How to Lose a Referendum

Jason Farrell and Paul Goldsmith take a healthy long-lens view of the referendum, writes Roger Liddle

‘A device of dictators and demagogues.’ Clement Attlee’s curt dismissal of the referendum as a legitimate constitutional device had rather fallen out of fashion in recent decades.

Yet the result of last year’s referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was a victory for demagogy. It was built around three big lies: that leaving the EU would save £350m a week in contributions that could be spent rescuing the National Health Service; that in 10 years Britain would be overrun by five million Turks; and that immigration can be drastically curbed without economic cost. The ‘Brexiteers’ followed the principle that the bigger the lie, the more likely it is to be believed.

Having obtained a narrow victory by such patent falsehoods, the ‘Leavers’ claim a mandate for the hardest possible Brexit. No attempt was made to reach out to the legitimate concerns of ‘Remainers’ who after all constituted 48 per cent of the vote. Instead they took Theresa May prisoner and set her up to frame a snap general election around her version of Brexit, which she then failed to win.

But as she desperately clings to power, those who dare to question the wisdom of a hard Brexit have been denounced as ‘enemies of the people’. Soon, they will be accused of being saboteurs, stabbing the government in the back as David Davis and Boris Johnson are forced to come to terms with the weakness of their negotiating position and the inevitable heavy costs of our EU departure; just wait for the press to start heaping the blame on the unreasonableness of our EU partners.

Parliament, meanwhile, is suffering a devastating blow to its legitimacy as a large majority of its members tamely vote through a course of action that they personally believe to be gravely damaging to the national interest. Even in the overwhelmingly pro-European Labour party, members of parliament who rightly insist that we must at the minimum remain in the single market and customs union find themselves attacked for putting at risk Labour’s new-found unity. Unless Labour puts the national interest first, we are on the threshold of the gravest national disaster since appeasement in the late 1930s.

That is why books about Brexit will remain on publishers’ lists for many years to come. Jason Farrell and Paul Goldsmith have made a very readable contribution in explaining the history of how the Brexit disaster came to pass. This is not the blow-by-blow account of the referendum campaign that Tim Shipman’s All Out War attempts to relay. Farrell and Goldsmith are much less obsessed by what the principal players in the game, nor their teams of political advisers, got up to. As a former government advisor, I know how absorbing this can be. But Farrell and Goldsmith have a longer historical perspective which in turn leads to a deeper understanding of why we are where we are.

But for me the referendum was an unnecessary piece of self-indulgence by David Cameron, putting the unity of the Conservative party before the vital interests of the country. And has the experience shown that Attlee was wrong about the dictatorship of demagogues?

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Roger Liddle is co-chair of Policy Network and a member of the House of Lords. He tweets at @liddlro

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How to Lose a Referendum: The Definitive Story of why the UK Voted for Brexit by Jason Farrell and Paul Goldsmith
Biteback Publishing | 480pp | £20

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Comments: 1...

  1. On July 23, 2017 at 12:08 pm Richard MacKinnon responded with... #

    Roger is Liddle is of course entitled to his view, but it is not one that I share. He seems to have come to the conclusion that the referendum was a self indulgence of David Cameron’s?
    Facts are that over half the electorate voted to leave. That tells me David Cameron was giving the people what they wanted. I cant understand how anybody cannot see that. Its called democracy. Maybe Roger Liddle has forgotten what the concept is.

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