Nick Cohen

Ireland’s referendum was nothing like the Brexit vote

Ireland's referendum was nothing like the Brexit vote
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The wags of the right have been chuckling since the Irish electorate voted to legalise abortion. Ha, ha, ha, they cry, look at all those liberals. They deplore the Brexit referendum result and seek to have it overturned but are whooping with delight at the – wait for it – referendum result in Ireland. Here is Mark Littlewood of an Institute of Economic Affairs that is blocking its ears to the economic consequences of Brexit.

Am already looking forward to a second referendum in Ireland on abortion to make doubly sure that the electorate really did know what the the hell they were voting for. Am hoping Gina Miller will litigate to force a re-run.

— Mark Littlewood (@MarkJLittlewood) May 26, 2018

And here is Matthew Goodwin, an academic whose attention seeking has become so desperate, I should call the Daily Mail comment desk and beg it to put the poor chap out of his misery by giving him a fill-in column.

Referendums are suddenly back in fashion, not least among those who have spent the past two years trying to discredit one

— Matthew Goodwin (@GoodwinMJ) May 27, 2018

After you have picked yourself off the floor and hugged your aching sides, it is worth thinking about why the Irish referendum was nothing like the Brexit vote. If you can grasp the differences, you will understand why Britain will be lost in a mire with no way out well into the 2020s.

The easy retort that the Irish are entitled to change their mind – and so are we – only takes you so far. The real difference is between the seriousness of the two campaigns and the level of respect for voters shown by the combatants. The Irish government trusted its electorate and gave it the information to make an informed decision. The Brexit campaign did not and, as we shall see, could not.

No one in Dublin can dispute what repealing the 8th amendment means. Before the vote the government set out precisely what legislation would follow a Yes victory. For instance, any woman could have an abortion if a medical practitioner 'certifies that, in his or her reasonable opinion formed in good faith, the pregnancy concerned has not exceeded 12 weeks'. There would be a three-day cooling off period after permission was granted so women did not rush into a decision they might later regret. After 12 weeks, the law would become far tighter and, in essence, abortion would be allowed only if a pregnant women’s health was in danger.

Nothing of the sort happened with the Brexit campaign. It never produced a document setting out what a vote for Brexit would mean. There were all kinds of – and I am afraid this is the gentlest way I can put it – lies about £350 million for the NHS and Turkey being poised to send us millions of migrants, but on the specifics – nothing. Legislators turning to 2016 for answers on what to do about the Irish border, the Galileo satellite, digital and financial services, the transition period, customs union and single market cannot find anything resembling a manifesto.

The failure to be specific had enormous propaganda advantages. Vote Leave and Leave.EU could attack without needing to defend. They offered no proposals the other side could pick apart. In 2015, Dominic Cummings, who went on to head Vote Leave, rebelled against the idea that he and his friends should make an offer to the public. A government trying to leave the EU needed a plan. ‘But the NO campaign is neither a political party nor a government.’ If it were to present concrete proposals, it risked providing ‘an undefendable target’ and ‘open(ing) an unwinnable debate’.

Better to win sleazily than lose honourably, in other words, not least because, as Cummings went on to admit, ‘Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions’. Even if Vote Leave had levelled with the public and taken the risk of explaining what voting Out meant, other Brexiters would have attacked it, and the precarious alliance of the wilfully ignorant and happily deluded would have fallen apart.

As a referendum tactic, vagueness was a masterstroke. No one can deny it. But as a political strategy that could turn Brexit into the settled will of the nation, it was a disaster. I said earlier that the Irish were free to reopen the abortion question, but no one believes they will. Barring a wave of primitive religious revivalism sweeping the country, the question is settled because the Irish government made sure that the electorate knew what it was voting for or against. An anti-abortionist will not be able to say ‘ah, but the referendum only really authorised terminations if a woman was raped’. It seem to me to be perfectly fair for an opponent of Brexit to say ‘ah but we voted to leave the EU not to cut our links to the single market.’ The Leave campaign refused to emulate a political party and offer a programme, and is now suffering the consequences. Every day you hear its supporters trying to argue that the referendum meant this or that. They cannot, however, prove their case.

It’s not just the Remain side who are sifting through the wreckage left by a hit-and-run propaganda attack. Cummings was right to say that Eurosceptics were divided, and so they remain. Arron Banks and Nigel Farage are already peddling a Brexit betrayed stab-in-the-back myth, and it is only a matter of counting the days until we witness unscrupulous and ambitious Tory politicians join them in cultivating England’s own Dolchstosslegende.

The abortion debate is over in Ireland. Brexit, the most monumental waste of time in modern British history, will eat up our energies and divert our attention for as far ahead as anyone can see.