We’ve been asked to offer some personal reflections, hopefully mediated by scholarly insight, on the UK referendum vote on EU membership. The quotation in my title comes from the rallying cry of the “Leave” campaign. The resonance of that slogan with the claim of Donald Trump to “Make America Great Again” is telling, as both imply a nostalgia, or rather a fantasy, for a lost state: one which is fully “sovereign”, unfettered by international or supranational obligations, freed from the constraints of a liberalised global trading regime whose rules it had been responsible for crafting, and – most significantly – almost entirely free from migrants.
Before the Vote
I voted “Remain” in the UK referendum for all the obvious reasons. Because I believe the EU, for all its faults and its challenges to the “embedded liberal bargain” which many Member States had been able to strike within their national economies, represents the best chance for cross-national solidarity and some defence against unfettered global capital. Because I didn’t want to see the most openly racist political campaign that I can recall since coming to the UK in 1975 as – yes – a migrant, succeed. Because I think the UK’s social and economic ills (the housing crisis, with housing-cost inflation outstripping stagnant wages, the lack of investment in social housing, the prevalence of a high-cost, high-turnover private rented sector; the underfunding of the National Health Service; vicious austerity policies; and the failure to alleviate the devastating social costs of the post-industrial decline) are the fault of elected national politicians not the fault of the EU or of immigrants. Because I would like to hope that the UK could remain a (relatively) open, reflective, socially progressive country.
False Statements and First Impressions
The key legislation governing eligibility to vote and the conduct of elections in the UK, consolidating and replacing earlier statutes, is the Representation of the People Act (RPA) 1983. The European Referendum Act 2015, in Section 4, made provision to incorporate most aspects of electoral law from the RPA 1983 into the referendum process. However, whilst Section 106 of the RPA makes it an offence to make false statements “for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election”, there was no attempt to introduce a false statement offence tailored to the different circumstances of a referendum vote – i.e., where voters are not choosing between candidates, but between different answers to a question.
Opinions vary as to the merits of attempting legislatively to compel a form of “truth in political advertising” – e.g., the risks to freedom of speech and the risk of the judicialisation of politics versus the reality of the weakness of political sanctions and the weakness of the media role in generating informed debate. But it is certainly the case that the absence of any real guidance to voters during a febrile referendum campaign left voters, as Claus Offe notes in this paper, to their own individual means of will formation.
As it was, the Leave campaign blatantly lied about an imminent accession to the EU of Turkey, about the UK’s net contribution, about eurozone bailouts, about the mechanics of trade, about the NHS, about threats to national security, and, of course, about immigration. It was relatively silent about, or downplayed, the impact of a “Leave” vote on the markets, Sterling, the union and the retention of Scotland within that union, the border with the Republic of Ireland, the Gibraltar/Spain border, the frontier at Calais, the need to continue compliance with all EU regulations in order to retain membership of the single market, the ease and impact of negotiating trade deals with non-EU states, the status of UK citizens in other EU states, EU citizens in the UK, acquired rights, and the status of legislation transposed from EU law under the authority of the European Communities Act 1972. They were also dismissive of “experts”: economists, foreign policy analysts, legal scholars and practitioners, historians, other Europeans, and world leaders.