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Why Parliament has a duty to keep us in the EU

Philosopher AC Grayling explains why he won’t stop restating the arguments until the folly of Brexit is reversed

There are five fundamental points that have to be repeated without cease until the folly of Brexit is reversed and the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is reaffirmed.

Each one is obvious to Remainers, and has been clearly stated and restated already: but the point is to keep stating them all until everyone – but especially our Parliamentarians – is repeating them in their sleep.

1. Advisory referendum

The referendum was not binding. It was held under the terms of the (poorly drafted) 2015 Referendum Act as an advisory referendum. A consideration of the numbers involved makes clear it provides no mandate for the UK government to take the country out of the EU: the 51.9 percent who voted to Leave, in a turnout of 72 percent, represent 37 percent of the electorate – just over a quarter (26.7 percent) of the UK population. In all other mature democracies a referendum with mandating status would require a supermajority – typically a two-thirds majority. Aside from that, would a Remain vote of that size have put an end to Leave aspirations? We know from the record that it would not; Nigel Farage publicly said that such a small majority would by no means settle the matter.

2. Sovereignty of Parliament

Before the referendum it was known that 76 percent of MPs and 85 percent of the House of Lords favoured remaining in the EU, believing that to be in the best interests of the UK. It is an open and shut case under our system of Parliamentary sovereignty that they should determine that the UK is to remain in the EU. (Of course the various and often contradictory reasons motivating different groups on the Leave side of the equation should be studied and addressed, but not by accepting Leave’s own ‘solution’, namely the plan-less abandonment of EU membership.)

3. Duty and responsibility

It is the democratic duty and responsibility of Parliamentarians to reaffirm continuation of the UK’s EU membership because that is what they believe. They subvert our representative democracy and our constitution if they choose to treat an advisory referendum as usurping their duty and the sovereignty and duty of Parliament. Those elected to serve in Parliament are representatives, not delegates; they are sent to think, examine, debate and decide on behalf of their constituents. That’s why our MPs and the decisions they reach are recallable: the electoral time frame and the recall principle are essential to the democratic process. A referendum is utterly different. It is not recallable, at least within a generation. It is a one-off throw of the dice. This is exactly why the referendum was advisory only.

4. Consequences and complexities

The extended period of uncertainty which faces the UK, given that no-one had any idea of the consequences, complexities, timescale and impacts of Brexit, is already damaging the economy, with great risks to the financial and services sectors and manufacturing, as well as higher education and scientific research and development. A responsible government would seek to remedy this. It is entirely within its competence to state that, as the referendum was a test of opinion only, it is not minded to take the UK out of the EU.

5. Insufficient honesty

Those who (like the majority of Parliamentarians) were for Remain had a clear idea of why they were so: the facts, the realities, are open to view. But those who were for Leave had many and various reasons for taking their view. These reasons, as Ben Wright has shown with great clarity in the Daily Telegraph, are contradictory and paradoxical. There was no single, informed, worked-out and prepared view; there was mere demagoguery and sentiment, and alas much of that sentiment was xenophobic verging on racist. The insufficient honesty and probity of the Leave campaign, and the distorting influence of 40 years’ worth of hostility to the EU on the part of the tabloid press, are material matters and so is the poor drafting of the 2015 Referendum Act. The voting age should have been 16, since the younger generations are the most affected. British ex-pats should not have been disenfranchised if they had lived abroad for longer than a certain period. As an advisory referendum, there should have been a variety of questions exploring whether further discussion with the EU on key issues would have satisfied some concerns about membership.

Representative democracy exists, and is so structured, to take these considerations into account, to apportion proper weightings to them, to see the bigger picture – and to decide accordingly.

Judiciousness of this kind would unquestionably conclude that an affirmation of the UK’s continued membership of the EU is both right and necessary.

Professor AC Grayling is a philosopher and Master of the New College of the Humanities

 

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