In 2016 the majority of British people voted to leave the EU. The following year there was a general election in which both major political parties pledged to uphold the referendum results. One party campaigned to overturn the results of the vote, the Liberal Democrats, and they saw their share of the vote (always small) shrink further. In 2018 Parliament passed the Great Repeal Act and again a majority of MPs upheld the referendum result. Yet it seems that there has now been a shift in the past few weeks since Theresa May brought back her EU deal. In truth this was a deal that seemed to satisfy no one. For those who wished to Remain the deal was too much of a departure, for those who wished to stay it kept Britain in thrall to EU institutions.
Following this we have seen the Prime Minister survive a vote of no confidence from within her own party and last week a general Parliamentary vote of no confidence. Over a hundred MPs are now calling for a second referendum; Philip Hammond has briefed big business companies that there will not be a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the opposition has insisted that Theresa May pledges that a ‘no deal’ Brexit is not an option. Veteran political analysts such as Polly Toynbee are openly celebrating that two years on from the Brexit vote some older Brexit voters will have died thus creating conditions for another referendum in which Remain would win. And of course the current favoured method of trying to delegitimise votes, blaming Russia, has been a feature of a significant strand of political argument since the vote. There are suggestions now from the EU that there is the possibility of an extension period before leaving. It is really anyone’s guess what might happen tomorrow.
The political crisis over Brexit stems from a fundamental democratic deficit at the centre of British politics, and that is that neither party will follow through on what the majority of voters voted for. In short, neither main party wants to leave the EU. Theresa May herself is a Remainer, who none the less has pledged to follow through on the vote, and the Conservative Party contains a significant number of MPs who wish to leave the EU. Jeremy Corbyn (a long time Eurosceptic in the traditional Labour left model of Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner) is the head of a party that is mostly Remain in terms of membership and in terms of MPs. However, a majority of Labour constituencies voted to Leave. Thus, Labour has had to perform a complex obfuscation to placate its Remain MPs and voters (mainly in big cities) without losing the majority of its Parliamentary seats, a large chunk of its working class voters, and becoming irrelevant. A general election cannot necessarily resolve these conflicts as the splits are within the parties as well as without.
A second referendum is something that both party leaders are also in fact wary of. Leave will have ready made slogan, we told you once, now we are going to tell you again but louder! The political elite are scared by the fact that the public gave the ‘wrong’ answer the first time, what if that happens again? Moreover, both leaders know that a second referendum will ultimately devalue Parliament itself and the democratic process in Britain. What will the implications be for future votes if MPs know that they can ignore them when they don’t agree? Why indeed would one vote if the wrong votes are disregarded by the political elite?
There have been dire predictions that ignoring the vote will result in a surge for the far right. I think this is an exaggeration. I would argue that it is much more likely that there will be withdrawal from the political process. This too will have a serious impact upon the legitimacy of the democratic process and Parliament itself. Parliamentarians who wish to ignore the referendum result have misunderstood the idea of Parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament is sovereign because it represents the electorate, it is authorised by the voters.
It is also difficult to predict what the implications of a no-deal Brexit would be. As is obvious from the way in which different states with differing levels of indebtedness are treated even within the EU, these are ultimately political questions rather than questions of hard economics. I would argue that the most significant matter is how reluctant the political class is to carry out the results of the referendum. This reveals a profound democratic deficit at the heart of the British polity and a ruling class who are fundamentally estranged from their electorate and frightened by the idea of having to make decisions about governing again.