The author of this article is Sir Noel Malcolm
The article was first published in ‘Briefings for Brexit’ and we re-publish with their kind permission
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Oxford historian Sir Noel Malcolm analyses some of the specious arguments that continue to be made by the so-called ‘People’s Vote’ campaign.
The ‘Leave campaign promises have been broken’ argument, the ‘trying to leave has turned out to be too difficult’ argument, and the ‘we’re only doing what Leave campaigners would have done if the referendum vote had gone the other way’ argument. He also considers the idea of a ‘Mrs May’s deal versus no deal’ referendum – a scenario which may be justifiable in theory, but would be a fateful error in practice. The best response to the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign is not to imitate it in any way, but merely to expose its deceptions..
Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated
The prospect of a second referendum on Brexit seems to have receded a little, with Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to include any straightforward promise of such a referendum in the Labour manifesto. But he still allows talk of a ‘confirmatory referendum’ in the event of there being something called a ‘Tory Brexit’; and meanwhile the untiring efforts and large-scale expenditure of the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign continue. So, it is much too early to conclude that this is no longer a live issue.
Some of the obvious points that need to be made have been put forward so often that there is no need to elaborate on them here. We all know that the 2016 referendum was not a challenge to parliamentary authority; it was chosen and legitimated by Parliament itself. We all remember that the government leaflet, sent just before the campaign to every household in the country, said: ‘The referendum on Thursday, 23rd June is your chance to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union …This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.’
We also know that almost all the major organisations that back the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign have actively lobbied for the UK to remain in the EU (see this article). Their constant public assurances that the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign takes no view on the desired outcome are therefore especially disgraceful, given the high tone they adopt when talking about ‘lies’ told by the Leave campaign in 2016.
Three misleading claims
But there are other points which are made less often yet are no less important. Here, in brief, are three of them.
The ‘promises’ argument
First, it is often said (by politicians, journalists, and especially BBC correspondents and commentators) that the people of the UK are now discovering that the ‘promises’ made to them by the Leave campaign were false – a claim which, if accepted, seems to give strong support to the idea of a second referendum. But this claim is fundamentally wrong, for a simple reason: nobody made ‘promises’ in the referendum campaign. They did not, and they could not.
People make promises in an election campaign, when their message to the voters is: ‘if you vote for me, and for a sufficient number of other candidates of my party, we shall form a government, and, in that case, these are the policies that we promise to carry out.’ A referendum campaign is not an election campaign; it merely seeks to persuade people to vote for or against a particular change. Being on the winning side of that argument, and being in charge of government policy thereafter, are two quite different things, with no necessary connection between them.
Besides, the fundamental arguments on the Leave side were about what people thought was right or wrong in principle: the rightness of living under laws made by your own elected lawmakers; the wrongness of being unable to control your country’s immigration policy. Factual predictions did not play a large role on this side (unlike on the Remain side, where George Osborne’s predictions of an instant recession and the rapid loss of 500,000 jobs carried real weight; 43% of Remain voters voted primarily on the basis of economic projections). And even if factual predictions had played a major role on the Leave side, they still could not be described as ‘promises’.
Indeed, one might add that even if the things that were said are mis-described as promises, it is still hard to see how they can be said to have been broken. The main prediction made by some on the Leave side was that in the medium to long term the economy would benefit by being freed of EU protectionism and costly regulations; at the moment we are nowhere near the stage where the truth of any such prediction can be tested. And while it is true that some Leave campaigners said that a withdrawal deal beneficial to both sides could easily be obtained, that proposition (stating a possibility – ‘could’, not ‘will’) has also not been tested, since the strategy used by the May government has fundamentally diverged from the one they would have applied. Nobody knows whether, if a British government had prepared seriously and openly, from the start, for a departure on WTO terms, while negotiating hard for an enhanced free trade deal with the EU, we would by now have left on much more satisfactory terms – though it’s hard to see what could disprove that supposition. But this brings us to the second point that needs to be made.
The ‘difficulty’ argument
We now hear it said quite often that we must have a second referendum because nobody realised how difficult it would be to negotiate a viable withdrawal agreement: the extreme intransigence of the EU negotiators is a ‘new fact’, which means that the whole situation must be reassessed. The answer to this was given several months ago by Professor Richard Tuck, a contributor to Briefings for Brexit, when he pointed out that this ‘fact’ was really an ‘artefact’ – not an inevitable feature of the way things are, but something deliberately created. And why was it created? Because of the possibility of a second referendum.
To be continued in Part II tomorrow