Some people say it was undemocratic for Britain to join the European Community in 1973 because ‘the people’ weren’t asked in a referendum. But that’s not how decisions are made in Britain.
In the UK, referendums are usually nothing more than opinion polls. They are not legally binding and therefore not capable of making decisions.
Indeed, both the 1975 and 2016 referendums on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Community were not binding votes, but simply a ‘poll’ of the country’s ‘opinion’.
A general election has far more democratic legitimacy and legality than a referendum.
In this country, it’s our Parliament that is sovereign and Parliament gains that power through the voting public.
General elections represent legally binding votes that give authority to a party or parties to form a government.
▪ REFERENDUMS VERSUS PARLIAMENT
Referendums are flimsy affairs compared to general elections.
Parliament had the legal and democratic power to reject the ‘advice’ of the 2016 referendum if it so chose.
Even if we’d had another referendum, it would have been another advisory vote. Only Parliament can make the final decision (a key point confirmed by a ruling of the Supreme Court).
Since it is Parliament in our country that is sovereign, it is clearly the case that a vote to give power to one party or another in a general election is far superior to an ‘advisory’ referendum result.
And there’s another thing: Referendums are lousy ways to make democratic decisions, especially compared to how our representative Parliament works.
- When making a decision, our Parliament has many debates, multiple votes, often over several months, based on full information, with opportunities to consider updated information throughout the process, and with the democratic power to amend or abandon the decision at any stage.
- By contrast, in the referendum on 23 June 2016 we, ‘the people’, only had one vote, on one day, on a simplistic binary choice of only two words, without sufficient information (on the contrary, a lot of misinformation), without any opportunities to consider updated information, and with no democratic opportunity to amend or abandon the decision.
That can hardly be described as a democratic process, let alone a good way to make big decisions.
▪ MANIFESTO PROMISES
The decision to join the European Economic Community (now called the European Union) was confirmed by ‘the people’ voting for parties that offered that in their manifestos in general elections.
▪ WHEN IN 1961, Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, applied for the UK to join the then European Economic Community, ‘the people’ had given him a mandate to do so in the 1959 general election.
The Tory manifesto for that election stated:
‘our aim remains an industrial free market embracing all Western Europe’.
▪ WHEN IN 1967, Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, applied again for the UK to join the European Community, ‘the people’ had given him a mandate to do so in the 1966 general election.
The Labour manifesto for that election stated:
‘Labour believes that Britain, in consultation with her E.F.T.A. partners, should be ready to enter the European Economic Community, provided essential British and Commonwealth interests are safeguarded.’
▪ WHEN IN 1973, Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, negotiated Britain’s membership of the European Community, ‘the people’ had given him a mandate to do so in the 1970 general election.
The Conservative manifesto for that election stated:
‘If we can negotiate the right terms, we believe that it would be in the long-term interest of the British people for Britain to join the European Economic Community, and that it would make a major contribution to both the prosperity and the security of our country.’
The manifesto added:
‘The opportunities are immense. Economic growth and a higher standard of living would result from having a larger market.’
▪ PARLIAMENT’S DECISION TO JOIN
Having negotiated the terms of membership, Edward Heath could not then unilaterally make the decision to go ahead and join.
The Tory manifesto promised:
‘As the negotiations proceed, we will report regularly through Parliament to the country.’
Ultimately, it was the decision of Parliament – not Mr Heath – on whether to join the European Community.
Consequently, Britain became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC) from 1 January 1973.
Was it a legitimate, democratic decision? Yes, of course.
Decisions in the UK are decided by our representatives in Parliament; a system of democracy that has served this country relatively well for hundreds of years.
After all, we have not had referendums to decide whether to join or leave the United Nations, or NATO, or the European Convention on Human Rights, or to agree to over 14,000 international treaties, including EU treaties.
These were rightly decisions of our democratically elected Parliament and government*. If not, the British public would have to spend almost every week of their lives voting in referendums, and what then would be the point of MPs?
(*Albeit, still using an outmoded voting system of first-past-the-post, which can mean election results that are not representative of the nation as a whole.)
▪ RECENT MANIFESTOS
What about recent decisions regarding our membership of the European Union? This is where the track record becomes murky.
▪ WHEN IN 2016, Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, organised an in/out referendum on our EU membership, ‘the people’ had given him a mandate to do so in the general election of 2015.
The Conservative manifesto for that election stated:
‘We will legislate in the first session of the next Parliament for an in-out referendum to be held on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017…
‘We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome.’
That 2015 manifesto, however, didn’t specify at all what kind of Brexit Britain would have in the event of Leave winning.
On the contrary, the manifesto promised:
‘We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market.’
The other problem with the 2015 manifesto is that whilst the Tories could make a political pledge to honour the referendum, they could not bind Parliament to agree to the result of an advisory-only referendum.
This became an issue when the next Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May – still acting under the auspices of the 2015 manifesto – tried to treat the EU referendum as if it had made a legally binding decision.
Consequently, Parliament was not given an opportunity to have a specific debate and vote to decide whether to accept the ‘advice’ of the referendum for the UK to leave the EU.
The then Brexit Secretary, David Davis, erroneously advised Parliament that such a Parliamentary decision wasn’t necessary, as ‘the decision’ to leave had already been taken by the referendum. [Source]
Even though the Supreme Court had already ruled that the referendum was not capable of making any ‘decision’.
▪ WHEN IN 2017, Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, promised to deliver Brexit, it’s a moot point as to whether ‘the people’ had given her a mandate to do so, as in the 2017 general election, the Tories lost their majority entirely.
The Conservative manifesto for that election promised:
‘The best possible deal for Britain as we leave the European Union delivered by a smooth, orderly Brexit.’
The manifesto also pledged:
‘a deep and special partnership with the European Union.’
In that manifesto there was no mandate sought for Britain to leave the EU without a deal, let alone to suffer a ‘disorderly’ Brexit.
It meant that the next Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson – whilst still under the auspices of the 2017 manifesto – had no authority from ‘the people’ to state that Britain would leave the EU, ‘do or die, deal or no deal’.
▪ WHEN IN 2019, Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, promised to get Brexit done, ‘the people’ had given him a mandate to do so in the general election of that year.
The Conservative manifesto of that election promised on Brexit:
‘a great new deal that is ready to go’.
In that manifesto there was no mandate sought for Britain to leave the EU without a deal.
The ‘great new deal’ – which was passed by Parliament in January – included a political declaration promising close collaboration with the EU and a ‘level playing field’ to enable free and fair trade between the UK and the EU.
Boris Johnson personally signed the agreement.
But now the government has retracted on that deal.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said last month:
“In all areas, the UK continues to backtrack on the commitments it has undertaken in the political declaration.”
The UK is now rapidly heading towards a no-deal Brexit – an outcome for which there is no mandate from the British electorate.
▪ WHAT NEXT?
The next general election is to be held on 2 May 2024.
That is the next scheduled democratic event when the Brexit decision could be legitimately challenged, changed, or even overturned by a vote of ‘the people’.
Could a general election reverse Brexit, or at least forge a closer relationship with the EU than the one now being instigated by the Tory government?
Yes, of course.
In less than four years, the course of Brexit could be turned on its head if a political party wins power with a manifesto pledge to do just that.
▪ Photo: Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, on the steps of 10 Downing Street, after winning the 1970 general election.
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