The EU referendum, one year on: public debate

Today is the first anniversary of the EU referendum. To mark this the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative and Political Studies Association have published a collection of essays titled EU Referendum: One Year OnAlan Renwick‘s contribution, focusing on the continuing weakness of public debate around Brexit and how it might be strengthened, is re-produced here. 

This month’s general election was supposed to be about Brexit. In her Downing Street statement on 18 April announcing her intention to seek the dissolution of parliament, Theresa May spoke of little else. She suggested that, without an early election, her opponents would have both the will and the ability to disrupt her efforts to negotiate the best possible Brexit deal. The vote, she hoped, would deliver a secure majority for her favoured Brexit plan.

Brexit’s low profile

In the end, however, Brexit did not dominate. It was mentioned on average 580 times a day in the main UK-wide newspapers in the week following May’s statement. But that fell below 500 for the following two weeks, then below 400 for the four and a half weeks between then and polling day – dipping to just 155 a day in the sixth week of the campaign, immediately following the Manchester bombing. When the BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed the Prime Minister on 22 May, his questions turned to Brexit only in the last few minutes. Interviewing Jeremy Corbyn four days later, he asked nothing directly about Brexit itself, though he did enquire towards the end about immigration. The other main television debates and interviews gave Brexit more attention, but still it did not dominate.

There were at least three reasons for this. One, as just suggested, was the unforeseen and tragic eruption of terror into the campaign caused by the attacks in Manchester and London. This inevitably shifted the agenda towards the terrorist threat. It raised deep questions about both Theresa May’s record on police funding and Jeremy Corbyn’s record of opposition to counter-terrorism legislation and seeming friendship with certain terrorist organisations.

A second reason was the spectacular misfiring of the Tory campaign. Conservative strategists intended to focus on one core message: that Theresa May, not Jeremy Corbyn, was the person to provide the ‘strong and stable leadership’ needed for successful Brexit. But the Conservative manifesto introduced controversial policies – most notably on social care – that distracted attention away from that core message. The Prime Minister’s forced u-turn on social care undermined the credibility of the message. Veteran election watcher Sir David Butler tweeted (sic) that ‘In the 20 general election campaigns I’ve followed, I can’t remember a U-turn on this scale’.

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We’re taking back control – but who’s going to wield it?

katie-ghose

Britain voted to ‘take back control’ from the EU, and Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech made the repatriation of power to Westminster a priority. But it is far from clear what kind of Brexit Britons want, nor how many of these powers will go to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than the UK Parliament. Katie Ghose argues that with direct democracy on the rise, citizens’ assemblies would help people grasp the trade-offs at stake and have a voice in these monumental decisions.

Theresa May has now fleshed out her plans for Britain to leave the EU and become an independent, self-governing nation. With more detail emerging about the economic plan, it’s time to look at the democratic implications.

Serious thinking about democracy can all too often get left behind and the public shut out of these debates, as we’ve seen with English devolution. How our democracy actually takes shape after Brexit goes beyond the two-year negotiating window, and it has to mean the public will have a strong say. After all, given the focus on ‘where power lies’ during the campaign (summed up the powerful slogan ‘take back control’), it would be ironic if this wasn’t a priority.

Theresa May says the vote was about restoring parliamentary democracy by bringing back sovereignty to the UK Parliament. This is uncontroversial – after all, many people identified the issue of laws ‘being made in Brussels’ as part of a more general unease. But it is only part of the picture. The transfer will take place at the same time as the ongoing transfer of powers from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and NI, as well as devolution within England. In other words, it will happen just as power is shifting between and within the nations of the UK – with obvious ramifications for our Union.

People feel a physical remoteness from Westminster, Holyrood and the Senedd, but that distance is knitted into a growing anti-establishment sentiment. So now is an opportunity to capitalise on the positive political interest stimulated by the vote, and convert it into a sustainable mode of political engagement – with genuinely powerful citizens.

So the first question is this: what is the public role in shaping the form of Brexit?

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