What all parties seem to take as read is that the referendum was valid in the first place. I’ve consistently questioned this, and now that healthy desperation and vulgar abuse are finally becoming the prime movers, perhaps it’s time to reiterate my reasons. There are three.
One: the framework.
It’s ludicrous that a simple first-past-the-post majority of those who chose to vote should be allowed to determine such a radically fundamental change to every aspect of the nature of our nation.
Obviously, this question (which is a constitutional one) dates back to way before this particular referendum, but it should have been raised and debated, both in the media and by Parliament, when the 2015 Referendum Bill was being considered. Had it been, I would have supported a proposal that, at the very least, a majority of the electorate should be required in order to achieve a meaningful result.
Two: the legality.
It was falsely presented as a legally binding decision of the electorate. In fact, the enabling legislation does not contain any obligation on the current or any future government to implement the result. This well-researched and seemingly impartial Wikipedia article contains links to that legislation if you want to follow them.
It’s worth quoting in full the relevant paragraph of the article:
‘In accordance with the Act and the public duty of the Electoral Commission, an impartial guide was posted to every household in the UK and Gibraltar in the week beginning of 16 May 2016. The advisory leaflet was titled: "Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK". This leaflet clearly stated: "This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide".’ [my italics]
So the idea that the referendum was in any way binding rests solely on the wording of a government pamphlet.
Three: the question.
This was the subject of much debate, to fairly general public indifference, and they came up with this compromise:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Let’s deconstruct it. Firstly, turn it upside down:
“Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union or remain a member of the European Union?”
Would this simple rewording have influenced an undecided voter one way or the other? I suspect it would. So either way it’s a loaded question.
Secondly, it’s actually a spuriously overloaded question. All that was needed was “Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union?”
And in any case, the word ‘Should’ turns it into an opinion poll, doesn't it?