Tuesday , March 28 2017
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Stories MPs tell

Summary:
It is not true to say that the UK holds a referendum only when a big constitutional decision has to be made. We hold a referendum when the ruling party has deep internal divisions on an issue which the Prime Minister needs to put to bed. Our first referendum in 1975 was not held on whether we should join the EU (that happened two years earlier), but because the new Labour government was dividedon the issue. Cameron held a referendum to appease those who wanted to leave in his own party. In both cases the rebels did not really believe in some deep right for the people to decide on these issues, but because they knew they could not win in parliament and stood more of a chance in a referendum. There was a key difference between the two referendums. In 1975 it was pretty clear what both

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It is not true to say that the UK holds a referendum only when a big constitutional decision has to be made. We hold a referendum when the ruling party has deep internal divisions on an issue which the Prime Minister needs to put to bed. Our first referendum in 1975 was not held on whether we should join the EU (that happened two years earlier), but because the new Labour government was dividedon the issue. Cameron held a referendum to appease those who wanted to leave in his own party. In both cases the rebels did not really believe in some deep right for the people to decide on these issues, but because they knew they could not win in parliament and stood more of a chance in a referendum.

There was a key difference between the two referendums. In 1975 it was pretty clear what both staying in and leaving meant. In 2016 leaving the EU could mean many things. This was a major weakness: it is like having a referendum on whether taxes should be cut without any information on what bits of government spending would be cut as a result. One of the many mistakes Cameron made was not to force his rebel MPs to come up with a common programme explaining exactly what leaving the EU would mean. As a result, many of the main Leave campaigners assured us it did not mean leaving the Single Market, even though they now say that is inevitable.

Given that, and the uncertainty over what the EU might be prepared to agree to, it is absolutely reasonable to hold another referendum, once the terms are clear, on whether we should accept these terms or Remain. Yet it is noticeable that Leavers are adamant that such a referendum should not be held, and continue to insist that the first vote is all that is required. This shows that they have no real respect for the ‘will of the people’ at all. They have got what they wanted, and want as little democratic interference in how it is done as possible.

The strongest arguments I have heard in recent days from Remain MPs for voting with the government have come from Conservatives. They have said that they promised voters that the referendum would not be advisory but would determine their vote. It is understandable that they would want to keep their promise. But leaving the EU could mean many things. They never promised to give the Prime Minister the right to decide how we leave. It would not be beyond the wit of these politicians to organise with others to vote to stay in the Single Market. As far as I can see no such attempt has been made by these MPs.

Indeed I think future historians will puzzle over this. Given that the referendum was only about leaving and not how to leave, was so close, and the majority of MPs want to Remain, why didn’t parliament simply agree the least harmful way of leaving, which is the Norway style option much discussed before the referendum? Of course that is obviously worse than being in the EU because you lose your right to help decide issues, but to use that as an argument for not doing it is nonsense. It is like deciding you have to go over a cliff edge, and there are two options: scrambling down to a ridge or jumping to the bottom. You note that scrambling would be uncomfortable so decide to jump instead. Or more formally, if A>B and B>C, you don't do C because A>B. 

The arguments of Labour MPs were much weaker. You are under no obligation to represent your constituents, particularly as you know much more about a subject than most of them do. That is not arrogance, but our system of government called representative democracy. One argument I heard was that voters would lose faith in democracy if parliament did not follow their lead. I would turn that around and say it would be a good lesson in what a representative democracy means. And if you respond that voters would not see it that way then you are either arguing that they are too dumb to do so or our media is incapable of making that distinction, both themselves excellent arguments for representative democracy.

In this recent postI included some lines by Winston Churchill on the duties of an MP. I was going to elaborate on that a bit, but the post was already too long, so I did not. Let me do so here. Suppose, for some reason, we had held a referendum in 1936 about whether we should rearm or not. It seems quite likely that the people would have voted No. The Daily Mail will have told its readers how Hitler was our friend, and that his bark was far worse than his bite, but the costs of war were too painful for most. Would we really have wanted MPs, like Winston Churchill to have felt bound by that referendum?

If you say that back then the facts changed, it means you have not taken Donald Trump seriously. To have a remote chance of getting trade deals that could partially compensate from the lack of access to the EU, we need good deals with China, India and the US. China has already said that leaving the EU makes us a lot less interesting as a country to do business with. India wants more freedom of movement of people as part of any deal. Liam Fox now says that is something we should seriously consider, but it is incompatible with the goal that is driving all of May’s actions - reducing immigration. Which leaves the US, which under Trump is focusing on reducing its trade deficit with countries where it runs a large deficit - like the UK. So a deal could be done, but is it likely that we would benefit?

All this means there were plenty of valid reasons for not voting to trigger Article 50, or at the very least of not giving away any chance of determining what sort of Brexit we have. What seems to have swayed too many MPs is the perception that whatever entirely reasonable reason they may have had for not triggering Article 50 right now, the perception would be that they were acting against the ‘will of the people’. 

So much of the Brexit process has been about perceptions of reality rather than reality itself. Perceptions that immigration reduces access to public services, when the opposite is true. Perceptions that leaving the EU would give us more money to spend on the NHS, rather than less as we are now finding out. And perceptions that Turkey was about to join the EU. But above all else, if you believe the Ashcroft findings, a feeling of a loss in sovereignty. Here feeling is not my word, but from the White paper the government released yesterday. To quote (para 2,1):
"Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that."

Now where would all those misperceptions have come from?  
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Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.