Published on June 22, 2016

After the referendum, what happens next?

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.

4391337886_576f35ecef_zIt’s the day before the EU referendum and the vote is still too close to call. It genuinely could go either way. Indeed, at this point, the only thing that it is possible to say with any certainty is that the debate has not helped the UK to reach a shared vision for the future of the UK.

Indeed, as my colleague Harry wrote this week,  instead what it has done is expose fundamentally different visions for the future of the country. Nothing short of a landslide victory by either Remain or Leave will provide a clear answer as to which vision the country wants to follow. Given the polls, this seems so unlikely as to be not worth factoring into any attempts to answer the question, “what happens next?”

As I pointed out in my own post last week, this question is further complicated by the fact that, if the country does vote to leave the EU, two  further, directly related questions are immediately raised; what kind of Brexit do Leave voters expect, and what new relationship with Europe do Remain voters want given that the referendum result has set the country on a path out of the European Union?

A positive result for remain doesn’t leave our leaders, or voters, in a much stronger position. In this eventuality, we can expect well over 40% of the votes to be cast for Leave.

Whether the result is Remain or Leave, we are a country where the two broad sets of views about the future relationship of the UK to the world are split nearly evenly down the middle. This division is likely to be between the four nations, and within them, though particularly with England.

So, it’s clear that, whichever way the vote goes, this divide will not miraculously disappear. If the leaders of the winning side act as if it has then we will further exacerbate the obvious distrust that a significant proportion of the population have for politicians, our electoral process and the way our democratic institutions take account of their views.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, the worry is that this will increase the distrust further and lead to significant instability in the future. So, whatever happens after the referendum, it cannot be business as usual. But we are in uncharted territory and there’s no obvious model to follow which points to what should happen next.

There isn’t a magic bullet that will solve the problems that the referendum has so clearly uncovered. However, it is clear to me that there are a number of things that must happen if the foundations of the solution are to be securely laid.

Firstly, the leaders of both sides of the debate must:

  • be gracious in defeat and humble in victory; they must acknowledge that if the answer is to remain, it will not answer the concerns of Leave voters, and vice versa; and
  • move out of campaigning mode and into active listening mode; they must listen to, and engage with, the important issues and concerns raised by the other side. They must not continue with the exciting (for them) cut and thrust of claim and counter-claim that has dominated the referendum campaign.

The voice of civil society has been almost completely absent from the debate. Partly that is because of the nature of the campaign and its relentless focus on the two issues the two sides think will win them the vote; the economy and migration. It has been nearly impossible for civil society organisations with a view to get their voices heard.

However, there is a deeper problem highlighted in an excellent blog post by Jeremy Taylor of National Voices. In this post he reflects on why civil society organisations in the health sector haven’t taken a position in the debate, despite the dire impact on the NHS that has been predicted by both the Leave and the Remain campaigns if the vote goes against them.

So, there is a clear role for civil society leaders, who must:

  • reflect deeply and openly about the role they have played in the debate. Has their absence from the debate created space for more uncivil voices to dominate? Would their engagement at grassroots level have helped bring more nuance and greater detail to a debate dominated, as I said above, by only two issues?
  • engage actively with the Charity Commission to develop a more sensible perspective about the role that charities can play in political campaigns on decisions that will have a profound impact on their mission.

What does all this mean in practice? All our work demonstrates that, if the space is constructed correctly, and the debate framed effectively, the public add immense value to the public debate and public policy. By handing the decision to the public through a referendum our political leaders demonstrated that they understand this and have faith in the public to make the right choice.

They now need to take the next step and acknowledge that the referendum has energised the debate, but not answered it. They must commit to continued active, open and transparent engagement with citizens on the issues raised during the referendum.

One way of doing this would be by coming together in the first few weeks after the result and publicly recognising the competing visions that have been so starkly highlighted during the referendum. They should commit to holding a citizens constitutional convention within six months.

Nothing short of a significant opportunity for citizens to shape the decisions about the UK’s place in the world will help to provide a more shared vision of our future. We certainly can’t carry on with politics as usual.

Photo credit: Prayitno, Flickr Creative Commons

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