Advisory ‘consultative’ referendums are not compatible with representative democracy

As we seem to be undergoing a right wing power grab with threatening noises about lack of democracy if the people are not listened to, it is time to remember that the referendum was advisory only and it was for this very reason there was no requirement either for a supermajority or a majority in all UK nations (See Amendment 16 below).

As the Minister for Europe (David Lidington) said at the time (16 June 2015):

The amendments that we are debating cover a wide range of issues. The House will expect me to spend most of my time addressing the arguments about the proposal to disapply section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. However, I will start by addressing amendment 16, moved by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond). I was not surprised that he and his party should have moved such an amendment or that they had the support of Plaid Cymru in so doing, but I doubt whether the right hon. Gentleman will be shocked when I say that the Government do not intend to accept it.

Amendment 16 does not make sense in the context of the Bill. The legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory, as was the case for both the 1975 referendum on Europe and the Scottish independence vote last year. In neither of those cases was there a threshold for the interpretation of the result. The Government take the view that, in respect of EU membership, we are one United Kingdom. The referendum will be on the subject of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and it is therefore right that there should be one referendum and one result. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will choose not to press his amendment.

Since we have it from the horses mouth, “The legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows”, it seems to me that especially as Parliament itself can agree on so little of what follows, the least we should expect is a referendum to see if ‘we’ like what follows…

And our legislators must learn for the future that advisory referendums are decidedly incompatible with representative democracy.


  1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    I think the problem is that we have been conned into believing the default position is to ‘crash out’ of the EU aka the ‘No Deal’ option.

    The obvious default position is clearly status quo ante given that the proposal to leave the EU cannot be amicably agreed. ‘No Deal’ in this scenario should mean time’s up. You’ve had your two years fannying about and you can’t do it. So knock it on the head. Should have been done six months ago, but Theresa May doesn’t do decisions ….. if she did she’d still be PM and may have been good at it.

    What an appalling waste of time and temper this Brexit nonsense has been and looks like it will never end.

    1. Peter May -

      I cannot understand how there still seem to be some (who are not disaster capitalists) who cannot see that Brexit in any form is just a stupid idea. I think it’s a measure of our dystopian society that so many people think self harm is a good idea.

      1. A. Pessimist -

        Andy, Peter, am I missing something here? This link, lifted from a Bill Kruse comment on TRUK says that, as Andy implies above, we cannot “crash out” of the EU, even a “no-deal” exit requires an act of parliament, which needs a parliamentary majority;

        I can’t see this being pursued anywhere in the MSM but surely it’s of massive consequence. Johnson’s only route to any Brexit, with EU agreement or not, requires him to achieve a majority in Parliament. So his only way forward is a GE and as far as I read it all this talk of MP’s taking control of the house to block him, and the “proroguing” is practically irrelevant.

        There’s also the suggestion that Art 50 will expire on 31 October. So we can all give a sigh of relief?

        Unless I’m missing something?

  2. Peter May -

    As I understand it that is a possible scenario, but subject to a legal challenge in the Scottish courts. If the Supreme Court agrees that legislation both to enact the notice of article 50 and to enact the leaving agreement (or lack) then we’re safe. But they may take a different view in which case it would still be alll to play for in Westminster.

    1. Peter May -

      PS I might be confusing two things. The Scottish court is, I think ruling whether the 5 week prorogation broke the ‘rule of law’ and the other case is English (John Major?).

    2. A. Pessimist -

      Turns out you were sort of right Peter. The Crowd Justice case by Jolyon Maugham has been “adjusted” to include the issue of a no-deal exit requiring primary legislation

      I’ve just noticed that this has all just appeared on Richard Murphy’s blog! So I’ll leave this here and give that a read! It all seems pretty dramatic and a potential game changer.

  3. A. Pessimist -

    I can’t see any consideration of this point going on anywhere. The assumption everywhere seems to be that if no agreement is reached we will automatically leave the EU. Either there is something wrong with the argument in that link, or Andy is 100% right and we are being “conned”!

    I find this very puzzling!

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