This Sunday morning, whilst considering the results of the referendum on exiting the EU, I turned to a book with a title I adore written by a man I admire – Arguments for Democracy by Tony Benn. Benn once came up with five questions to ask the powerful, saying that if they could not be satisfactorily answered, their power was not derived in a democratic fashion. These were:
- “What power have you got?”
- “Where did you get it from?”
- “In whose interests do you use it?”
- “To whom are you accountable?”
- “How do we get rid of you?”
So why is this relevant to Brexit? Well, a referendum, or the mandate that forms from the outcome of a referendum, is powerful in its own right. Since around this time last year, opposition to Brexit has been crushed, but more importantly accountability of our plan for Brexit has been sneered at and pushed out of focus. This power, backed up by the majority who voted last year, should not be held to any different standards to what the questions above ask for.
I believe that the Brexit mandate can’t satisfactorily answer the questions above. Not because it is an abstract concept and can’t answer for itself, but because there is no formal way of getting rid of it.
If we leave the European Union, but stay in the single market, can that mandate then be used to bludgeon our way out of that too? The UK is planning on leaving many organisations and treaties that have little to do with the European Union except for the word ‘Europe’ in them?
The Poll Tax is a good example of a mandate that can answer the five questions satisfactorily. It was voted in as part of the Conservative manifesto by a sizeable majority. However, it was hugely unpopular in practice. It was overturned because the people behind that manifesto felt threatened. If the populate were upset that the mandate weren’t carried through, that could carry over into opinion polls, by-elections or general elections.
Referendums should probably not be used in parliamentary democracies. They are an out for politicians, but part of the reason we have representative democracy is so that we have people full time who are considering this based on their constituency links. People, on the other hand, like Coldplay, voted for Mugabe, and would vote for the death penalty.
If referendums are used, they should be clear. That way the mandate can be rid of by undertaking a straightforward process. If that process doesn’t work, it can be reversed usually. This means the mandate has an end date.