This has been the most absurd “Cart before the Horse” referendum imaginable.
Here’s a cart and a horse. As you can see – they are wrongly aligned. Now let’s say that the cart is the electorate and the horse is the government. Without the horse, the cart is immobile, without the cart, the horse has no reason to go anywhere.
Right now we have an electorate that has made a (bare) majority decision. But we have a government that has neither the desire nor a workable scheme for implementing that plan. This is because there is no plan.
Should we have said this louder and more often before the Referendum? Assuredly we should have done. Clearly we should have done.
We also should have all been rereading Edmund Burke over the past six months ago. In his famous “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” (1774), Burke outlined his sense of the nature of representative government. Boldly, he told the wealthy merchants of Bristol that he was not being elected to transmit the narrow commercial interests of Bristolians. He was elected, by Bristolians (or a few of them anyway) in order to use his own best judgement to debate and vote for a much larger common good, for whatever largest world a British vote might influence. A representative is not a delegate. You are electing thoughtful, reflective human beings – not robots.
Now we have a situation where a government has been mandated to take Britain out of the EU, but nobody in government actually wants to do this thing. Can a representative be transformed into a mere delegate? Can the cart drag the horse against its will?
Nearly twenty six years ago, the late Geoffrey Howe, in the speech that helped to topple Thatcher, famously observed that negotiating with the EU had become “…rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. The exit negotiators will be in a much worse position than that. Not only have their bats been broken but also their arms and legs. They will have nothing – absolutely nothing to negotiate with. Any why should they have? The impotence of the exit negotiators should have been obvious to everyone from the start. (It was obvious to many of us, but we weren’t loud enough.) Negotiating a great exit deal has always been a logical impossibility. Imagine if you were Treasurer or President of a golf club and you heard that one of your members wanted to leave the club, but wanted to keep using the golf club whenever they felt like it – only not pay any subs. And drink in the bar. If your golf club has an atom of sanity or self respect you will say – No – you cannot – the club belongs to its members. If you want to use the club occasionally, you can only do so under strict supervision.
If the EU were to be anything other than dictatorial and punitive during exit negotiations then it would lack sufficient integrity for self-preservation purposes.
Small wonder that well politicians like Tim Farron and David Lammy have suggested that Article 50 need never be invoked. Parliament is after all sovereign. Burkeian representative are not union delegates and can disregard a mere “opinion poll” if they see fit. Strictly and legally speaking they are right. It is not quite true to say that the
British Constitution is “unwritten” (there are a great many relevant bits of writing), but it is certainly not written down in one place. All constitutional experts agree, however, that Parliament is sovereign. If Britain is a sort of democracy, it is because that sovereign parliament has (in a very gradual and piecemeal sort of way) conceded the franchise to the general population. But if Parliament wanted it could, legally, vote tomorrow to restrict the franchise to millionaires, or red haired people, or golfers. It could also vote to extend the lifetime of a parliament to forty years – have forty years with no election.
We take it for granted that parliament will not do those things because of a broad fuzzy consensus that parliaments need to be properly accountable to the people. If the Farron and Lammy line were taken then the fatal sense of disconnect between the Government and the Electorate, the horse and the cart, would widen even further. Indeed, as the economic situation in the polity that was
Britain gets grimmer and grimmer, there is a risk that respect for representative institutions corrodes even disastrously – with bleaker consequences for rule of law further down the line.
All of this is because of the absurd cart before the horse nature of this referendum. Here in Ireland, we are familiar with the workings of the referendum as a constitutional mechanism. But here’s the secret – O
Brits – the fine legal detail and the practical application of the referendum proposal are worked out IN ADVANCE! I cannot emphasise this too strongly. The negotiation of the referendum proposal take place first, and then the electorate validates it (or not). The horses do their work, and the cart gives its consent. The referendum (North and South) which has guaranteed a strong degree of peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland took place AFTER the negotiations were complete. The proposals were concrete, costed, legally proofed and ready to go. Likewise, the devolved institutions in Cardiff and Edinburgh established in the late 1990s were fully negotiated, properly designed and ready to go.
This is how referendums can and should work. Now there is no “normal” way of leaving the EU. This has never happened before. But the precedent of successful (horse before the cart) referenda would suggest that a government (or at least a united opposition) had a concrete detailed plan set in place in advance and it had the people ready chaffing at the bit ready to implement this detailed plan. There would be a team of horses, well informed and well equipped, ready and willing to implement the leaving of the EU.
Britain has no such team of horses. There is not plan and there is no leadership. Nigel Farage (praise be) is not an MP, and Boris Johnson is obviously in a state of shock having assumed that Remain would win by about 51% leaving angry Tories to promote him to No. 10. without him having to make any actual decisions (something he has never had much taste for).
The Leave campaign has not provided a team of horses, because the Leave campaign has been promoted by a mendacious pack of selfish egotists for whom wrecking a once great nation is small price to pay for promoting their own political careers.
For representative government to function (as Burke told us), you need to have horses who have freedom to make reasonable decisions and a cart with a power to put a break on those horses and change the horses at regular intervals. That’s how a horse and cart can work harmoniously together. Instead the referendum ended up being, for many people, a choice between…
A) Sticking it to “The Man”.
B) Not sticking it to “The Man”.
Unfortunately having decided to stick it to “The Man”, it is soon discovered that the wrong “Man” has been identified. Furthermore, “The Man” looks likely to stick it to the
British people far more decisively than ever before. Having identified “Europe” as the thing that was to blame, we now discover what we should have known all along – that conversations with Europe will be very one-sided to from now on. Europe will dictate terms to Britain as never before.
The current cart and current horse cannot work well together. If Farron and Lammy are wrong (as I think they are) and you can’t change the cart – can we change the horses please? Yes, a general election.
A general election is an acknowledgement that the current government is incapable of governing (this is not a hard case to make). A general election is, and is not, a second referendum. Calling a second referendum is of course, very insulting and makes people feel disempowered (this has happened in Ireland and has resulted in people feeling insulted and disempowered – though the stakes were never as high as they now for
Britain). But what about a general election in which Europe is the acknowledged overwhelming electoral issue? What about an election based on the fact that Britain needs political representatives who are actually mandated to carry out negotiations to either stay or remain in the EU? What about an election in which candidates publicly identified themselves as “In” or “Out” – maybe even on the ballot paper? What about an election in which “In” candidates were compelled to defend the EU in detailed and truthful terms and “Out” candidates actually provide a costed plan of how an exit strategy should work. “Out” candidates would also have to explain exactly how Scotland and Northern Ireland are reconciled and their rights guaranteed. This would be an election in which horse and cart were brought closer together, in which the supposedly simple IN/OUT vote would be complicated by questions of governance.
Given the urgency of this issue, the major parties might agree that rival INs do not run against one another, or do not campaign urgently against one another in particular seats. An IN Labour candidate should not be splitting votes with a better placed IN LibDem candidate against an OUT conservative candidate. The Tories – being hopelessly split of course, should simply trust their local constituency parties.
If the workable OUT government emerges from this election, then it will be empowered to invoke Article 50 with people who are motivated and organised enough to proceed with the exit. If a workable IN government emerges from the election, then Article 50 may never be invoked – given that a sort of new mandate has been given.
However. The horse and cart disconnect needs work. If people voted LEAVE out of a sense of general exasperation and powerlessness, then this sense needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency if governance in general (let alone EU membership) is not to fester as the preserve of “Elites”. A new general election might provide a means whereby cart and horse are gaffer-taped together sufficiently to get a nation as far as the next service station. But a new and binding mechanism for attaching horses to carts is needed.
Even if a new government stays in the EU, and even if it has a sort of mandate to do so, whatever nation Westminster ends up still being in charge of needs a written constitution.
The people need to be given a document which tells them that they are sovereign. People need to know exactly how and why horses are attached to carts and under what circumstances horses can pull and carts can brake. Without a written constitution that tells people that power derives from the people, carts will continue to be put in front of horses for a long time to come.