- The quest for a ‘better’ sense
We invited a range of contributors to reflect on the European referendum results - its specific implications for particular places and communities and its wider ramifications for the future of British politics.
Theresa May’s recent ‘hard’ Brexit rhetoric and determination to trigger article 50 by March 2017 are in sharp contrast to Phillip Hammond’s attempt to ‘soften’ the economic implications of Brexit by keeping open the possibility of access to the single market. This only serves to highlight the impossibility of determining the precise content of the Brexit vote.
But the divisions inside government are dwarfed by the scale of the deep divisions within British society that have been brought to the forefront by the referendum campaign: divisions between England and Scotland; between the Tory shires and the cities; generational divisions; and, perhaps most importantly, divisions between those who have benefited from globalisation and those who have been left behind.
However the framing of the referendum, from its inception and throughout the campaigning period, as a confrontation between the concerns of the right and those of the ultra-right allowed very little space for the articulation of more progressive [End Page 41] visions. All that we are now left with appears to be the choice between clamping down on immigration or staying in the single market. This is hardly surprising given that, during the campaign, the Remain right focused on the economic benefits of EU membership, while the Leave right and ultra-right focused on concerns over EU migration, which they portrayed as the primary cause of all evils in British society.
The left split between those who, despite the shortcomings of the EU, still aspired to a social and socialist future beyond national borders, and those who managed to imagine the retreat to national frontiers as a step towards a future socialist paradise. The Labour right’s case was, broadly speaking, the same as that of the Remain right as a whole. The Brexit left was apparently happy with the conservative demand for a return to ‘national sovereignty’, and the promise that a Brexit vote would give back control to British people, wresting it from the unelected, undemocratic elites of the EU, who were indifferent to the peoples of Europe, but would now be permanently stopped from meddling into British affairs. The remain left had to advance a more nuanced argument, reminding voters that for the past thirty years the neoliberal course of British domestic and international politics has, without any discernible outside prompting, played a leading role in isolating working-class communities at home, and promoting a neoliberal agenda within the EU.
Referendums and democracy
Although the referendum was driven by a conservative agenda designed to advantage internal factions within the Tory party, and to address the threat to the party from UKIP, it has now been elevated to the status of a democratic landmark: it represents the moment that, finally, the British people spoke out. It was a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’, and must be respected for ever more.
In fact referendums have become a staple of modern democracy, and are a far from rare commodity, especially on issues related to the European Union. Referendums have been held over a range of issues including membership in the EEC (as when Greenland rejected membership and left in 1985), ratification of the Maastricht and the Lisbon Treaties; the enlargement of the European Union; the European Constitution; and, more recently, on European migrant quotas.
The status of referendums, however, is usually determined according to the constitution of each country. And in a number of constitutions they are not necessarily [End Page 42] regarded as binding. The Swedish constitution, for example, does provide for binding referendums, but most referendums that have been held there have been consultative rather than binding. Britain, with no written constitution, has to legally clarify the status of the 2016 referendum, and there is currently a legal race on to solve the matter before the triggering of Article 50. But if it is decided that the government has the right to trigger formal Brexit talks without the authority of parliament, a government with a very small...