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The case for ignoring the referendum


The fallout from not respecting the result of a dubious EU referendum would be less ruinous than jumping into the void.

While it is practically impossible for anyone to correctly predict the long-term consequences of an issue as complex as the intended British exit from the European Union, it is quite attainable to make fairly accurate predictions regarding the likely effects of a sudden withdrawal from an interwoven, supranational construct which has dominated all its members’ histories for decades. For this reason, it seems reasonable to reflect on the gloomy forecasts made by pretty much everyone whose expertise centres on political, economic, sociological or historical issues, and who all agree: for Britain to leave the European Union at this point in time is at best risky, and at worst calamitous. Add to that the roots and nature of the referendum, and not paying heed to its outcome may become a sensible proposition.

This is not to say that there aren’t reasons to be sceptical of the European Union: critics rightly point out the deeply undemocratic nature of the institution – all the crucial decisions are made by a small, appointed group of administrators whose decisions directly affect more than 500 million Europeans. It is thus little wonder that the EU is widely perceived as – and rejected for – being intrinsically authoritarian, and whilst the occasional honeypot in the form of equal mobile-phone roaming charges or the free movement of people do make our lives better, they do nothing to change the potential threat to democracy arising from an unelected office which has already displayed a tendency to impose rigid, standardised and homogenised policies on a small, but hugely diverse continent, with no respect for individual nations’ culture and history – but in spite of all that, in a situation that does not allow an actor to be selective, one has to be pragmatic, bite the bullet and go with the least damaging option, which in this case constitutes a deeply flawed European Union.


Why was the referendum called in the first place? Prior to June 2016, the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, had unsuccessfully tried to balance the two different currents within his Conservative Party – the pro-European one and the Eurosceptics. The latter gained influence partly as a result of the emergence of the UK Independence Party in the early 90s, a group that has largely consisted of disgruntled, insular former Tories. This party, under the leadership of Nigel Farage, fared pretty well at times, and gained large numbers of traditionally Conservative voters, which meant that the Tory mainstream has been forced to pander to that sentiment in order to remain a leading political force. After Cameron’s failed attempts to re-negotiate the terms of the UK’s membership with the EU and approaching a general election in 2015, he finally announced a referendum for the following year, in the firm belief that the country would vote to remain; this would have given his government a licence to safely ignore the substantial part of the political landscape that has advocated leaving the bloc. Theresa May, herself very much a Remainer until the vote, has since (rather unconvincingly) embraced leaving the EU, establishing herself as a pro-Leave hardliner and talking tough to the Continent, although the general election of 8 June and the present course of the negotiations in Brussels have somewhat restrained this stance. Cameron announced this political gamble at high stakes and with few thoughts about the disaster an undesired result will spell, but the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU is of such multitudinousness as to make it doubtful whether it’s wise to dispense with the principle of representative democracy in favour of a clumsily feigned belief in direct democracy; the referendum was held for party-political reasons, not in the national interest or out of “respect for the will of the people”, and the current political instability is therefore a direct result of irresponsible leadership.

In addition to the problems posed by the shady nature of the referendum, there is the much more important issue of what a divorce from the EU at this stage means against the background of Britain’s future role in the world, with the country, no longer having any influence within one of the world’s most important political and trading blocs, being dependent on countries like China and Donald Trump’s US, a country now run by a president whose statements and actions expose such a complete lack of understanding of world affairs that they scare even the representatives of the Western liberal-capitalist establishment, despite his membership of the moneyed class. If you think TTIP is bad, imagine being at the mercy of such individuals minus the, admittedly limited, protections the EU offers; it would be the economic equivalent of Theresa May’s political deal with the bronze-age DUP, also a self-imposed problem created by an inapt leadership and another example of unforeseen and undesirable recent incidents.

Predictions of negative economic implications are so bleak precisely because they are so difficult to make; hence the belief that it would be very unwise to abandon the safety net provided by pan-European solidarity in the wake of a major recession and ahead of a hazy future. In this context, it is of some significance that no-one save Theresa May and the negligible number of allies who still support her appear to be willing to cooperate with Donald Trump (some leaders have already distanced themselves in very clear – and highly unusual – terms); however, with the thoroughly unnecessary antagonism that is a result of this referendum as well as the Prime Minister’s subsequent posturing, there are few partners left who could potentially enable Britain to continue to play a role in the world that isn’t that of a subordinate. The current US administration’s demonstrably and undisputedly bungling character makes it morally, economically, politically and strategically problematic for any enlightened and self-respecting country to enter a future of hand-holding with Trump’s US. That may change with a change of leadership in Washington, but this, too, is utterly unpredictable and a speculation no nation can afford.

The major political parties (with the notable exception of the Liberal Democrats under Tim Farron, who has expressed some devotion to remaining despite the result, but resigned a few weeks ago) insist that the outcome of the referendum must be respected. Ignoring it would obviously create problems of themselves; the reason both the Tories and the Labour Party intend to go through with it is, of course, the backlash such disregard would inevitably produce. It would be an act of openly undermining a democratic decision, further empowering malign political forces and aggrandising dangerous, seditious fringe movements, whilst also further reducing people’s confidence in the political system, in which participation is already low (despite a significant increase in turnout at the last election, the overall number of active voters is still slim compared to the 1950s and 60s). That said, the repercussions would still be quantifiable, and it seems unlikely that any serious, long-term disruption to state affairs would be inflicted.

The same cannot be said of the consequences of a British exit from the EU. While history shows us that growing apathy can be precarious, all signs point to the certainty that a headlong exit from the European Union would be a perilous act unprecedented in scale, making Britain wholly dependent on malevolent and avaricious and spiteful individuals and organisations from outside of Europe (this invalidates one of the many impulsive and unconsidered arguments from the Leave-campaign: if you remove Europe’s influence from Britain, it will simply be replaced by someone else’s – either way, there will be no “independence” of the sort that childishly nostalgic Ukippers yearn for).

None of this is to say that there could never be any questions on which it makes sense to hold a referendum: cases of reversible, short-term policies regarding certain customs or laws should, in fact, be presented to the public more frequently. However, when it comes to matters of vast complexity, whose conclusions are irrevocable, decisions should always be made by those who understand them best (i.e. people who are in a position of power for that very reason). Most responsible politicians know this, although political necessity prevents them from saying so publicly. The simple reason for this state of affairs is that public opinion on such issues is too easily influenced by demagogues with simplistic answers to complicated questions, whom conscientious leaders are supposed to protect us from.

Ignoring the referendum would be an unusual and radical thing to do, but these are exceptional and critical times. Crumbling consensuses, weakened elites, a disturbing trend away from liberal values throughout the Western world and a simultaneous strengthening of reactionary regimes elsewhere, various unlikely conflicts, unprecedented inequality everywhere, already-devastating climate change, a renewed rise of the nuclear threat, escalating terrorist activities, proliferating cyber attacks and economic uncertainty are all factors that should make any nation think twice about leaving a union which, for all its flaws, at least provides some degree of security and reassurance, as well as vital cooperation at all levels.


There have been calls for a second referendum. Current surveys suggest that the outcome could be different next time; public opinion has shifted considerably recently, and every day there is another prominent Leave-voter expressing his regret. Nevertheless, there is (again) no guarantee that a popular vote will yield the desired result, and if we’ve reached a point where referendums are held merely to legitimise what we believe is the right thing to do rather than represent the fluctuating mood of the day, we might as well not hold them at all. Instead, the offer from Merkel, Macron and Tusk to remain a member after all should be embraced; exiting should be declared unfeasible and lessons of responsibility by those in government should be learnt. That can’t be done, you say? Consider the string of unlikely world events over the past year. Weirder things have happened.

Ferdinand Warg