[NB. This blog was published in June 2015 but pundits have written about it since then so I’ve added some links at the bottom.]
There are three connected questions that add up to some interesting problems for both sides of the referendum debate:
1) Will the Government suggest a second referendum? Offering a second vote would give them the opportunity to reverse a loss in the first, so that YES means victory and NO does not necessarily mean defeat. European governments have held second votes repeatedly over the past quarter century. One can imagine them saying: ‘If the public votes NO we will have to negotiate an exit deal with the EU and we believe that it is only right that the public has a vote on the final deal.’ If it did, it would be likely that Labour would do the same. Perhaps Labour will suggest this and the Government would feel obliged to agree.
2) Should NO demand a second referendum in the hope of forcing the parties to commit to one? One can see why NO might argue for a second vote. It enables NO to make a NO vote seem much less risky. ‘If you vote YES, you won’t get another vote for another 40 years – if ever. You should vote NO to Cameron’s rubbish deal. If you vote NO, you will force a new Government to negotiate a new deal and give you a new vote. A NO vote is much safer than a YES vote.’ Further, as a matter of democratic accountability, given the enormous importance of so many issues that would be decided in an Article 50 renegotiation – a far, far bigger deal than a normal election – it seems right to give people a vote on it.
3) Does NO need to have a unified plan for exit? A Government trying to leave the EU obviously needs an exit plan. The SNP needed an exit plan. But the NO campaign is neither a political party nor a government. It has no locus to negotiate a new deal. Does it need an exit plan, or does that simply provide an undefendable target and open an unwinnable debate for a non-government entity?
A. Creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around seems an almost insuperable task. Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions. An interesting attempt at such a plan is FLEXCIT based on using the EEA as a transition phase – remaining in the Single Market and retaining a (modified) version of free movement – while a better deal, inevitably taking years, is negotiated. This is an attempt to take the Single Market out of the referendum debate. I will discuss the merits of this idea another time when I’ve studied it more.
B. Even if one succeeded, the sheer complexity of leaving would involve endless questions of detail that cannot be answered in such a plan even were it to be 20,000 pages long, and the longer it is the more errors are likely. On top of the extremely complex policy issues is a feedback loop – constructing such a plan depends partly on inherently uncertain assumptions about what is politically sellable in a referendum, making it even harder to rally support behind a plan. Further, in market research I have done it is clear that 15 years after the euro debate the general public know nothing more about the EU institutions than they did then. Less than 1% have heard of the EEA. Few MPs know the difference between the EEA and EFTA or the intricacies of the WTO rules. The idea that the public could be effectively educated about such things in the time we have seems unlikely.
C. There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue. No10 is dusting off its lines from the Scottish referendum. Perhaps they can be neutralised.
‘Different people have different ideas about the best way to leave. For example, some people suggest we should leave the EU but simply remain in the Single Market while we negotiate a new deal. Others have different ideas. Global rules set by the World Trade Organisation provide some guarantees against European countries discriminating against British trade. But none of this is the real point. We are not a Government. We can’t negotiate anything. A NO vote as a simple matter of law does not mean that we leave the EU tomorrow. A NO vote really means that a new government team must negotiate a new deal with the EU and they will have to give us a vote on it. If you want the EU to keep all the power it has and keep taking more power as it has for decades, and you’re happy paying billions to the EU every year instead of putting it into the NHS – then vote YES. If you want to say ‘stop’, vote NO and you will get another chance to vote on the new deal. If the country votes YES, we’ve lost our chance to change anything. We may not get another vote for decades, after we’ve had to bail out euro countries and had another few decades of the EU’s useless and inhumane immigration policy. If the country votes NO, we can force politicians to get us a better deal.’
This approach might allow NO to avoid its biggest problem – the idea that a NO vote is a vote to leave in one jump and is therefore a leap in the dark. It would allow NO to portray YES as the truly risky option. This approach would enable NO to build a coalition between a) those who think we should just leave (about a third) and b) those who dislike the EU but are worried about leaving (about a third) and who may be persuaded that ‘Cameron’s deal is bad and we should try to get a better one but the only way to force this is to vote NO’.
This approach would be based on a legal and political fact: a NO vote would not mean that we had, or immediately would, leave. The day after a NO vote our legal situation would be identical to today: we would remain a member. A NO vote might mean the government is obliged to start negotiating to leave, presumably under Article 50, though many questions arise such as – would the PM have to resign, if not how could he credibly negotiate such a deal, and what about the timing given a 2020 election and it may have to happen with a new PM, etc? What a NO vote really means would depend upon what the political parties say they will do and this remains unclear as these issues have not been explored yet.
There is no clear answer to these problems. The conundrum is inherent in the fact that those who want to change our relationship with the EU are operating in a very hostile environment. Campaigners forced David Cameron to have a renegotiation and referendum instead of focusing efforts on building a national movement that could be used by a leader who actually wanted to leave and could therefore do it in an optimal way.
But – we are where we are, the referendum is going to happen. How to maximise chances of avoiding disaster?
Expanding the debate to consider a second negotiation and a second referendum offers potential advantages. It also has potential disadvantages. But as a matter of fact a NO vote does not mean we would immediately leave and it seems likely that the parties will be forced by public opinion to offer a second vote, and therefore this could be turned to the advantage of NO. There is no escape from the fact that ending the legal supremacy of EU law is an extremely complex enterprise, unravelling decades of legislation, legal judgements, and practice. There is no scenario in which all the problems caused by the EU can be solved in one swift stroke.
I have not reached any conclusion. These are the sort of things that need to be discussed BEFORE a NO campaign launches officially. In the euro campaign we pursued Sun Tzu’s maxim – ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of war’ so we tried to stop a referendum happening. The situation now is different and much more dangerous. In such a situation, going along with the conventional wisdom could easily mean losing in a conventional way. The current landscape means the NO side faces disaster if it loses but no victory even if it wins. In such circumstances, it is wise to consider ways to reshape the landscape.
To those who say these discussions should happen only in private, I strongly disagree. Much about a campaign has to remain secret but these big questions are necessarily part of public debate. A decade has been largely wasted. These big things must be confronted now in parallel to establishing a professional campaigning organisation and public discussion raises the probability of the NO campaign getting things right.
Please leave comments / corrections etc below.
Ps. There is also the issue of what happens with the euro and a new IGC/Treaty. It is likely there will have to be one, the Monnetists want one, and they always see disasters in Leninist fashion as ‘beneficial crises’. So there is also the prospect of a UK government being forced to have another referendum on a future Treaty. One way or another, the first referendum is unlikely to be the end of the matter. It takes a long time to correct a huge historical error, if it can be done at all.
Ps2. [Added 28 June.]
In the Sunday Times, 28 June, Tim Shipman writes re Boris reading the above:
‘Boris Johnson is preparing to call for a “no” vote in Britain’s referendum on the European Union in an attempt to extract greater concessions from Brussels than David Cameron is demanding.
‘In a stance that puts him on a collision course with the prime minister, the mayor of London believes Britain should reject any deal Cameron puts forward because the EU will not give enough ground.
‘Johnson has told friends that a “no” vote is desirable because it would prompt Brussels to offer a much better deal, which the public could then support in a second referendum.
‘Johnson said: “We need to be bold. You have to show them that you are serious.”
‘The mayor’s views, shared with friends last week, will send shockwaves through Downing Street. Both the “yes” and “no” camps had assumed that he would support Cameron in arguing for Britain to vote yes.
‘Johnson made the comments after reading a blog by Dominic Cummings, the former Tory aide who is organising the “no” campaign, in which he argued that Eurosceptics should say: “If you want to say ‘stop’, vote no and you will get another chance to vote on the new deal.”
‘A friend of the mayor said: “I don’t think in his heart Boris wants us to walk away. But he’s interested in us saying no because it won’t be what we want. That would mean a second vote. He thinks the only way to deal with these people is to play hardball.” …’
15 October 2015
Three columnists have written about this blog today.
They all have interesting points that I’ll answer when I have some time.
NB. Fans of Colonel Boyd…