Unsurprising headline of the week: a banker from Sevenoaks and a pastor from Oldham disagree on the EU

My pal, Jeremy Marshall, recently wrote some thoughts on Brexit. I put the following assessment on twitter:

He sent me this tongue-in-cheek reply back:

As fun as it is to trade silly comments on Twitter, I thought it might be fair to reply properly and explain why I don’t agree with Jeremy (and the points he made with which I do agree). My views on Brexit have been published before. You can read them here, herehere and here. You can search the blog for others. I include the ones I include just to make it clear nothing I am saying here is new but are all points I’ve made at one time or other before.

Let me start with where Jeremy and I agree. First, I am fairly confident that we agree David Cameron was extremely cocky in offering the referendum on the EU in the first instance. There is no doubt he did it to appease the Brexiteers in his party, who had been pushing for it at least since the Thatcher era and particular hard during Major’s tenure. The vote was offered so that he could say to his party that he had offered them the referendum they craved and did so believing there was no way the Leave campaign would win, thus putting the issue to bed. Given his position, it is probably the biggest political miscalculation of the post-war era.

Second, whilst I am not against the fact that we were given a referendum as Jeremy is (which I will come onto in our disagreements), he is right that parliament should have the final say. It is entirely right that those of us who voted to leave were motivated – at least in part – by issues of national sovereignty in the British parliament. Now, there may have been a range of issues on which different people wished we could better exercise our sovereignty [1], but if sovereignty was at issue then it is entirely right and proper for parliament to have a final say on matters that were not directly put to the public. 

Third, Jeremy and I agree that both a second referendum or parliament now unilaterally overruling the first referendum result by keeping us in the EU would be undemocratic. He states:

I don’t think we should have a second vote or that Parliament should simply decide to remain as this to me is anti democratic. Rightly or wrongly we had this stupid and ill thought through referendum and for the sake of democracy (which transcends other arguments) we should (even with gritted teeth) abide by it… we must abide by a democratic vote. Otherwise we risk undermining the vary [sic] basis of our democratic system.

Fourth, Jeremy is also right that there is no better deal to be had. Prior to the referendum, David Cameron was quite clear in the run-up to the referendum that he was negotiating with the EU and it was his deal and stay in or leave everything altogether (which we will come to below again). But the point was clear: there would be no re-negotiation if we vote to leave and no better deal to secure.

And he has evidently been proven right on that point. The people determined Cameron’s negotiation was no good and were all set to leave. Theresa May has since attempted a renegotiation and all sides appear to view her deal as uniquely terrible. There is no better offer on the table and no better deal will be forthcoming. So, to be fair, I agree with Jeremy on more than the one point.

But here is where I disagree. First, though I agree with Jeremy’s view on parliamentary sovereignty, he is wrong to suggest in quoting Stephen Clark that Cameron had no right to insist on implementing the decision. The argument that referenda are merely advisory is a slippery one, for several reasons.

For a start, the referendum was not offered by presidential diktat but was a bill brought before parliament and passed by 544-53 votes on its second reading in the commons. It wasn’t simply something David Cameron decided to do but something parliament assented to do. It is, therefore, unreasonable to suggest that parliament might renege on the result because they actively voted to hold it in the first place.

Most importantly, this means that parliament sovereignly exercised its right to defer the matter to the British people. Parliament abdicated its responsibility to make a decision on our continued membership of the EU and instead asked the people directly to decide, which they did. It is, therefore, an affront both to democracy and parliamentary sovereignty if parliament – having sovereignly decreed the people should decide – revoke that right because the people didn’t decide (in their view) rightly. What is more, all of those in parliament who voted to have the referendum insisted they would abide by its result. This was has been the case with every referendum we ever held (notably the results of which were won on smaller turnouts and, in the case of Welsh devolution, an even finer margin of victory). The argument is, therefore, disingenuous.

Second, I think Jeremy is wrong to suggest that the terms of the referendum weren’t clear. David Cameron said very clearly that we would either be in the EU with his negotiated deal or out of the EU and all its mechanisms. This was repeatedly stated by him and the terms, in or out, were deemed remarkably clear. Out meant out of the single market, out of the customs union, out of ECJ jurisdiction. This was affirmed by the leave campaign. The concept of soft/hard Brexit only ever came into force after the result. The terms were never mentioned prior to the referendum by any side. The only reason for this is that the elites – who overwhelmingly favour remain – arrogantly presumed they could not lose. Then they lost. So now we have people trying to find ways to muddy what was previously, by their own reckoning, crystal clear.

Third, Jeremy is wrong to appeal to the fact that there is no majority of a hard brexit in parliament. As he well knows, there is no majority in parliament for brexit at all! But, as he notes, given parliament themselves voted to give us the referendum, arguing that there isn’t a parliamentary majority for brexit is a false argument because there isn’t a majority who wanted to leave at all. But we have voted to leave as a result of parliament’s abdication of their responsibility.

It would be foolish in the extreme for parliament to vote for something that does not achieve what the British people voted for. Now it may be true that the referendum itself did not set the terms of Brexit, but certain lines in the sand were most certainly drawn. It is evident that leave necessarily meant leaving the EU and its mechanisms. As such, whilst there is a degree of wiggle-room to be had on the kind of Brexit we get, there are certainly parameters. Whilst EFTA would potentially be an option, a Norway-style agreement (including EEA inclusion) wouldn’t because that would link us to certain mechanisms that we were categorically told we would leave should we vote for Brexit. Given, as Jeremy recognises, there is no better deal on the table nor likely to be forthcoming, the parliamentary vote – if we aren’t to undercut democracy – must surely be between May’s deal (which everybody rejects as the worst possible option) or no deal.

Fourth, Jeremy is wrong about the Irish border being a major issue. This issue has been hugely overplayed. For all the talk of the Good Friday Agreement being undermined by Brexit, I think we do well to listen to the man who received a Nobel Peace Prize for implementing it. Former First Minister, David Trimble, said the problems surrounding the border could be sorted out in half an hour. He also said this:


So, there is no doubt the Irish border issue has been overstated.

But the biggest issue of all with Jeremy’s article is that is reduces the whole issue – as has been the mistake of all on the remain side – to mere economics. All talk centres on the deal, which necessarily centres on trade. Now, I don’t think anybody wants to argue that this doesn’t matter at all. But I think it is fair to say that most people were not voting for Brexit out of economic concern.

There is an arrogance (I’m not suggesting Jeremy himself is guilty of this) that suggests people didn’t know what they voted for. Which is interesting that, apparently, the only people who did know what they were voting for happen to be the people voting for remain who, incidentally, agree with the people making the claim. It is a hard also to shake the sense in which the entire remain argument can be boiled down to two things: (1) you can’t trust the plebs; (2) money is all that matters.

But the great irony is that the snarling comments that are so often flung out about parliamentary sovereignty from remainers fails to recognise that maybe some people did vote to make themselves a bit poorer in order to maintain it. I strongly suspect that democracy itself, rather than just parliamentary sovereignty, were the issues at hand for many. As Jeremy writes, parliament should decide and if we don’t like it, we can vote them out 5-years later. Again, many were voting to maintain exactly that right rather than, as those who wish to keep us in the EU for economic reasons argue, not being able to vote out anybody who makes our law in Brussels.

Jeremy makes the startlingly simple (and, in my view, entirely correct) historical point that people gave their lives to defend our parliamentary democracy. It is interesting, then, to hear somebody make that case so passionately and then argue for the right to remain in a supranational organisation (a) that can overrule our parliament; and, (b) which we cannot elect or deselect those who make the laws it imposes.

If we want the right to vote in and out our law-makers, and Jeremy makes an excellent case as to why that is so important, I find it odd then to argue in favour of giving that up for a few extra quid. Outside of London, in places like Oldham, where that love of mammon, exchanging the democratic rights for which some died in favour of an economic deal that doesn’t appear to work to the material good of those in our region, the argument comes across as especially specious. 


  1. I, for example, am not in the least bit troubled by current levels of immigration and would welcome more, not less. My only concern with the freedom of movement is it inherently favours predominantly white Europeans nations and militates against predominantly non-white African and Asian nations in a way that seems somewhat racist.  I would like to see us open the door to the rest of the world rather than merely being open to white Westerners.