Today is one year since the people went to the ballot boxes to vote on the future of the UK in the EU. The referendum created deep and undeniable divides across the UK. Families, communities and nations were torn even before the referendum results were announced. One year on, many of the issues and concerns that emerged in the immediate days and weeks following the referendum result have still not been addressed. Confusion, mistrust and instability have become a norm over the past year, and without a codified constitution and rules governing referendums, the political state of the country seems to be in freefall.
What’s happened so far?
Article 50 was triggered in March this year after 51.9% of voters, or 37% of the population, and two of the four nations in the United Kingdom, voted to leave the EU. The government had wanted to trigger Article 50 using outdated Royal Prerogative powers, and was only stopped by a legal case and a ruling by the Supreme Court. Now that Article 50 has been triggered and the “divorce” negotiation has begun, we are still waiting to find out what form Brexit will take.
Given the small majority in the referendum, the mandate for Brexit lies on shaky foundations. Theresa May attempted to gain a mandate for the Conservatives’ Brexit plan by calling a general election but was instead left with a reduced seat count and a minority of seats. The general election failed to give us an answer on what form Brexit will take, and with no DUP coalition deal, this question remains.
Many of these unanswered questions can be traced back to the ballot we were presented with a year ago; a simple yes/no vote gave the voters no chance of telling government what direction they wanted Brexit to take. "The Government has a plethora of options and decisions to make, many of which are arguably mutually exclusive. For instance, do we prioritise immigration over single market access? Different voters were motivated by different priorities, but the simple yes/no question has left the government and the public none the wiser about what direction should be taken. This has left both leave and remain voters feeling let down by Parliament, against a backdrop of an already disillusioned electorate.
More troubling, however, was the lack of a plan for the UK leaving the EU. Perhaps the Westminster elites, comfortable in their power, had not anticipated the popular sovereignty that had passed Brexit, and failed to organise a tangible plan for any outcome as a result. Or perhaps, it was just as large a shock to the government as it was to the people. Either way, the country was left with more questions than answers, and no plan on how to move forward with Brexit. This is particularly obvious in the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland, who as recently as the Queen's Speech are still demanding a guarantee that Scotland's interests will be taken on board during the negotiations.
How can we make sure these issues do not occur again?
In our Democratic Brexit report, we have some ideas!
1. A Referendums Act to set out clear and consistent rules - the government should introduce a Referendums Act that places a requirement on the government to have a plan for each outcome of any given referendum, regardless of which side they support. This means that the government can’t make up major political changes as they go, but have a coherent plan no matter the outcome. The public would also have a clearer idea of what it was they were voting for.
2. An independent public education programme - The public should have access to free and fair information for any referendum. Accessible and unbiased, this should summarise the key facts and arguments for any referendum outside of campaigns or media influence. This should be done by an independent body with the capacity to share this information with everyone.
3. Implement a supermajority rule - Perhaps, the issue of mandates could be addressed if we had a policy of a supermajority - or a vote of 60% or above and a turnout of above 75%, which means that over 50% of the population will have voted to remain or leave. Supermajorities protect major and long lasting constitutional change from being passed on a whim. Denmark, for instance, has referendums for all constitutional changes and all referendums must be passed with 40% of the population voting. In comparison, only 37% of the registered electorate voted for Brexit. With a supermajority, the outcome of the EU Referendum would have had the legitimacy to go forward without the questions that this referendum result has faced. Without a doubt, supermajorities should be explored in any analysis of UK electoral law.