EU Referendum: Read the question!

Roland Smith
May 10, 2016 · 5 min read

As is the way at this time of year, daughter number two is doing some GCSE-level exams at the moment. She hasn’t got the hang of exams yet (or revision — don’t ask), not least that old piece of common sense wisdom to “Read the question!”

The same is true for the actual EU referendum question on the ballot paper.

Here it is. Please read it very carefully.

So a very simple question but what does it mean?

Well, it means: Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU? End of.

So if we answer ‘Leave’, it means stopping ‘free movement’? No, where does it mention that? Read the question.

And getting out of the single market (which is separate to EU membership)? No. Read the question.

But if we answer ‘Leave’, surely it means the UK stops paying a contribution to trade with the EU? No. Read the question.

But if we answer ‘Leave’, surely it means we stop all those silly and expensive regulations? No, where does it say that on the ballot paper? Read the question.

I can imagine some of you will be getting mightily frustrated with this and will be pointing furiously to the Vote Leave campaign’s ‘manifesto’ which promises all the above: stopping free movement, getting out of the single market, reducing all payments to zero, and stopping all European and international regulation. If you were so minded, you would also point out that if we vote to leave, Britain would then be better off by £350m a week and also, apparently, save the NHS into the bargain.

None of these things, even if they were all true (which, frankly, they aren’t), are on the ballot paper. To be utterly clear about this, the question is not: “Do you wish the United Kingdom to remain a party to EU/EEA free movement or to leave EU/EEA free movement?”

The question is solely about giving up (or not) membership of the European Union.

And, here’s the crucial point: we are not electing Vote Leave on 23rd June (or Johnson, Gove or Farage). That simple statement of truth has massive implications that are not being sufficiently recognised, although on 31st May and 1st June, Chris Grayling and Boris Johnson finally acknowledged the truth of that statement.

A referendum is not like a normal election. In fact, it’s nothing like a normal election and yet a mass of people, many of whom should know better, insist on viewing it this way. That includes many Remainers for whom viewing it like this suits their purpose: it conveniently means Vote Leave can be cast as representing all Leavers and as being the guardians of how Brexit will be undertaken i.e. badly.

But there are no political parties; there is no one leader of each side; there is no ‘line to take’. There is no ‘manifesto’.

And because we are not electing a ‘Vote Leave party’ with its own manifesto, Vote Leave will not be in control of how the exit is done. Which is why their views are interesting but academic.

In this referendum, there are only “campaigners”, who will do whatever they think might appeal to sections of the electorate to motivate them to vote to Leave. Some parts of their diverse message will hit home; others won’t. On free movement, the Vote Leave lead campaign has evidently taken the Farage view that everyone gets animated by immigration — or more accurately, that voters get sufficiently animated by immigration that they will vote to leave the European Union.

And yet, some Leave supporters don’t get animated by immigration or free movement.

I don’t. I know a whole group of very trenchant Leavers who don’t. Tim Martin, the founder of J D Wetherspoon who is a donor to the Leave cause doesn’t either. In fact he openly states in the media that he’s very relaxed about EU free movement and is happy for it to continue after Brexit. The same is true of another famous entrepreneur, James Dyson.

Before this campaign started and before they felt it necessary to fall in with Vote Leave, a stream of Conservatives were the same e.g. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan, and Owen Paterson to name just a few key Leavers, some of whom have extolled the virtues of immigration and have slated UKIP. Some have even stated openly that they would accept associate membership of the European Union, presumably still under ECJ jurisdiction, that would necessarily accept the free movement provisions (just adding some riders about access to welfare). And they’ve extolled the Swiss and Norway Options, both of which have free movement.

But put those Conservative leavers aside for a moment. The point is that ordinary voters will vote on the question for a mass of reasons best known to themselves (possibly including “To stop George Osborne becoming prime minister”). And it only takes a very small number of Leave voters to reject Vote Leave’s whole package of arguments, or parts thereof, for the whole idea of “reading into the question” and the subsequent answer (which is what we are talking about here) to totally fall apart. 20% of Leavers (as per here) would more than do it. Indeed, one can only approach this as a lawyer might i.e. what exactly does the question say? Any clarification of “what people meant by Leave” — if there was any subsequent major upswell for that, which I doubt— would need a subsequent debate.

All of this applies whether Leave wins by much more than 50% or only by marginally more than 50%. Although clearly a marginal win makes the need to stick to the question even more stark.

So please, do me a favour and read the question.

UPDATE, 13th June 2016: A Yougov poll in the Sunday Telegraph, sponsored by the Adam Smith Institute reveals almost half of Leave voters would consider the EEA Option after a Leave vote. See here for the story.

Roland Smith

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Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Brexitologist. Globalist. #Brexit