Was the 2016 Brexit referendum binding on parliament or the government? Answer: No.

“European Union Referendum Bill 2015-16
  1.   Types of referendum

“This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions. The referendums held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1997 and 1998 are examples of this type, where opinion was tested before legislation was introduced. The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented, unlike, for example, the Republic of Ireland, where the circumstances in which a binding referendum should be held are set out in its constitution.”  [My emphasis — BLB]

— House of Commons Briefing Paper number 07212, 3 June 2015
Note:  The same point is made emphatically in a Guardian article of  June 2016, just before the referendum, at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/23/eu-referendum-legally-binding-brexit-lisbon-cameron-sovereign-parliament.  The fact that David Cameron committed himself (and presumably his party) before the referendum to acting on its result says more about Mr Cameron than about the legal status of the referendum;  and in any case within hours of the announcement of the referendum result, Mr Cameron had resigned.  His promise is now of purely historic interest, and anyway nothing that he said before or after the referendum could have bound parliament when the referendum itself was not legally binding.  It was not “a decision by the British people,” as the Brexiteers, ever casual about the truth, constantly assert.  It was an expression of the views of the slim majority of those who voted, demonstrating only that public opinion on the issue was almost evenly divided.  Parliament and the government were absolutely free to decide how to proceed in the light of it, and they still are.

A European parliament briefing paper about the implications of Article 50, at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/577971/EPRS_BRI(2016)577971_EN.pdf 
is also worth reading.

Is it really too late to stop this lunacy?

2 August 2017

5 Responses

  1. Peter Martin says:

    I don’t believe it would be too hard to get a majority for staying in the EU, but there would have to be some significant concessions from the EU. The UK has always offered concessions when its unity has been threatened but this doesn’t seem to be the EU way. I haven’t heard that anything at all might be on offer to keep the UK in the fold.

    It’s possible that there could be a new referendum after no concessions, and even that the UK electorate would be sufficiently scared of the consequences of leaving  to crawl back into the EU with a worse deal than the one we had.

    This would be a disaster and a recipe for civil unrest IMO.

  2. Acilius says:

    The referendum was a paradoxical idea from the start. Leave was always going on about the importance of Britain’s constitutional traditions, traditions which most definitely do not include referenda.

  3. William Spurgeon says:

    I think the EU is prepared to make concessions – in fact, it made concessions to Cameron on migrants’ benefits when he negotiated with the EU before the referendum (despite probably being sick to the teeth with him by that stage) but he was unable to ‘sell’ the deal he got to the British people and, above all, to the Tory press, which by that time was firmly against him.

    The emergency brake was a distinct possibility then and other EU countries are, in fact, applying brakes on benefits for EU migrants similar to those that the UK has been calling for.

    It would be perfectly possible to get yet more concessions from the  EU, which is probably not keen to lose a net contributor to its budget.

    I don’t think the EU will make concessions unless the UK convinces its negotiators that we seriously want to stay, however, so the real question is whether Labour can convince its members that the EU is worth staying in and start educating on the benefits of EU membership. The New European is worth reading in this regard, as it makes sensible arguments for staying in the EU and provides a good balance to the anti-EU bias of the tabloids (with the notable exception of the Mirror). The FT and even the Guardian are probably too resigned to EEA membership as the only solution (though that would, indeed, be better than nothing and has the advantage of ‘respecting’ the referendum).


  4. Kevin Jones says:

    Cameron was dead meat by the time he tried to get concessions from the EU and May is going about things in the wrong way too. Can’t see how this government is going to get any credibility from the EU. Maybe same problem with Corbyn …?

  5. Peter Martin says:

    I suppose the key concession would have to be on freedom of movement. By far the majority of people in the UK believe that most EU migrants come here to work and not for social benefits. So the EU concessions on that point were beside the point and had little bearing in the public discussion last year.

    But wanting to come here to work isn’t considered by most, to be a good enough reason in itself. Remainers and Leavers alike voted on balance. Whichever way they chose,  they did on the whole, want the UK government to have the ability to prevent the entry of anyone, and even set quotas, without the need for explanation,  if if was felt it was in the National interest to do so.

    That’s a red-line, I know, for EU but so it is for most of the population. A EEA type solution isn’t, therefore, going to be generally acceptable.