The Case for Democratic Exit from the EU by Steve Freeman
On 23 June 2016 twenty nine million eligible voters did not vote to leave the EU. Of the forty five million eligible voters 36% voted for exit and 64% did not. Seventeen million, a majority of those voting, ticked the leave box and claimed victory. The EU referendum divided the working class, the Labour Party, and the socialist movement and strengthened the Tories and UKIP. It has presented the working class movement with a major problem.
In October 2016 Left Unity conference discussed how to respond and supported the call for a democratic exit. Part of the resolution said “Left Unity recognises the result of the EU referendum and agrees to promote a democratic exit from the EU consistent with the closest possible unity with the European working class. (i.e. internationalism). In promoting a democratic exit we will recognise:
In promoting a democratic exit, LU recognises that different classes have different aims. We note that the plan promoted by the Financial and Business classes is for “Brexit” which means that all parts of the UK leave the EU whilst maintaining free trade and the free movement of capital with the EU. We recognise that the capitalist press promote this as a ‘common sense’ solution. In defence of the working class we will support that majority vote in England and Wales to leave the EU but with an exit consistent with maintaining the free movement of people (including workers).
Consequently we will call for (i) Northern Ireland and Scotland to be allowed to remain in the EU (ii) England and Wales to leave the EU whilst maintaining the free movement of people* [*NB. This is consistent with England and Wales leaving the EU but remaining in the European Economic Area]”
The case for a “Democratic Exit” (DEXIT) from the European Union is opposed to “Brexit” the official policy of Her Majesty’s Government. Brexit is supported by UKIP, the Tories, Labour, the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star). Left Unity has to mount a militant campaign against this policy.
The Mirror called 23 June 2016 “Day one of Brexit”. British Exit or “Brexit” is more than simply a descriptive term for leaving the EU. It was infused with assumptions about a British nation with a common destiny. The Sun, Express, Mail and Telegraph hailed ‘Brexit’ as a great patriotic triumph. The Express declared this was a “glorious victory”. The Telegraph predicted the “birth of a new Britain”.
‘Brexit’ has become a popular term used by politicians and the media. It was first used in May 2012 in a blog by Peter Wilding who adapted it from “Grexit”, the idea that Greece might leave the Euro zone. (1) During the referendum campaign it became more closely identified with British nationalism, ideas about UK independence, British sovereignty, making Britain great again and ‘British jobs for British workers’. Brexit was inspired by and gave voice to British nationalism.
‘Brexit’ took on new meaning after the referendum. Theresa May launched the slogan that “Brexit means Brexit” without saying what it meant in practice. She draped it in the Union Jack as a “Red, White and Blue” Brexit. She warned Ireland and Scotland that “we will negotiate as one United Kingdom and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom” (2). She stated “I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union between the four nations of the United Kingdom”. (3)
Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign was an echo of ‘Brexit’ nationalism. He called for American voters to “make America great again” and bring back American jobs for American workers. Trump called for “America First”. He told his audiences that his campaign was “Brexit plus” and “Brexit times five”, much to the delight of Farage, in America to pay homage at the court of King Trump. (4). In January 2017 the Prime Minister followed Farage’s trail by making her first Brexit trip to Washington.
British Democracy and the Referendum
The 2016 EU Referendum was planned in Whitehall voted through in Westminster and signed off in Buckingham Palace. The Bill was given Royal Assent on 17 December 2015. In June it was decided by the people. The Crown, Parliament and People are three pillars of the UK constitution. This unwritten or uncodified constitution has no laws or rules about referenda. (5) There is no popular right to hold a referendum. It is within the gift of the Crown at the discretion of Her Majesty’s Government.
The United Kingdom shares with the USA a common heritage of liberal or parliamentary democracy. Most liberal democracies use national referenda, exceptions being Germany, India, Japan and the USA. Referenda do take place in particular US states, such as California, reflecting the federal structure of the US constitution. In 2006 for example, Americans voted in referenda in thirty seven states. (6) In the UK the Crown has used referenda to resolve constitutional issues.
Liberal democracy involves an unequal struggle between the power of money and the power of the electorate. The financial power of the City of London and the multinational corporations has a major influence on UK laws, taxes and government policies. Money funds parties and candidates. It buys votes, owns and controls the mass media, pays for professional lobbying, buys access to government and elected representatives. Liberal democracy guarantees the influence of money and the rights of property. It is the best ‘democracy’ that money can buy.
British liberal democracy differs from the American version because it was founded on the institutions and laws of constitutional monarchy and unionism. The UK is a multi-nation state ruling England, Scotland and Wales and part of Ireland. Sovereignty is shared between the Crown and Parliament. Laws and taxes require the authority of the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’. Unlike the United States, sovereignty is not vested in the people but has its origins in the Crown’s sovereignty over the people as limited by parliament.
Unionism is the fusion of the different parts of the Kingdom into one people, the British people, under one parliament in Westminster. This is one of the central pillars of the state. Any union state, such as the European Union, the USSR or the UK, can be maintained by political and military force, by historical and cultural tradition or through voluntary agreement. The British union is not a voluntary democratic union. There was no legal or constitutional right for the people to call a referendum on separation.
The UK constitution has changed significantly over the last forty years as a result of membership of the EU, the Devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Human Rights legislation. The European Union places limits on the sovereignty of the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’. In 1975 the UK held its first referendum on the Common Market. In 2016 the EU referendum raises fundamental constitutional issues about the relations between the UK and the EU, and between the Crown, Parliament and People of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The UK constitution reflects the liberal values of the ruling oligarchy that made the 1688 “Glorious Revolution”. It was not founded on republican ideas of popular sovereignty. Referenda are a relatively recent constitutional innovation. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, says that “Europe has been responsible for the introduction of a new principle into the British constitution: that of the sovereignty of the people. This, in practice if not in law, supersedes the sovereignty of parliament”. (7). The EU referendum gave the decision to the people.
The Referendum Act made the result advisory to parliament. Those who run the country are naturally suspicious of referenda. But Cameron found it opportune to use them to deal with Scotland in 2014 and with long standing divisions in the Tory Party over the EU. As an exercise in popular sovereignty, the Prime Minister devolved power to the electorate to be retained and returned immediately to the Crown or Parliament. Then a legal dispute arose between them over who had the power to trigger Article 50.
Republicanism sees the right to referenda as vested in the sovereign people not a gift from the Crown and its Ministers. Nobody should have illusions in referenda. They reflect the general limitations of liberal democracy and the constitution of the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’ tied up with the corrupting power of money. Republicans and socialists consider whether to support or oppose any particular referendum in the concrete circumstance of time and place, taking account of the general interests of democracy and the working class. Hence boycott or active abstention are legitimate opposition tactics.
The European Union Referendum Act set out the question to be voted on. “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union”. It was a binary choice. There was no official means of registering an abstention, such as “none of the above”. In practice voters could choose between three actions, vote Remain, vote Leave or Don’t vote (which includes spoiling the ballot paper). The case for active abstention or boycott was not recognised nor represented in the national media.
There were a large number of people excluded from the franchise. An estimated 2.3 million EU citizens living and working in the UK were excluded, except those from Ireland, Malta and Cyprus. A German citizen living here was not allowed to vote whilst a Cypriot could vote, even though both were EU citizens. In one example a French citizen elected to the Scottish parliament was denied a vote. This discrimination against EU nationals distorted the result towards leave.
There was an estimated 1.5 million 16-17 year olds denied the right to vote. Young people should have been given a legitimate say in their own future. Excluding them was wrong in principle. A poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft predicted that 73% of 18-24 years olds would vote remain and YouGov said it was 71%. (8) That number falls as voters get older. People over 65 years were 60% for leave. Excluding younger people distorted the result towards leave.
The 2014 Scottish referendum included all the citizens Cameron excluded. Professor AC Grayling notes the differences. He says “in the event a mere 37% of the gerrymandered electorate voted Leave” and blamed this on Cameron who “lazily and thoughtlessly allowed the referendum to be poorly organised” by excluding those who had a legitimate claim to vote on such an important question. He concludes “had they voted in the EU referendum the result would have been markedly the other way. Their exclusion was gerrymandering.” (9)
The EU referendum was designed by the Tories to help them win the 2015 general election. It was set up to deal with a danger that UKIP would take some Tory votes and help Labour win. It was a Tory referendum with both sides led by Tories. The campaign was described as a ‘blue on blue’ battle fronted by Cameron and Johnson. Cameron, expecting to win, used ‘kid gloves’ with one eye on the future of the Tory Party. If he had a knockout punch, he did not use it.
This was essentially a struggle within the right of British politics. The Labour Party found itself in a no win situation. A remain victory, won by Labour voters and activists, would have been a triumph for Cameron and strengthened his position as Prime Minister. On the other hand if Cameron lost, politics would shift to the right. The Tory press blamed Corbyn. Whichever campaign won, victory would go to the Tories. A defeated Cameron handed over to his Home Secretary Theresa May.
There was no progressive option on the ballot paper. A significant number of the electorate were critical of the EU for supporting neo-liberal policies. Many wanted the EU to be more social and democratic. These voters were given no other choice but the conservative option of maintaining the status quo, and the reactionary option of going back to the pre-1973 position outside the EU. However on closer examination there was no conservative option.
Cameron had negotiated a package of reactionary ‘reforms’ which took the UK out of the EU’s aim of an “ever closer union” and imposed discriminatory penalties on newly arrived EU workers. These measures were agreed with the EU to be implemented if remain won a majority. Whichever way workers voted, the Tory referendum was set up to undermine the working class and drive a wedge between settled communities and migrants. Both voting options were anti-working class.
The ballot was asymmetric or unequal between the two sides. Consider the referendum as a choice between two wrapped boxes, one marked Remain and the other Leave. If Remain wins we open the box and inside we find a Cameron government with the programme he was elected on and a note promising some specific EU ‘reforms’. If Leave wins we open the box and find the Cameron government defeated and his general election programme sunk.
The democratic consequence of a leave victory should have been an immediate general election. Leave was a major historic break with the past. The people should have had the opportunity to elect a new post referendum government facing new conditions and needing new policies. Instead the Tory Party kept control and chose a new Prime Minister. She proclaimed a new programme, interpreted the meaning of the result, and got ready to negotiate any deals and sign any treaties. It was an easy victory for the Tory party.
The total number of eligible voters were 46,506, 014. The total votes cast were 33,551,983. Hence turnout of voters was seventy two percent (72%) with twenty eight percent (28%) abstaining. Of those voting 52% went for leave and 48% for remain. (10). The results are set out as an overall vote and for each nation as follows:
Voting by Kingdom
Total Remain vote 16.1m
Total Leave vote 17.4m
Total Abstain 12.9m
Excluded from voting 3.0m (estimate)
Thirteen million abstentions
Nearly 13 million people did not vote for either of the two official ballot options. They abstained for a variety of reasons. In total twenty nine million did not vote to leave the EU. All official commentators have ignored the abstentions and the reasons why people did not vote. Many leavers complain they are treated as if they are stupid or bigoted. But thirteen million abstentions have been ignored and their views or actions not taken into account as if they did not exist.
Many people abstained because they did not trust or support either of the two campaigns. People did not think there was any benefit for ordinary people in either option. They were not convinced by two sets Tories fighting it out with one side playing on fear and the other dabbling in prejudice and hate. For some, abstention or boycott was a conscious act of opposition. Others may have felt it was not worth going to the polling booth. But this too is instinctively political. In or out, life for working class people was not going to improve whoever won.
Voting by Nation
England voted 46.6% to remain and 53.4% to leave.
Wales voted 47.5% to remain and 52.5% to leave.
Scotland voted 62% to remain and 38% to leave.
Northern Ireland voted 55.8% to remain and 44.2% to leave.
Northern Ireland and Scotland
The second major problem is that leaving the EU has implications for the constitutional position of each nation in the UK. An editorial in the Financial Times says “Not all corners of the country voted to leave the EU. Voting differences between its four constituent parts – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – highlight how difficult it will be to overcome the division.” (11). This is because “the Brexit vote split the nation”… and “reawakened the ghosts of nationalism within the UK”.
Maintaining as a single state, the United Kingdom, is possible if the Crown accepted the democratic will of the Scottish and Irish people to remain in the EU as a negotiating objective. However the Prime Minister has already made clear she intends to take the whole of the UK out of the EU, the single market and the customs union. This policy will inevitably damage relations between the various nations and make the breakup of the UK more likely.
The EU referendum was an exercise in popular sovereignty – a republican moment – in a constitution based on sovereignty of the Crown-In-Parliament. The result was accepted as a democratic mandate, an instruction to the Crown and Parliament, from the people. In terms of European Union Treaties, it is an instruction to set in motion Article 50 which says “Any member state may decide to withdraw from the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”. The triggering of Article 50 begins the implementation of the mandate.
An important question is whether the mandate is weak, strong or illegitimate. Fifty two to forty eight percent is a small majority. Given thirteen million abstentions, then only 37% voted to leave whilst 63% did not. There were around three million excluded from the franchise. The votes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar show the mandate is weak and does not extend throughout the Union. The country was deeply divided, and it is arguable that without the gerrymandered franchise there would be no majority at all.
The EU Referendum Act did not hand authority to the people. It was only consultative. In practice the vote was accepted as binding by both major parties. The Crown seized the popular mandate for itself by claiming the right to trigger Article 50. This was challenged, not by Parliament, but by citizens taking their own case to the Supreme Court. The Court decided that Parliament (Commons and Lords) must have a vote on Article 50. It cannot be enacted by the Crown through the ‘Royal Prerogative’. A Bill to trigger Article 50 was duly presented to Parliament.
The EU referendum is therefore a limited mandate. It does not extend beyond the official question on the ballot paper – to leave or remain in the EU. Leaving the EU does not answer the question of what kind of exit. There is no mandate for any particular type of exit such as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Canada are not members of the EU. Each has a different kind of relationship with the EU. Denmark and Greenland are one state, but Denmark is in the EU and Greenland is not. Any future relationship between the UK and the EU, as mandated by voters, is consistent with any of these alternatives.
There is no mandate to give £350 million a week to the NHS. There is no mandate to end the Working Time Directive or other social and environmental rights. There is no mandate to introduce immigration controls on EU citizens. There is no mandate to end the right of UK citizens to move freely to live and work in other parts of the EU. Some politicians, parties or campaigns may claim a mandate for immigration controls for example. This is ‘fake news’. Some may have voted leave because of such false promises. These promises were not on the ballot paper and nobody could vote for them.
Recognising the UK as a union of nations, is to recognise each nation has its own view about remaining in the EU. There is a democratic mandate for England and Wales to leave the EU and Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar to remain. There is no mandate to take Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar out of the EU. The situation in Ireland is more complex. Northern Ireland is not a recognised nation, nevertheless its majority voted to stay in the EU. Combined with the position of the Irish republic, a majority of the Irish people want to remain in the EU.
The referendum expresses the collective wisdom of the people. In Scotland and Northern Ireland they took a different view to England and Wales. The democratic method enables people to find out who was right or wrong. Experience is a great teacher. Those who want to leave should be free to do so and the same applies to those who want to remain. People are not stupid. They may be lied to and misled. But democracy provides the best means to separate truth from ideology, fact from fiction.
People will change their minds if they have the evidence and the opportunity. A Democratic Exit must therefore continue to highlight violations of democracy in the rigged Tory referendum. We have to explain how the Tories have exploited people’s anger with neo-liberal capitalism and given us ‘Hobson’s choice’ between remaining in a neo-liberal EU or global neo-liberalism under the mantra of free trade. We have to explain how the Tories have divided the working class. We have to demand greater democratic involvement of working people in controlling government.
A Democratic Exit draws on republican ideas of popular sovereignty, national self determination and the democratic mandates given by the people. England and Wales would leave the EU and Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar would stay. The UK could follow the Demark-Greenland example. If England and Wales leave the EU and remain in the single market then all UK borders would remain open to EU trade, people and capital. This would still require Scotland and Northern Ireland to have a new constitutional settlement with the rest of the UK.
The Crown is not a democratic institution. Those who run the country see the interests of finance and business in maintaining the UK as a strong imperialist power. A democratic exit would weaken and undermine the power of the Crown. The UK government will resolutely oppose a democratic exit as inimical to the future of the UK. The state has the economic, diplomatic, military and legal means to force Scotland and Ireland to remain in the UK. The Unionist parties will promote British nationalism and English chauvinism against the Irish and Scottish people.
Nobody should have any illusions that parliament will support a Democratic Exit. Parliament is under the thumb of the Crown and complicit with its aims. A Democratic Exit will only come from outside parliament through the self organisation and mobilisation of the people. There is a need for democratic assemblies to enable the fuller involvement of the people securing a progressive settlement. It is important that excluded voters, EU citizens and young adults, are given a prominent role is such assemblies along with working class organisations such as trade unions.
The Crown needs secrecy and secret negotiations to secure agreements and treaties for the City of London and the major multi-national corporations. All imperialist powers tell the public part of their game but concealing secret clauses and ‘understandings’ which hide the rapacious greed and profiteering of finance capital. Such secret agreements will underpin the Brexit settlement. Hence the demand to ‘open the books’ is part of the case for a Democratic Exit.
A Democratic Exit is the only policy that can potentially unite workers across the divide between Remain and Leave and hence strengthen the social democratic working class movement. It demands from Remain supporters a recognition that millions of working class people voted to leave. It demands from Leave supporters the recognition that Scotland and Northern Ireland and millions of working class people voted to Remain. Democratic Exit is the political space in which a majority of working class democrats can find a degree of unity as against a more permanent cleavage promoted by right wing racist politicians.
Many at Westminster recoil from referenda because allowing the lower classes to have a say might produce the ‘wrong’ result. This is not a view that republicans or socialists should hold and certainly not socialists. The problem is too few elections and too few referenda and the means to learn and correct our mistakes. The EU referendum result requires at least two further sets of popular voting to ensure a democratic outcome.
There must be a second referendum for Scotland and Northern Ireland. They voted to remain in the EU and if this cannot be delivered or is not delivered then Scottish and Northern Irish people must have the right to leave the UK. This contradiction must be resolved by the people openly in a referendum not politicians fixing things behind the scenes. This is not a re-run of the original referendum. It is a necessary democratic supplement to the EU referendum. Leaving this decision to the Crown and the Tories is detrimental to the unity of the people and nations of the UK.
There must be a referendum on the settlement negotiated between the EU and the British Crown. From a democratic point of view the people must have the opportunity to ratify or reject the proposed deal. It is not democratic to leave the issue to a parliamentary vote not least because of the undue influence the Crown has over parliament, for example through party whips and the Privy Council. The people voted to leave and they and only they must vote to decide if their intentions have been met.
If ratification is restricted to Westminster MP’s there is a real danger that the subsequent failure will be blamed on the political elite for ‘betraying’ the people by fixing a deal behind their backs. It will create a new set of grievances to be exploited by right wing populists, racists and fascists. A referendum is the opportunity for people to hold the government and its negotiators to account in a national debate. It will minimise the danger from a right wing campaign claiming betrayal by the elite ‘traitors’ who sold out the British people.
The EU referendum was a product of a long political struggle in the Tory Party between ‘Atlanticists’ and ‘Europeans’ which led to the creation and rise of UKIP. It was a significant constitutional event, a ‘republican’ moment in which the Crown-in-Parliament gave its sovereign authority over EU membership to the people and hence nations of the UK. England and Wales voted to leave and Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.
The referendum franchise was rigged. The closeness of the outcome suggests a fully democratic franchise might have produced a different result. The ballot was biased by offering a binary choice between two reactionary alternatives. There was no recognition of the right to abstain on the ballot paper. The vote to leave should have led to a general election so the people can decide what programme they could now support. Despite these failures of democracy the future will be determined by struggle between the different classes and interests. The outcome is still to be played for.
Left Unity has adopted the policy of supporting a Democratic Exit and opposing a British Exit. This means that Scotland and Northern Ireland remain in the EU and England and Wales leave but remain in the single market. This would be consistent with open borders within the UK and the rights of workers to seek work throughout the EU. This is possible if the UK negotiates for the kind of relationship between the EU, Denmark and Greenland. Any negotiated settlement must be put to the people in a referendum so they can decide if they have been offered the best solution to a difficult and complex situation.
Negotiating for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU is possible and feasible but has already been resolutely ruled out by the Crown and the present Tory government. In practice a Democratic Exit means embarking on a political struggle for an independent Scotland and a reunited Ireland. This is not about isolating Scotland and Ireland from England and Wales. On the contrary it means mobilising the social democratic working class in England and Wales to form a new progressive alliance with the working class in Scotland and Ireland.
Left Unity, mainly based in England and Wales, has a big job on its plate. It must have the ambition to mobilise progressive opinion in England and Wales for action in support of the rights of Scotland and Ireland to self determination. The fight for a democratic exit is the fight for the best conditions for the working class to defend itself against an anti-working class Brexit offensive. But defence is not the end of the story. It has to been linked to aim of a democratic revolution, a new constitutional settlement for the country, and a new relationship with a democratic and social Europe.
(1) Wikipedia on Brexit accessed 18 November 2016.
(2) Conference speech reported on Newsnight 2 October 2016.
(3) Conference speech reported on Newsnight 2 October 2016
(4) NBC News 22 October 2016 .
(5) www.parliament.uk Memorandum by Professor Vernon Bogdanov.
(6) KK DuViveir The United States as a Democratic Ideal? Temple Law Review Volume 79.
(7) Financial Times 9 December 2016
(8) ‘How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why’, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 24 June 2016, http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/
(9) Professor AC Grayling The New European 27 January 2017
(10) The UK in a changing Europe, Professor Richard Rose 24 June 2016.
(11) Financial Times 29 December 2016
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Saturday 12th May
National TUC demo
A New Deal for Working People
London. Assemble 11am. Full details here
Saturday 16 June, 11.00 -18.00
Left Unity 2018 National Conference
Left Unity’s annual national conference.
Sunday 19 August, 14.00-15.00
Peterloo Massacre 2018 Commemorative Rally & Picnic
In Manchester, hosted by Greater Manchester Association of Trades Union Councils. More info on Facebook
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.