The trouble with plebiscites is that they leave the plebs stranded. A complicated issue is reduced to one question: should we leave the EU, yes or no. Nowhere on the ballot does it ask whether we should leave the single market or currency union, crash into the WTO without trade agreements with the rest of the world, or tear up employment protections. There is just the deceptively simple question. It provides no guidance to which of the thousands of possible futures we could chose when it is answered.
The Leavers might have interpreted the referendum result as meaning Britain should embrace the Norway model; and pay the price for staying in the single market by accepting free movement. They might have interpreted the vote as meaning we should stay in the Customs Union, as we do not have the trade negotiators to cut new deals with half the planet. The world does not owe Britain a living, after all, and will want as large a slice of our industry as it can take. As Donald Trump’s advisor Wilbur Ross said, the UK's withdrawal from the EU was a ‘God-given opportunity’ for London's financial rivals.
Instead, the government has decided that vote leave meant vote hard Brexit. Philip Hammond is now saying Britain might become an Atlantic Singapore. He told Welt am Sonntag that if Britain was left closed off from European markets, it would consider abandoning the European-style social model, with ‘European-style taxation systems, European-style regulation systems’ and ‘become something different’.
‘We could be forced to change our economic model, and we will have to change our model to regain competitiveness. And you can be sure we will do whatever we have to do.’
We were not told Brexit would mean tearing up worker, environmental and consumer protections. On the contrary, the vote was meant to be a chance for the ‘left behind’ to ‘take back control’ of their lives. Hammond is now saying, or at least threatening, that control will pass to employers who can break free of ‘European-style’ restrictions on how they treat their workforce and corporations, who can break free of safety and environmental standards, and see their tax bills slashed. In the name of taking back control, ordinary people will lose what protections they have, and see the corporate tax take for public services fall.
EU labour protections are significant. They guarantee paid holidays, and childcare. They forbid discrimination against employees on grounds of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. When some of us tried to warn that Brexit would give the Tories the right to tear them up, we were denounced as liars misleading the public in the service of ‘project fear’. Andrea Leadsom and Gisela Stuart huffed indignantly in the Times in June that it was a ‘scare’ to suggest ‘there will be a bonfire of employment regulations after Brexit’ and the fat cats of industry will be ‘allowed to run free’.
Now it appears we may become a low regulation, low tax country where we bend the knee to every oligarch and asset stripper who wants to move here. The plebs may or may not get control of immigration from the plebiscite. But they will find control of their rights and lives slipping ever-further from them.
So here is the first problem with plebiscites. You only get the one vote, and there are no follow up questions. You might object that Leave won, and is entitled, like any other victor in British parliamentary politics, to govern and be judged by the electorate at the next election. But, and here is the second trouble with plebiscites, who is there to hold to account? The Tories in Vote Leave and Ukip supporters in Leave.EU made the promises about Brexit. When they won, they dissolved. Hammond and May, who voted to Remain, are leading the government. They are under no obligation to keep promises about Brexit made by others. Indeed, one assumes that, if they were sincere in June, they would keep us in the EU if it were up to them. Rather than being recognisable British politicians, they are almost civil servants carrying out a policy they regard as mistaken.
So here is the second problem with plebiscites: we have a government which is taking a dangerous position on trade that may threaten our jobs and living standards, and is threatening to take an ultra-conservative position on workers rights and corporate power, in the name of ‘the people,’ whose permission they did not seek, and because of a referendum, whose outcome they deplore.