Posted by Mad Mitch on  UTC 2016-05-04 08:19

In October last year we argued that a British referendum on continued membership of the EU

  1. was a foreign body implanted into the British parliamentary system and that it was
  2. highly unlikely to provide a satisfactory numerical resolution to the question.

With only around six weeks to go to the referendum on 23 June the current 'Poll of Polls' estimate is exactly 50%-50%. Prediction 2 therefore seems to be on course for fulfilment.

The arguments for and against, which, in a normal parliamentary process would be tested and documented over a number of years, in the febrile two months of this campaign burst upon us like fireworks, only to fizzle out unresolved a short while later, leaving us still in the dark about the merits of the competing claims.

The entire 'debate' can only be described as incoherent, which is actually putting it kindly. All long-term, strategic or historical considerations are left unconsidered in favour of arguments based on short-term economic interests.

In a video interview at the end of March, Peter Hitchens illuminated point 1 and added further to the political context of this event.

The transcript of the interview was fairly corrupt. I have cleaned it up and reproduce most of it here with some additional comments.

Peter Hitchens interview, 30 March 2016

First of all I’m against government-called plebiscites. I think they are an outrage and I don’t think that any parliamentary country should have them.


Secondly, I think this one was held solely to save the Conservative party. It was never intended to be held in the first place and I don’t think …

All political opportunism: the first UK referendum in 1972 was a shameless attempt to save the Labour party from fragmentation; the AV referendum in 2011 to save the coalition; the Scottish referendum in 2014 was just shameless.

there are no clauses in the act which state what would happen if there is a vote to leave. I very much doubt that Parliament, dominated hugely by the enthusiasts to stay in the European Union, is capable of taking us out even if there is a vote to leave.

Quite. The result of the referendum is not binding: it has no more status than an opinion poll.

I think what is more likely to happen, and what no one can say for certain, is that there would be a vote to stay which will be declared as the end to the debate and that we can all go home and forget about it forever and that is why I say that the referendum is a trap rather than an exit.

A close-call result with possibly a majority of less than 1% will be sufficient for this purpose.

Of course, a similar majority for 'leave' would certainly trigger a re-run.

I think the only way to get out of the European Union is to elect a government committed to secession from it, probably to elect it for two full terms which in my view - I think Gus O'Donnell is right - in that it would take us ten years to get a major country such as this out of the European Union.

And given the huge and extraordinary desire of the people who claim to be against the European Union to carry on voting for the Conservative Party, which is probably the keenest supporter of the European Union in the country, I don’t think there is much hope of that ever happening. The chances of developing a party which is in favour of national independence in time to achieve it seems to me to be nil.


I think there is an interesting precedent in the Irish Republic’s vote. The Irish Republic used to actually have referenda under very strict rules. Their original constitution did so and they were probably more valid than other countries because of those rules and they voted against the Lisbon Treaty and the Irish government thereupon commissioned a group of people - psychologists and anthropologists - to go out and they came back and said people had voted against Lisbon because they didn’t understand the question, so they’d hold it again.

The first referendum in 2008 had a majority of around 7% for rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. The second referendum in 2009 produced a majority of 34% for acceptance.

I think you also have to also note that in the British supposed Brexit campaign there are now large numbers of people, I think of Michael Howard and Alexander - so called Boris - Johnson who are not really particularly obvious supporters of a British exit from the European Union who I think have joined the campaign and placed themselves at the head of it precisely so that if there is any question of the vote to leave that they can then turn it into a negotiation in how to stay. Which I think would be the most likely thing to happen if there were a vote to leave.


But if there were a vote to leave it’s unlikely to be a particularly large margin. And you still have to cope with the fact that Parliament is still sovereign. What is the Parliament dominated by people who are against leaving the European Union going to do about a vote like that?

As already noted, the current 'Poll of Polls' estimate is exactly 50%-50% (for what it's worth).

I think the second referendum is very likely. It would be what they would work for. I think that is one of the reasons why people of that kind are joining the exit campaign.

Exactly paralleling the Irish experience.

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