I think it was Jacob Bronowski or perhaps A J Ayer who, when asked a question on the old Brains Trust on the BBC Third Programme (those were the days), often replied: 'It depends what you mean by…'. And words are important. They have a meaning in the mind of the speaker and may have a different meaning in that of the listener. This thought came back to me when asked by a young Polish friend what I thought about Brexit.
We are fortunate to live in a democracy, where the people rule. Not a plutocracy, nor an oligarchy, far less a dictatorship, although elements within our democracy always tend in one or other of these directions and we do have a residual aristocracy with elements of oligarchy, but limited powers, in our House of Lords. But democracy needs further qualification.
Ours is representative; those of us judged eligible can elect (call forward from our number) representatives by vote. To vote means to entrust the elected individuals to do their best to represent us, but that trust means that we expect them not necessarily to represent our own personal diverse views and wants, but rather to take account of these desires of all their constituents in making their own judgements on what serves our interest best. This in turn means that they should work in an altruistic manner towards the improvement of the society and environment in which their constituents live. If they fail in this respect, we can remove them from their role.
The decision we make in voting is facilitated by those seeking our vote identifying themselves as belonging to a political party with a broad set of policies intended to remedy the various perceived imperfections in our society and to improve the circumstances of the citizens and the economy of the nation. As time passes, these parties modify their views not only in the light of experience but also from changing philosophical concepts, most notably related to economic speculation. Nevertheless, our choice as voters remains wide, from Right to Left, from free trade to tight regulation, from high tax and public ownership to low tax and privatisation; understandably most of us prefer something in the middle. But by and large the system has worked pretty well for the UK and allowed our economy to prosper, mass poverty and unemployment to be reduced, and most of the population to have good healthcare and education.
Relatively rarely in my lifetime has this well-oiled machine failed and a different mechanism been required. This is necessitated by the occurrence of extremely important problems that are not easily solved by the established political system. The first was the second world war where an emergency coalition government was formed under Churchill to face up to the prospect of invasion and defeat. All the others related to issues of nationhood, of the United Kingdom in Europe and of the constituent countries in the UK, and all were addressed by referenda. And that gerund has a meaning: the process of referring a question to the voters for their opinion. Unless qualified explicitly in some way, it surely means just that, seeking the voters' opinion on average, without any obligation to act on the result.
The proof of this interpretation is that different end points for action may be, and have been, chosen for action, commonly a minimum percentage majority greater than say 20%. Very small majorities one way or the other tell politicians that the people as a whole are far from settled in their opinion. There is usually room for sensible judgement before acting on the result when the people's voice is equivocal. A referendum seems to me to be a poll, a counting of heads to find out what people in general think, and not a plebiscite, a referral to the people for a mandated decision.
You may think these are just words – the people have spoken – and you would be right. But were you clear in your head, as I was when I voted, that this was a referendum and not a plebiscite? And did you hear anyone debate these issues beforehand? I believe it was ignored and the result treated as a plebiscite. Apart from a few brave MPs who appeared to understand this, almost all our representatives legitimised the poll by voting in parliament to enable Article 50, many adopting the absurd mantra 'The people have spoken'. Well, yes, they did speak and clearly said that the UK was almost evenly divided and would be likely to remain equally so whatever the political response. Hence the terrible mess we are in and the laughing stock England has become (I am specific there, as we in Scotland and Northern Ireland spoke too, and with a different voice).
Some issues confronting politicians are very complex. We entrust them to seek the evidence for and against any action and to use their judgement in promoting a course of action. In extraordinary circumstances it may be necessary for the question to be asked of the people, for guidance (referendum) or instruction (plebiscite). But this should only be done after careful thought as to the likely consequences.
Were we properly informed of the consequences to Ireland and Gibraltar, to Dover and Felixstowe, to our food imports and exports, to our scientific and financial links across Europe, and were we misinformed about our glorious future of free trade across the world and the huge sums of money we would be able to invest in the NHS? Was our relationship with Europe such a disaster that anything else would be better? Or was it all about healing a running sore in the Conservative party, a response to failing and weak leadership that has been compounded by a cowardly response by the Labour party and collapse of the whole political system? Will another referendum solve it, or might it just be better to stick with Europe and to help them address real problems: the climate, migration, epidemics, and the increasing disparity in wealth – the four horsemen of the approaching apocalypse?
But if parliament chooses another referendum, it will all depend on what it means by the word and by the choices it presents to us. Whatever, nothing will heal the rift driven through society by the last one, but there is still a chance to prevent the damage to our European economies and the comfort to Trump and Putin that separation implies.