What does ‘accepting’ or ‘respecting’ the EU referendum result mean?

Much has been made of the need to ‘accept’ or ‘respect’ the result of the referendum. However, it is less clear what accepting and/or respecting the result can and should mean.

First, accepting and/or respecting the referendum result plausibly means that we must speak and write honestly and transparently about the voting data, and use it appropriately to guide decision-making.
Second, following on from this, accepting and/or respecting the result also plausibly means accepting and respecting the entirety of the voting data, including the votes of those who chose to remain in the EU as well as those who chose to leave it.
Third, accepting and/or respecting the result does not immediately support any claim concerning how Parliament should act in response to the result. Even if every MP believed that the fact of the result determined the next appropriate action and if every MP were of perfectly like mind as to the nature of that next action (which is not the case), Parliament would still need to discuss how to proceed as an open and real question. This is because the European Union Referendum Act of 2015 was silent on the matter. The Supreme Court has this week made it clear that whether or not to trigger Article 50, and indeed more generally how to proceed at all, is indeed a matter for Parliament. Thus, despite all of the talk we have heard about leaving the EU as inevitable, we should keep in mind that Parliament has not yet decided what is happening, and Parliament must decide.

Fourth, a lot of the talk of ‘getting over it’ and ‘coming to terms’ with the referendum result, both in Parliament and in the media, just like talk of ‘accepting’ or ‘respecting’ the result, is being used in a manner that is chilling with respect to lawful, democratic debate and dissent. This should concern everyone, regardless of their view on the issue. Talk of ‘accepting’ and ‘respecting’ the result of the EU referendum does not mean abandoning principled debate and disagreement, which is the cornerstone of democratic decision-making. No matter what view one takes on the matter of leaving the EU, there is absolutely nothing wrong with participating in lawful, reasoned argument about political issues, or with voicing lawful, principled disagreement with any elected representative or any member of the public on this (or indeed any other) matter. ‘Accepting’ and/or ‘respecting’ the result does not mean that one must immediately and forever agree that leaving the EU is the right thing to do.

Given this, it is plausible that Parliament’s deliberations next week should include some attention to the needs of (i) those disenfranchised in the EU referendum, including young people under voting age, (ii) EU citizens resident in the UK whose family unity and residency status is threatened, and (iii) UK citizens living overseas, including those in the EU whose family unity, residency and employment status have also been threatened, and those elsewhere as well as in the EU who applied for referendum ballots on time, but did not receive them and thus were denied a say.

Moreover, if accepting and/or respecting the result does not immediately or directly equate to a course of action, then MPs should be wary of implementing the option that received the most votes without regard for evidence of actual and possible harm to the U.K., its unity, its people, or indeed to other nations and regions.

If ‘accepting’ and/or ‘respecting’ the referendum result does not automatically determine what the U.K.’s next steps should be, and if MPs think there are good reasons not to leave the EU, then if they were to vote against the U.K. leaving the EU, we should keep in mind that such a vote would not be anti-democratic. Rather, MPs must vote based on all of the available evidence and with the best interests of their constituents — as well as those of the country, the region, and the world — in mind.

If upcoming Parliamentary debate and voting on the issue is truly to be meaningful, then remaining in the EU, not only the various possible ways of leaving the EU, must be regarded as one of the possible ways forward for the U.K.