“The people are entitled to change their minds”. “The referendum was only advisory”. “They didn’t really understand what leaving the EU meant”.
Week after week the zealots on the Remain side supported by the usual suspects in the establishment repetitively push this mantra all ending with “that’s why we need another referendum!”
The referendum in June 2016 was the highest turnout for any UK-wide vote since the General Election of 1992 and the biggest expression of democratic participation in British history. Ideally, like the Scottish referendum two years earlier, the EU referendum should have been explicitly legally binding. But Parliament explicitly voted for a referendum and stated then that the result whatever it turned out to be would be accepted. So the idea that our parliamentary democracy can simply set aside a victory margin of 3.8% on a turnout of 72% on the basis of legalistic pedantry is clearly beyond absurd. And are the voters entitled to change their minds? Well, again yes, but that doesn’t give authority to the notion that referendums should keep being held until the public return the ‘correct’ result, far from it.
This view is of course combined with the patronising notion that the British public, or at least only those who voted to leave, didn’t understand what they were voting for. This is the one that angers me most. How dare people like Lord Heseltine or Lord Mandelson make such assumptions. If they had spent time, as I did, at huge public meetings in the North of England or down in the South West, they would have heard the determination and sincerity of those men and women who turned up in their thousands to express their reasons for intending to vote Leave. The more now they hear voices from London tell them they were too stupid to know what they were voting for, the more they know how they took the right decision. Those who argue this ignore the main reasons Leave voters gave for voting the way they did, which was above all ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’. It is especially telling that those who want to reverse the referendum result never engage substantively on this point.
The more Leave voters hear voices from London tell them they were too stupid to know what they were voting for, the more they know they took the right decision
Controlling who should come into our country and ending free movement was the second most important reason given, and that remaining a member would mean having no choice ‘about how the EU expanded its membership or its powers in the years ahead’ was the third. All three of these top reasons given intertwine into the one principle of democratic sovereignty - Leave voters wanted powers returned to their fully accountable elected politicians based in the UK. They knew that unlike unelected EU Commissioners, politicians in the UK can be thrown out. The project to reverse a referendum, part-funded by foreign millions, would be laughable if it wasn’t so acutely undemocratic.
It not only flies in the face of the democratic aspirations of the Leave-voting public, but also conveniently sidesteps that most Remain voters, despite their misgivings about potential economic drawbacks, are also rather well disposed to the Leave voters’ reasons. Overwhelmingly, Remain voters accept the result of the referendum and want it implemented as soon as possible. They wisely view the greatest damage to our economic prospects as coming from yet more uncertainty in attempting to overturn the result, via another referendum, which would inevitably bring more instability. This has been my experience in my constituency which had one of the highest votes to remain in the EU in the country. When I talk to those who voted Remain they understand that we have had the debate, Leave won, and now it is in everyone’s interest to get on with it.
So in a year we will see the end of the Article 50 process and will leave the EU’s institutions. Then exactly 48 years to the minute after we joined in 1973, as we celebrate New Year’s Eve at midnight and welcome in 2021, we will finally become a fully independent country once more. I think at that moment this will be something the whole country can get behind and start making it a success. If we want to change our minds about that I’d suggest giving it until at least 2060 before we vote on the European question again. But until then, the job of Labour politicians in particular is to unite behind our leadership and ensure the first government elected after we leave the European Union is a Labour one.
Kate Hoey is the Labour MP for Vauxhall and co-founder of Labour Leave