Reliable Results

A threaded comment on Twitter highlights another nightmarish aspect of the prospect of being left out in the WTO cold for several years post-Brexit. Not only would WTO tariffs on UK exports kill our markets within the EU (which take almost half of UK exports), but:

In order to enter the EU, goods must conform with EU regulations. As you’d expect. At the moment, this isn’t a problem because the bodies which regulate conformity in this country are recognised by the EU. Upon ejection from the EU, this recognition would cease. Which means that UK goods entering the EU would be held up at every border point, while their conformity to regulations was tested. This would make selling to the EU virtually impossible unless our regulatory bodies could be certified by the EU. And they’ll be in no hurry to do that.

At this point, I don’t give a flying Farage who ends up leading the Labour Party. I’m aghast at the prospect of Theresa May as Prime Minister, who really could turn out to be the strongwoman none of us want, but even more aghast that the only realistic contender is Gove—but I don’t give a damn about the Tories’ internal bickering either. At this point, what Britain needs is no party leadership. It needs individual MPs to realize that the scenario awaiting Britain if Article 50 is triggered is now so unbelievably ghastly that it constitutes an unforeseeable circumstance that renders the referendum result unreliable. You MPs voted to hold this “advisory” referendum, so now show some backbone, consider that “advice” and reject it, definitively and for all the world to see. Then use the four years remaining on your fixed terms in Parliament to repair the damage and hope that the 2020 General Election won’t be too ghastly. Otherwise, at some point before 2020, Britain will lose half of its trade overnight. Forget the Leavers complaining that “Britain is full”—Britain will be empty, left only to those who have no escape route.

I wouldn’t worry about prospective EU migrants flooding here if we end up staying in, either. Many will have been more than put off by the events of the past week.


I’m seeing the argument in quite a few places that people need to respect the vote to Leave or else we’re “anti-democratic”. The trouble with this argument is it pits a version of democracy that Britain has (almost) never had against the one that Britain has taken centuries to develop and has exported around the world. We are not a direct democracy. If we actually were, our lives would be far more stressful and exhausting, because direct democracy only works—that is, it only returns reliable results—if the population is fully informed and engaged. Arguably, the only one of the three recent referenda in the UK that qualifies as reliable was the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. It dragged on forever, we argued endlessly over a manifesto hundreds of pages long to the point of utter exhaustion (if you think a few months of the EU debate was exhausting, imagine doing it for twenty), and we turned out in such high numbers that nobody could argue that the people of Scotland weren’t fully engaged. In the end, the doubts won it for No, but at least we had a debate about the doubts. Even then, there were many on the Yes side who felt that No voters were deceived by last-minute promises by Westminster, and on the No side who felt the same about some Yes claims.

The 2011 AV referendum, by contrast, saw low engagement (under 50% turnout) and a fair amount of misinformation, while this EU referendum saw fairly high engagement that was subject to a lot of (now openly acknowledged) misinformation on the side that won. This was direct democracy, yes, but of a kind that political thinkers have warned us against since Ancient Greece.

Britain, and almost every other democratic country in the modern world, is a representative democracy. We have elections, vote in representatives, and give them the job of considering issues to the point of exhaustion while we get on with other things. It isn’t perfect, but it leaves room for negotiation beyond the vote itself, for back-tracking if new evidence emerges, and for being as sure as we reasonably can be before committing to major changes. There are many ways for citizens to exercise influence under this system, but it isn’t direct democracy; our representatives will sometimes make decisions that a majority of the electorate opposes.

This current crisis has emerged from a direct conflict between these two forms of democracy: one we’ve dabbled with precisely three times at UK level, and one we’ve developed over hundreds of years. When someone accuses people like me of being an “enemy of democracy” for wanting to know whether and how Parliament can overturn this result, I could just as easily accuse them of being an enemy of British democracy, because referenda just aren’t British. Who are the conservatives now?

There’s no doubt that representative democracy in large modern countries has problems: MPs are far too removed from their constituents, and most individuals have far too little opportunity to be heard. A referendum is a tempting shortcut to determining the “will of the people” in that environment, but we’ve seen where temptation can lead us. One of the most interesting pieces I’ve read this week proposed an entirely different approach: using a system of sortition akin to selecting a jury for a trial.

With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

Even if such a system is unlikely to make much headway here, we can at least respond confidently when someone tells us that we need to “respect the results of the election”, as I’ve seen in newspaper comments this week. It wasn’t an election, and that’s the problem.

1 July 2016 · Politics

An intensely frustrating thought: Michael Gove is Scottish by birth and upbringing, which under the 2014 independence plan (and presumably the next one) would entitle him to Scottish citizenship. Which means that if Scotland becomes independent and stays in the EU, Gove gets to keep his EU citizenship whatever happens to the rest of the UK.

Added by Rory on 1 July 2016.