There’s nothing ambiguous about the Leave vote: the only way for the UK to be independent of government by Brussels is to leave the Single Market and Customs Union.
There’s a mantra repeated among the pro-EU response to the independence referendum which claims that the result of the EU referendum is ambiguous – that the vote doesn’t give the government a mandate to pursue a ‘hard’ or ‘clean’ Brexit, which typically just means that Britain would leave the Single Market and/or the Customs Union.
The government has responded to this argument with an alternative mantra: the people had their say. This evades the argument rather than answering it. The whole point of the ‘ambiguity argument’ is that we do not know what the people said.
“Voting for departure is not the same as voting for a destination. Yes, a narrow majority voted to leave the EU, but the leave campaign had no plans, no instructions, no prospectus and no vision. No one in this Government, no one in this House and no one in this country has any idea of what the deal the Prime Minister will negotiate with Europe will be—it is completely unknown. How, then, can anyone pretend that this un-discussed, unwritten, un-negotiated deal in any way has the backing of the British people?” (Hansard, 1/2/17, vol 620, col 1046).
The power of the argument is plain to see. If it’s true that no one knew what ‘leave’ meant, the British people cannot be said to support one thing or another. It means we cannot rely on the referendum. If ‘leave’ is meaningless, so is the vote to ‘leave’.
On this line of thinking, the government does not have a mandate for any course of action. Far from implementing the will of the people, the government is imposing its own will on the people. This is a serious accusation.
So, Farron and co. infer, the only way to discover what the people really want is to hold a second referendum. By telling people that the government has hijacked the referendum on flimsy grounds, the ambiguity argument threatens to nullify the vote, de-legitimise Brexit, destroy trust in democracy and foment resentment.
The result of the referendum was very clear – clearer than most elections.
To see why the ambiguity argument doesn’t work, let’s unpack its logic. According to Mr Farron and his collaborators, membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union is perfectly compatible with leaving the EU.
But if we stay in these supra-national bodies:
EU law will still supersede UK law;
the Court of Justice will still override all UK courts;
the EU parliament will be superior to the UK parliament;
we will have to accept the four freedoms, including unlimited immigration from European countries;
we will have no control over our tariffs;
we will not be able to conclude, even negotiate, free-trade agreements with any state;
and, finally, we will be subject, whether we like it or not, to various future EU laws, policies and further integration which can be achieved without revising the treaties (the CJEU is particularly good at achieving integration without asking anyone).
And that, says Tim Farron, means we will have ‘left’ the EU.
But this arrangement is more or less what we have now – minus the voting rights.
When Irish nationalists wanted to leave the UK, did they mean that the Imperial Parliament should continue to legislate for them? That Irish institutions be subservient to British institutions? That Irish voters be out-voted by British voters? When Palestinians seek to break away from Israel, or Tibetans from China, or even Flemings from Belgium, do they mean to maintain the supremacy of the jurisdiction they are quitting over their own governments?
At the very least then, even if ‘leave’ means ten different things, there is one thing it cannot possibly mean: ‘soft’ Brexit, staying in the Single Market and Customs Union.
But really, we can say what ‘leave’ does mean.
It is trite to say that when you join a club, you agree to abide by its rules. But it is equally trite that when you leave a club, the rules no longer bind you. True, we do not know what you plan to do with the rest of your life. But one thing we do know: that you no longer accept the club’s jurisdiction. And therein lies the rub. To leave the EU means not to be bound by EU law – not to be under its supremacy, dominion, jurisdiction, authority, or control (to use a key word from the campaign).
There are many words to describe this liberation but it all amounts to the same thing: to leave the EU is not to be subject to the EU. Not a single leave voter intended the UK to still be subject to the EU.
Once we grasp that leaving means ‘not being subject to the EU’, everything falls into place.
It was not necessary for the Leave campaign to have an immigration policy or a trade policy or a health policy or a policy on the European Atomic Energy Community. The whole point of leaving is that now, for a change, we decide these things for ourselves through the ordinary political process. Successive UK parliaments will decide these matters as we see fit.
Leaving the EU was not about ordaining a specific plan for the future of this country; it was to put the future of this country in our own hands.
The charge that Eurosceptic leaders had no plan is therefore a misunderstanding. They did not need a plan. The question was about EU-subjection and nothing else. They were not running for office. Indeed, they could not possibly have a plan because they came from different parties and had different visions of what a fully-sovereign Britain should do with its new-found freedom. They only agreed on one thing: that Britain should be free – free to decide its future through our general elections.
But what about the negotiations? Are they not once and for all? Surely the government has no mandate to strike a particular deal?
The government does have a mandate to break away from the jurisdiction of the EU, and that means quitting the Single Market.
It has a mandate for nothing else. All other policies are subject, like the policies of any government, to parliamentary accountability and the electoral process. If Mrs May seeks the freest possible trade with the EU in the negotiations and Parliament disagrees with this policy, it can throw out the government. This government is no less responsible to Parliament than its predecessors. In any event, this has nothing to do with the decision to no longer be subject to the EU – which is what the referendum was about.
We know exactly what ‘leave’ meant. It meant not being subject to the EU. This entails a hard Brexit. The people said no more, no less.
Pippa Hawthorne is a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh,
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