What does it mean to ‘respect’ the Referendum of the 23rd June, 2016?

By Gerard Delanty

The notion that the outcome of the Referendum of the 23rd June 20916 must be ‘respected’ has been much stated by politicians. This is now as likely to come from the otherwise sealed lips of Labour MPs as from the Tory proleave MPs. But what does it mean? To respect something is not necessarily to say one agrees with it. The fact that 17million people voted to leave the EU is certainly something to respected in the sense of taken seriously. However the fact that 16 million voted in the opposite direction is also to be respected. And, what about those disenfranshised? Are there views not to be respected? Should one respect something that causes harm? In short, respecting someone or something does not tell one what to do. That can be arrived at only by deliberation and reason.

Now, that is exactly what the Act that enabled the referendum intended. As is well now known, and despite the attempts of the government to conceal it, the referendum was advisory, which means that the outcome had to be adjudicated.  There is nothing in the Act that required it to be implemented. To regard it as a simple contest that can be won by a single vote is an obfuscation of the facts of law and of democracy.

This raises another aspect of respect: the government is required to respect the integrity of parliament. Yet, we have an authoritarian Prime Minister who has made strenuous efforts in the courts to deny parliament the right to deliberate the outcome of the referendum. The outcome of the referendum has been instead declared to be clear when it is evident to everyone that it was indecisive. The ‘people’ have not spoken. Of those who could vote and chose to do so, half voted one way; half another way. Neither side won.

The case has not yet been made that the 3.8% lead that Leave had over Remain is decisive. The fact is that this is a small majority and could be called the tyranny of the majority where it not in reality a minority, in two senses of the term: a minority of the electorate (32 per cent) and a minority of the population (c 18%). The argument does not hold that a simple majority is sufficient for the implementation of an advisory referendum result, since a referendum is not like an election. Rather than address this issue and have open discussion and a free vote in parliament, MPs of all shades prefer to repeat the same vacuous slogans of ‘respect the outcome’; ‘respect the will of the people’; ‘respect the decision of the UK’. As is well known in politics, if you repeat the same slogan it comes to take on a reality of its own and people will eventually believe that it is self-evident. Labour MPs in particular will pay a heavy price for their naive resignation with what is a new project of neo-liberal globalisation disguised by shallow rhetoric.

As they squirm in their seats, Labour MPs are allowing the executive to escape the scrutiny of parliament. Why? One reason is that they if May fails to invoke A50 and proceed with her ‘globalisation for everyone’ project there will be a general election that will disseminate Labour.  Labour MPs need to put the interests of the country first and see that what needs to be respected is the integrity of parliamentary democracy. This has yet to be put to the test.

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About g.delanty@sussex.ac.uk

Professor of Sociology and Social & Political Thought, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK
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