I now think that holding a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union was a mistake. I have, I fear, reached this conclusion far too slowly.
I suspect it was the glamour of it all; the honour of working at the heart of a history-making political campaign that clouded my judgement. I was in the midst of it all a 20-year old that had been given a fantastic first job I was arguably too immature for. That is not to say that it wasn’t anything other than a modest role, but to me it meant the world.
This, combined with occasional television appearances after the result, got to my head a little too much. I should have realised sooner that simply taking part in the referendum would not be enough. It is a matter of head versus heart. The heart looks back with fondness at the privilege of campaigning and the many friends and contacts made.
But the head is nagging me about our constitutional difficulties, ambiguous Brexit options and unstable, incompetent leadership during such a sensitive period. I always try my utmost to allow my head to win these battles. And so in this case I must concede that referendums are not the way to exercise ground-breaking political reform.
It has been quietly obvious for a while now that the real winner of the referendum was in fact David Cameron, who was able to use the result to slip out of government in time and avoid the mess we are now in.
He and his advisors probably saw all of this coming. I predicted as the results were coming through on June 23rd that he would step down as Prime Minister, but, rather naively, did not foresee the obstacles that acting on the result has since faced.
The main problem with last year’s plebiscite was that it did not provide clarity for those like Richard North who supported both Brexit and membership of the single market.
I wish I had taken notice of researchers like him (and indeed his blog eureferendum.com) much earlier than I did. He and his son Pete have yielded answers to complex questions for longer than our media has been able to keep up.
Referenda are binary, usually offered to appease the electorate and are and deliberately oversimplified. The options given lack nuance, ensuring they provide exactly the fertile soil for disruption and chaos. This is why governments tend to support the status quo option.
Our EU referendum created the inevitable problem that, in the event of a Leave vote, which became predictable weeks before polling day, ambiguity over what kind of Brexit its voters would prefer caused poisonous hostility.
Now, a simple way of getting round this would have been to alter ballots in New Zealand-style fashion and ask those voting for Brexit a second question: “Do you think the UK should remain a member of the single market?” Of course, we know what the answer would be if folk were well-informed. Since immigration was the largest single issue aroused by our camp, most would have opted for a single market exit too.
But that is not the point. My point is that a referendum over such a huge issue created a mandate for a policy without a policy. We were left directionless in an uphill battle. And what made it worse was the fact that we had a government responsible for addressing the policy that did not agree with its premise in the first place.
Despite being an exercise in direct democracy, our referendum exposed a sharp disconnect between public opinion and the preferences of those in the Westminster bubble. Referenda are, as I now appreciate more fully, renowned moreso for the constitutional upheaval they generate. Crimea in 2014 is perhaps a more extreme example.
Since signalling for EU departure is the most profound democratic decision made by the British electorate arguably in history, it is no surprise that our politicians can barely organise themselves to adhere to it.
In hindsight, a much more durable alternative to a national poll would have been a clear manifesto commitment, from either of the two major parties, to leaving.
Both Labour and the Tories have more than their fair share of voters wanting out, and any party claiming to be government material must be able to embrace the possibilities that come with legislative repatriation. Yes, upon election, there would still have been the grave difficulties of negotiation, but at least direction and mandates would be more clearly established.
The only reason why neither party dared to do this was because they were (and still largely are) afflicted by the lingering Blairism that for so long prevented them from carrying out policies supported by faithless voters.
David Cameron certainly wouldn’t accept such an inclusion in a Tory manifesto. He is as supportive of the European project as they come. A mutual friend of Dan Hannan and I, and notable Flexcit supporter, once told me that during his years at university, Mr Cameron donned prized cufflinks sporting the EU flag.
And the party’s current stock of leadership contenders isn’t much different, I might add. A referendum may therefore seem like an escape from this problem, but in reality caused many new ones of its own.
Had there been no referendum, significant pressure from Tory party members would have spurned their politicians into action, I am sure of it. I sometimes wonder what the European Commission and fellow member states think of all this. They cannot possibly consider Mrs May to be tough negotiating material. She made far too humiliating a mess of last week’s General Election to be considered so, and only remains in Number 10 thanks to a cynical, gentleman’s agreement from the DUP (who themselves favour what we call ‘soft’ Brexit).
I must also point out here that in no way do I regret my vote or campaigning last year. I am as fervent a supporter of our secession as one can be. I just think that our means of securing that exit were profoundly flawed. And since elections are now heavily influenced by last year’s result, as was expected given how divided we are, it may as well have been a party decision to take us out after all.