Published on June 10, 2016

Whatever the vote, it’s time for something different

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.


This letter in the Guardian, from Professor Giles from the University of Nottingham, highlights the folly of referendums. The challenge he lays down to parliament is to determine what the country is voting for if the result on the 24th June is to leave the EU:

“the referendum question does not specify the range of alternatives to full EU membership should the UK vote to leave.”

During the referendum campaign so far, I have heard four main options being touted for what happens after a no vote:

  • Becoming a member of the European Economic Area (like Norway);
  • Becoming a member of the European Free Trade Association (like Switzerland);
  • Developing a bilateral treaty (like Canada); and
  • The World Trade Organisation model.

This helpful chart outlines these options and their implications.

Given that the referendum question offers no guidance on what ‘no’ voters want to happen after that point, how is Parliament to decide between these four options? Indeed, even those who vote ‘yes’ will have their own views on what should happen in the event of the majority voting to leave the EU. It will be a rare MP who thinks that he or she knows what their constituents want to happen next.

So how is Parliament to determine what voters actually want to happen next?

But the situation is no better in the event of a majority vote to stay. The most recent polls suggest that, whichever way it goes the vote is likely to be very close. Even early on, when there appeared to be a larger majority in favour of remaining in the EU there was never more than 10 points in it.

The country is effectively split down the middle on the question. And this is because, as we come towards the end game it is becoming clearer and clearer that the referendum question hides a much deeper set of questions about how citizens see the future of the UK in the world, what future they want for the country, how they want to be governed and how they balance the trade-offs inherent in the different ways the country can negotiate its relationship with the rest of the world.

It is worth noting that this problem of interpreting what the public actually voted for once a referendum is complete is not just a problem with this EU referendum, it is something that happens nearly every time a referendum has been called.

As a result of the referendum question hiding this much deeper set of issues, whichever way the country votes on the 23rd of June, the question of our relationship to Europe (and the rest of the world) is not going to be settled. The government, the four Parliaments in the Union, and wider civil society need to find a different way to engage with citizens to help everyone develop a clearer idea about what the range of views are about the future of the UK.

This will require real leadership, courage and a willingness to open up a political space in which our leaders listen, actively engage in debate and importantly demonstrate that they are listening by adapting their position based on what they hear. Our leaders have to stop treating the debate about the future of the UK as a binary question of yes to this and no to that. The trade-offs we face are real, the public know this and want our leaders to stop treating them as if they are stupid.

If our leaders fail to engage in this open, genuinely engaging national deliberation, there is a real prospect of a neverendum and an increasingly polarised debate that will damage our democracy, our economy and our standing in the world. A debate of the kind we have seen during the referendum is one in which the only certainty is that the electorate will come to distrust politicians even more.

Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr creative commons

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