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Brexit vote: clear answer to clear question?

[8 Dec 2016] By 316 votes to 53, the House of Commons voted in 2015 to put the UK’s continued membership of the EU to a referendum. The government issued a leaflet to every household (cost: £9.3million) that said: ‘The referendum on Thursday, 23rd June [2016] is your chance to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union.’ It went on: ‘This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.’

Plain Language Commission remains resolutely neutral, of course. But by a majority of about 1.2million in a bigger turnout than most general elections, the people voted ‘Leave’ in response to the only – and very clear – question on the ballot paper, which was: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’

The issues were hotly and thoroughly debated and there was misinformation on both sides, as we reported in Pikestaff 74. Yet at no time did the then prime minister or any other leading light on either side say the vote would be anything but binding. The public answered the question unequivocally, despite being warned of economic Armageddon if they chose Leave. It’s plain that the high level of net legal immigration, roughly 330,000 a year (half from the EU), was a decisive factor to many Leave voters. And since freedom of movement is an EU shibboleth, they knew they were voting to quit the EU single market if the only way of having access to it was to accept free movement.

The clarity of what was said and written to voters has been much considered. The philosopher AC Grayling argues (New Statesman, 3 Nov 2016) that the vote was merely ‘advisory’ and ‘consultative’, citing the House of Commons briefing paper 07212 issued to all MPs in 2015 before they debated the referendum bill. Yet his argument seems flimsy, as the paper itself enjoys only advisory status. Moreover, a word search of the paper and the explanatory note (MPs’ crib sheet) that accompanies the Bill reveals no mention of the word ‘advisory’. Nor is ‘advisory’ used in the Bill, which MPs voted into law as the European Union Referendum Act 2015. Both the Leave and Remain camps made clear in the run-up to the poll that there’d be no going back on the vote. [cont]

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