflect the true will of the electorate
If a referendum is to reflect the reasonably well informed will of the voters there must be easy access to the basic facts needed to make a decision. This was not the case with the UK’s 23 June referendum, and considering the controversy that had come to surround the subject, the UK’s EU membership was not a suitable subject for a referendum. To make an informed judgment in these circumstances one needed some knowledge of economics, foreign affairs, and sociology.
Voters usually vote with some strongly held belief. This generally works quite well when voting for a Member of Parliament who then becomes responsible for taking decisions on behalf of his constituents as they arise in the Commons where emotion is commonly balanced by reason. But emotional elements – e.g. the protest element, the patriotic element – can readily determine the outcome of a referendum without due regard to the question asked.
I am concerned here to show prima facie that the 23 June referendum was so deeply flawed that it should not be accepted as the considered will of those who voted – let alone of those who either could not, or chose not to vote.
The history of the referendum on UK membership of the EU
Because of the rapid rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP (UK Independence Party) demanding that the UK leave the EU, and increased euroscepticism in the Conservative Party including among many of its MPs, its leader David Cameron undertook in 2013 to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU before the end of 2017 if the Conservatives came to power in the 2015 elections. They did with a small overall majority. Cameron’s aim was thus to overcome the damaging division among Conservatives over the EU with a ‘Yes’ vote.
When his gamble failed a considerable number of Conservative MPs – both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ begged Cameron to remain until the autumn to allow a period of calm reflection before deciding on the way ahead. He ignored this appeal and resigned precipitately thereby likely doing more damage to the UK than he had done even by the way he had conducted the referendum itself. For that enabled Theresa May abruptly to succeed him as Prime Minister and, though ostensibly his supporter for ‘Yes’, straightway declared that she is in fact a convinced Brexiter and ‘Brexit means Brexit’. So it is precisely those anti-EU Conservatives whom Cameron had planned to subdue, who now govern the UK.
Possibly more than by anything else, Cameron’s defeat can be explained by his decision to allow Ministers in his government freedom to campaign for ‘No’ while yet remaining in office. That caused much confusion. This was his referendum and it required his leadership and not contradiction from within his own government. In addition he failed to prepare the electorate for the referendum - instead, rather than choosing some date in 2017, he put it forward to June 2016. Then, as the possibility of a ‘No’ majority increased, apparently in desperation, he ran his own campaign ever less astutely.
Widespread Ignorance that this was an advisory referendum
The most striking thing about the referendum - both in the UK and abroad - is the almost universal acceptance that the comparatively small majority of votes for 'No' means that the UK is now obliged to leave the EU. The result was 48%-52%, a majority of 1.2m out of 33 1/2m votes cast – certainly not a clear decision, rather proof of a country divided in half which demanded of any government the most careful consideration of the best interests of the UK before deciding on any action. Had all UK passport holders resident outside the UK had the vote ‘yes’ would almost certainly have won. And if just the 1.2m UK residents in the EU had the vote - those most affected by the result - the ‘No’ majority would have been much diminished.
This result also ignores those in the UK who did not vote, or even register – for example the young who feel estranged from today’s political class, and Labour voters who could not bring themselves to vote for ‘Cameron’s’ Conservative referendum.
The young, the so-called millennials, who did vote voted massively for ‘Remain’. They were aware that their future, more than that of any other group, was at stake: European by birth they would have to live far longer in the confines of ‘little England’ than the middle aged who voted ‘No’. But so many of the under 25s did not trouble to register, feeling that they have little in common with today’s political scene. It is worth mentioning them again further on.
Yet this was a purely Advisory Referendum and the result is not in fact binding on any Prime Minister or Government (although former Prime Minister Cameron did say that he personally would accept the result). Even a great many 'Yes' voters believe that they must swallow objections, no matter how profound, because the 'British people have spoken' and so an extreme interpretation of 'democracy' must be allowed to prevail. Indeed, at the end of July, it seems almost taboo to talk of avoiding Brexit for fear of provoking ‘Leave’ voters – although many of these are known to be having second thoughts. And surely the UK’s national interest should come before concerns about the reaction of some ‘Leave’ voters – even if they number some in the present government.
The flaws in the referendum campaign
The campaign was dominated by misrepresentation by 'Leave' and incompetence by 'Remain'.
This February I went to the UK to assess the situation in the four month lead up to the referendum. Since then I have done what I can to support the 'remain' campaign both through personal contacts and organisations - notably Lord Rose's 'Britain Stronger In Europe' and Alan Johnson MP’s 'Labour In for Britain’.
During my enquiries in the UK, like so many others, I soon came to the conclusion that the whole campaign was deeply flawed by that misrepresentation and incompetence.
Misrepresentation by 'Leave'
Misrepresentation, even outright untruths, by the leaders - Messrs. Boris Johnson MP, Michael Gove MP, and Nigel Farage leader of UKIP, is well documented. Statistics about the cost of the EU to the UK were so often incorrect that the Statistics Authority complained at their misuse. In addition so much was suppressed. Here I only mention the claim that the UK pays £8bn annually to the EU – without mentioning that in subsidies and other payments it gets some £4bn back - and the famous Boris Johnson campaign bus with its claim in huge letters ‘We send the EU £350m a week let’s fund our NHS instead’ when in fact the figure is less than half that.
Boris Johnson declared more than once that the referendum provided a ‘once in a lifetime … opportunity to take back control of our country’ – an emotive phrase that ignored the fact that every treaty a country signs involves some loss of sovereignty, some lack of that ‘control’. Free trade agreements inevitably involve a marked loss of sovereignty – and so would any arrangement the UK negotiated with the EU following Brexit. In a word, no attempt was made by ‘Leave’ correctly to inform voters about what to expect from Brexit. On the contrary, ‘Leave’ consistently played down the years of uncertainty that would necessarily follow, giving voters the impression that whatever they wanted from a ‘No’ vote would be realised, if not immediately, then after only a short delay. Here are just two typical remarks illustrating the confusion about the referendum: in Peterborough a worker complained after voting ‘No’ – ‘When are those Pakis leaving ’ – failing to realise that only immigration from the EU would be limited by Brexit, not the presence of those from the Indian subcontinent whose immigration is under entirely UK control. And in Bournemouth a middle aged accountant with a degree in the subject remarked ‘why vote? They always come back until they get the answer they want’ (as in the case of the Irish referendums) not understanding the different nature of this advisory referendum.
‘Leave’ – and notably Boris Johnson - campaigned on the proposition that they knew better than the UK, EU and foreign politicians and experts – including Barack Obama and the Canadian Governor of the Bank of England - who strongly advised that UK remain in the EU. But when ‘No’ prevailed, many were shocked to learn that none of the ‘Leave’ leaders had any plan for arriving at ‘Brexit’ – indeed Boris Johnson found it politic to disappear from the scene. Their campaign had largely appealed to populist sentiment, not to persuasion with facts. And such populism is currently also threatening democracy in the US (Donald Trump), France (Marine Le Pen), and in a number of other countries.
Another serious misrepresentation – so flagrant as to be termed an outright lie by some observers – was ‘Leave’ leaders’ claim that after Brexit the UK, being so important to the EU, would have access to the Common Market without accepting free movement of EU citizens. This despite clear warnings from EU leaders who fear the EU itself could unravel if the UK left and got any such deal (some other countries might well want the same). Any lingering hopes of such an outcome were dashed on 27 July when the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, named the hardline EU operative Michel Barnier as the EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit.
The media's bias towards 'Leave'
Much of the media – struggling against competition from the internet - gave ‘Leave’s most dubious statements headline coverage in search of circulation at the expense of accuracy. Notably, the Daily Telegraph favoured Brexit, continuing to feature their lead correspondent, Boris Johnson, elaborating on his habitual contempt for the EU, where he had first made his name as the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels. Rupert Murdoch, the American, former Australian, the world’s leading purveyor of news, also favoured Brexit. His ‘The Sun’ the UK’s highest circulation tabloid (1.8 million) did at least as much damage to 'Remain': two examples - Murdoch associate Michael Gove was involved in getting The Sun's front page 'The Queen Backs Brexit' headline plus full page photo. Although the piece was found 'substantially misleading', the damage to 'Remain' must have been considerable given the all but universal popularity of the Queen. Many in the rest of the media made much of it.
On 22 June readers woke up to The Sun's headline 'BeLEAVE in Britain'. This after hearing Boris Johnson's dramatic appeal the night before 'Make the 23rd of June Britain's Independence Day’ - the closing words of the BBC’s ‘Great Debate’ which in fact was not a debate which would have given an opportunity for Yes’ to set out its basic case. It was in fact a major two hour questions programme which favoured ‘Leave’ with its penchant for short slogans. So even the well-trusted and supposedly impartial BBC finally came down for 'No'.
Even more importantly, Boris Johnson, more of a self-publicising journalist than a politician, became the TV personality of the campaign, generally without corrective reporting. Without any need for bias by TV stations, through constant exposure Boris Johnson became the TV star throughout - the referendum celebrity when it is celebrities who are revered, not politicians. Johnson made light of the problems that Britain would face if it were to leave the EU and of the long period of delay and uncertainty that would necessarily follow. Indeed, when 'No' got a majority, Boris Johnson had no plan for 'Brexit' and faded into obscurity until appointed Foreign Secretary by Theresa May, Cameron's successor who had been for 'In', but overnight became a Prime Minister doggedly resolved to lead the UK to Brexit. The German Foreign Minister spoke for many when he described Johnson’s appointment as 'Ungeheurlich' - outrageous.
Exposure on TV not only ensures that you are known, but that your message, however extreme, is unforgettable. Frequent appearance on TV does much to magnify the spread of populism in the US (Donald Trump), France (Marine Le Pen) and the UK (Boris Johnson) where extreme statements which resonate with certain elements of the population are believed with little question.
Incompetence of ‘Remain’
Misrepresentation by ‘Leave’ and the bias of much of the media made it difficult enough to find factual information about the key issues raised by the referendum. But this was compounded by the incompetence of ‘Remain’. Both Lord Stuart Rose's 'Britain Stronger In Europe' and Alan Johnson's 'Labour In for Britain' failed lamentably in getting across their essential message to the general public and to former Labour voters in particular. When ‘Britain Stronger In’ was founded on 12 October 2015, much of the media predicted failure. Lord Rose, a businessman, lacked the needed political savvy and was prone to making unfortunate remarks - even forgetting the name of the organisation of which he was Chair. He kept a low profile and in any case was very far from the charismatic TV personality needed to oppose Boris Johnson that ‘Stronger In’ so urgently needed. Indeed the failure to find one was a major reason for the failure of ‘Stronger In’. It is surprising that such a second rate organisation became the ‘official’ spokesman for ‘Yes’ on 13 April 2016. If the body politic had bothered, the UK could have set up a far more effective body for such an extremely important purpose.
i) ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’
‘Stronger In’ concentrated, efficiently enough, on the economic advantages of staying in the EU but ignored the fact that referendum voters are less interested in dry facts than their need to feel a strong emotional incentive for their decision - something that touches them personally. ‘Leave’ though, skillfully sounded a chord with its emphasis on immigration and patriotism – two key issues ‘Stronger In’ largely ignored even though this was expressly drawn to its attention. But even if it had been more responsive and had heeded advice, it lacked the means and publicity savoir faire to put this across to the public – something all but impossible without that TV personality.
ii) ‘Labour In For Britain’
When, in October 2015, I was first in touch with Alan Johnson – the MP charged with Labour’s campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote through ‘Labour In For Britain’ - he appeared to be well informed of the problems and likely to conduct an effective campaign. But in the event his ‘Labour In For Britain’ was even more of a disappointment than ‘Stronger In’. Its website was the same day after day and there was no contact given so I was unable to get the text of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech of 14 May, one of, if not the, best speeches for ‘yes’. (I got my copy through the party’s regular website ‘Labour List’).
Indeed this exceptional speech was almost entirely overlooked by the media which had long been disparaging Corbyn whatever he said. Almost alone, the speech made much of the important role Britain had in the reform of the EU, desired by so many of both its countries and peoples, to make the EU more responsive to its peoples and less of a club for capitalists. That countered a key ‘Leave’ assertion that the EU is incapable or reform.
Corbyn, one of the few who looked beyond Britain to the wider world, pointed out that it was the EU that guaranteed many of the human and other rights of workers. He put Climate Change deservedly first in his list of challenges which the EU countries – with Britain - could only resolve together. As he put it – ‘It is not the EU that is the problem but a Conservative Government ….’ This speech deserves reading today as an example of how the media – and Labour itself – ignored the truly important issues for voters.
The Labour Party shares a heavy responsibility for the incompetence of ‘Remain’ which left ‘Leave’ to be positive and strike the note of hope so important in attracting voters. Indeed, examining the results throughout the UK, Labour may well have lost the referendum. It utterly failed to persuade its traditional supporters that – as its Leader Jeremy Corbyn had stressed so persuasively – a ‘yes’ vote was greatly in their interest. ‘Yes’ would be a Labour win – not just a Cameron Conservative win, while a ‘No’ would be a licence for the most diehard Tories to run the country at the expense of the working man and of the UK itself.
But Labour did not recover in time from the unexpected collapse of its vote in the 2015 election. Despite the election of Jeremy Corbyn as its left wing Leader, Labour had not learned the lesson of its failure to meet the aspirations, concerns, and bitterness of its traditional voters mainly from the white working class. Tony Blair’s New Labour under David Milliband was too much of a left-of-centre form of the Conservative party to be capable of exploiting the disillusion and anger caused by those dire effects of globalization on traditional ways of life. One of the most painful of these being so called ‘zero hour contracts’ removing security of employment from as many as 1m British workers and affecting many more. This too, had little to do with the EU, rather it reflected the misdirected austerity policies of David Cameron’s government. In the absence the traditional loyalty to Labour, this exasperation expressed itself in a massive protest vote against EU membership.
This protest vote was also fuelled by immigration – whole towns had become socially unrecognisable not only as a result of immigration mainly from the Indian sub-continent (under UK government control) but also because of immigrants from the EU – notably from its poorer countries (due to the EU requirement for free movement of its citizens over which individual countries had no control). These two were frequently confused.
On this immensely important issue, not only Labour and ‘Stronger In’ but Cameron himself suffered a major setback defeat when the latest figure for 330,000 net arrivals from the EU was published shortly before the vote. This setback was unnecessary. It resulted from the incompetence not only of ‘Remain’ but of Cameron himself – for the figure included 169,000 students so only 161,000 could be classed as immigrants (barely above the 140,000 considered not only acceptable but desirable). The misleading 330,000 figure did Cameron and the case for ‘Remain’ great harm because immigration had by then become the leading issue for so many voters.
iii) Patriotism - this deserves separate mention for to some extent it influences all voters. I have already mentioned the damage done to ‘Remain’ by The Sun’s front page headline ‘The Queen backs Brexit’ with its misleading message for patriots.
Appealing to patriotism was a staple ploy for ‘Leave’, but surprisingly barely featured in ‘Remain’ publicity. Here again ‘Stronger In’ ignored advice to challenge ‘Leave’ on this emotional issue.
‘Leave’ painted a picture of a Britain of the past, all but entirely white, and with the worldwide respect due to a country, once the possessor of the world’s greatest empire, and the ‘winner’ of both World Wars. The image was of everyone standing together as Britain stood alone during its Finest Hour.
‘Remain’ failed to use TV to put across the up-to-date, forward looking, alternative which had been suggested and is worth sketching here. It told of how England and later Britain, for more than four centuries had fought wars at great expense in blood and treasure to prevent any power dominating Europe - from Spain’s Philip II, France’s Louis XIV and Napoleon, to Germany’s Kaiser and Hitler. And after that Britain had played a major role in countering the pretensions of the Soviet Union. Throughout this history Britain had prevailed thanks to allies - so it was with European allies that Britain had at last done so much to establish the period of peace after World War II that made possible the great experiment of a European Union of all its peoples and dominated by none.
Did voters really want the UK now to turn its back on friends and partners leaving them in the lurch at a time of crisis when UK support was sorely needed? And did ‘Leave’ voters really want to leave to a reluctant Germany the leadership of the EU?
This appeal to patriotism would have appealed to many, and in particular to the elderly who, in the event, voted massively for ‘Leave’.
Labour too, failed to publicise the rather different patriotism implied in Corbyn’s 14 May speech – the solidarity of all workers ‘by hand or brain’. Here the emphasis was on the great role for Britain in leading the much desired reform of the EU – as I have said, to make the Union more in the interest of its peoples, and less of a purely economic vehicle for business and finance. And, as importantly, here was the opportunity with its partners in the EU for Britain to take a lead in facing up to the great challenges of Climate Change, emigration, Russia, and the prevention of terrorism - all beyond the UK’s powers to deal with alone.
One observer aptly noted: ‘If the UK puts as much effort into reforming the EU as it would have to in order to make a success of Brexit, the UK and the EU would both be better off’.
Neglect of the ‘millenials’
Just as Labour failed so dismally to understand the extent of the grievances of its usual supporters, so all those working for ‘Yes’ equally failed to gain the votes of the ‘millenials’ already mentioned. There was no imagination, no enthusiasm to reach out to the idealism of the under 25s – involving their celebrities, using their music, and addressing their feelings of disinterest and isolation from the humdrum materialism of the world of the over 30s around them. Yet such an approach would have got many more to register and many more actually to vote in order to preserve their influence and ensure their participation in making the Europe of the future and its clout in the world. Votes enough at least further to dent that million and quarter majority for ‘Leave’.
Threat to the UK as at present constituted
Scotland voted to remain, so did Northern Ireland. This raises complex questions about a) the ability of Scotland to leave the UK in order to remain in the EU, or to remain in the UK but retain membership of the EU, and b) the legislation that would be needed to avoid the return of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – a border that would in fact become a frontier between the UK and the EU. It appears that all parties in the North, whatever their other differences, are anxious to avoid that.
Leave played down the threat to the UK’s integrity and ‘Remain’, typically did not explain just how difficult these issues would be to resolve in the event of a ‘No’ vote, nor the possibility that, after ‘No’, Scotland might actually leave the Union despite the result of the 2014 referendum.
If ‘Remain’ had made more of these issues, quite a few votes could have been different.
Few voting in a referendum – or even in an election – are much swayed by foreign policy. There was quite a bit said about the diminution of Britain’s influence in the world if alone rather than acting through the EU. Just one example that was hardly mentioned was Hong Kong, perpetually under pressure from the government in Peking. Here the UK, acting discreetly with the EU, has had significant influence in helping preserve Hong Kong’s quasi-independent status. Without the importance the EU has for Peking, the intervention of Britain alone could more easily be dismissed as unacceptable from the previous colonial power.
A final word
I conclude this note by drawing attention to way the world goes on as usual after the shock of the British referendum. The international media has moved on to other news simply accepting that the UK will now be too busy with the highly complex and long term self-inflicted problem of leaving the EU to be able to play the part it should in the world. There are observers in the UK, in the EU, and in the world who still ask how Brexiters and their new Prime Minister, against the advice of the UK’s friends and allies and with that mere 52% v. 48%, majority, can possibly go for Brexit with such self-assurance and determination when, even with all possible optimism, any possible advantages of leaving the UK would be negligible compared with those of ‘remaining’.
Here in France, where British common sense has long been cited with some envy, observers find it hard to believe that the least informed are tugging the better informed into an unknown and dubious future letting the distraction of Brexit prevent the UK from dealing with the world’s great problems with its allies as its importance requires.
I much hope that this offering, and no doubt others similar, will help towards making the case that only Parliament can take the decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Surely no one person, let alone such a single-minded and determined a Brexiter as Prime Minister May, can be left to take Britain out of the European Union on the basis of a referendum so deeply flawed as even this short note has shown? I hope that those far better qualified than I, will put together the readily available information and present properly drawn up evidence of the unacceptability of the referendum result both for the Courts this October, and for the public. (Article 50 attached)
[This may be forwarded to any who may be interested. I would be grateful for comments and for any errors to be drawn to my attention at dipconsult@ hotmail.com]
1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.
A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.
UCL Constitution Unit note:
The first point to note about Article 50 is that it is a once-and-for-all decision; there is
no turning back once Article 50 has been invoked. If no acceptable withdrawal
agreement has been reached after two years, the exiting Member State is left without
any deal with the EU. It is of course possible to extend the time period. But this is in
the gift of the EU Council and requires its unanimous agreement.