After Brexit, should referendums be banned? Part 2

Without the EU referendum, we would be living under a Miliband government. In the second of two articles our Chief Political Commentator examines the argument against deciding complex questions by referendums by trying to imagine what would have happened if our constitution ruled them out

John Rentoul
Monday 05 September 2016 11:19 BST
If David Cameron had not promised a referendum, it is highly likely that he would have lost the 2015 General Election
If David Cameron had not promised a referendum, it is highly likely that he would have lost the 2015 General Election (Getty)

During and especially after the EU referendum campaign, a vocal minority protested that referendums are bad ways to decide important political questions. They argued that decisions on complex subjects are best made by representatives deliberating in a legislative assembly.

In part one of this post, I wondered about the alternative history of the UK if we had stuck to this principle and refused to hold referendums in 1975, 1979 (Scotland and Wales) and during the Blair government. Nothing would have been very different, except that the crisis of Labour disunity, partly over Europe, would have occurred earlier than 1979 to 1983, with unknowable consequences.

It would not have been until David Cameron became Prime Minister that important decisions would have been different.

First, the voting system. Without the backstop of a referendum, what would the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have agreed? Would Cameron have matched Gordon Brown’s offer to Nick Clegg of the Alternative Vote without a referendum? If he had, could he have got it through the House of Commons? By the 2011 referendum, only a little more than half of Labour MPs supported it, so Cameron would have needed 130-140 of his own MPs (nearly half of 306) to get it through.

That would have caused greater problems of discipline and morale than Cameron actually suffered, but I don’t see what else Clegg could have accepted, given the importance of voting reform to his party. The choice for the Conservatives would have been AV and coalition or a minority government. I think they would have gone for AV, but Cameron would have had to do more to bring his MPs onside. Would it have passed? Would the coalition have survived? Touch and go, I think.

If we had switched to AV (numbering candidates in order of preference and counting by progressive elimination), it would paradoxically have been the system for which the Labour government legislated, without a referendum, in 1931 – the Bill fell when the government did.

Second, Scotland. The no-referendums rule there would mean that the only way to achieve independence would be for the Scottish people to return a majority of Scottish National Party MSPs to the Scottish Parliament. That was what Alex Salmond achieved in 2011, but people would have voted differently had they known than an SNP vote was a vote for independence. Salmond needed 65 seats for a majority and he won 69. If independence had been automatic, I think he would have fallen short, just as Nicola Sturgeon did (63 seats) in the election in May this year.

Theresa May says she has an 'open mind' over Brexit negotiations

So I doubt that there would have been a majority for independence, either in 2011 or in 2016. But it may be that, if Brexit had happened, independence would be more likely in the 2021 Scottish election than it would be in a second referendum.

Which brings us to the big one: Europe. What would have happened if Cameron hadn’t promised, in his Bloomberg speech in January 2013, a referendum on EU membership “within the first half of the next parliament”? I think that’s quite simple. He wouldn’t have won the 2015 election and we wouldn’t now be preparing to leave the EU.

He felt he had to promise a referendum because, just like Wilson, he thought he couldn’t hold his party together without it. Just like Wilson, he dressed up expediency as principle. He said Europe had changed and that the British people hadn’t been given a say over the changes. Just like Wilson, he thought a renegotiation would allow him to win the vote, and that it would settle the question for, say, another 41 years.

If he hadn’t promised a referendum two things would have happened. One is that his party would have become even more ungovernable (remember that it might already be furious with him and Clegg for changing the voting system). This would have cost votes. The other is that Ukip would have won more votes from the Conservatives. Given that the 2015 was so close, Cameron would probably have fallen short of a majority.

“An Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP” wouldn’t have been a scare tactic, it would be what we have now, and everyone would have commented on the irony of the new AV system failing to prevent the Lib Dems collapsing to just 20 seats.

The only way for us to leave the EU would be the election of a prime minister committed to Brexit, supported by a majority of MPs. As we discovered this summer, only a quarter of current MPs supported Leave (140 out of 330 Conservatives plus 10 Labour, eight DUP and one Ukip).

If referendums had been banned, this proportion might have been a bit larger. Instead of campaigning for a referendum – remember Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, which won 3 per cent of the vote in 1997? – opponents of the EU would have concentrated on working to select Eurosceptic candidates, especially in the Conservative Party.

Assuming, as we have done, that Cameron had lost the 2015 election, Boris Johnson or Theresa May would have become leader of the opposition. We can further assume that the winner would have stood on a Brexit platform, because 66 per cent of Conservative party members voted to Leave and that proportion would have been higher if there had been no renegotiation.

A change of leader and change of official party policy would have a remarkable effect in changing the minds of Remainer Tory MPs, but there would still be a large rump of EU supporters.

As Miliband’s minority government struggled on, the Tories would then need to win another election by a big enough majority to overcome their own pro-EU minority with the help of the few Eurosceptics in other parties.

That might, in the alternative universe, happen at an election in 2020, or earlier if Miliband falls, or at the election after that. It is hard to know what else might happen – a delay might have changed the question if the EU changed – but a Brexit majority in the Commons would seem probable at some point in the next few years. I dont believe that the popular majority for Brexit in June was temporary or accidental: it would have been reflected in parliament after the leadership of a major party adopted the policy of withdrawal.

The main effect of a ban on referendums, then, might be to give us a new voting system and to delay our departure from the EU by between four and nine years. What you think of that depends on where you stand on those questions, but would the process by which those decisions were reached be any better or more democratic than what actually happened?

This is a rather long way of saying: I don’t think so.

My further thoughts on some comments I received (part 3 of 2) are here.

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