We need to seize this moment

It’s been a bruising and disappointing few days for all of us, but two nights’ sleep, a lot of conversations and some thought have left me impelled to express an opinion in the Voice. I am setting out my contentions, for which I am grateful to the many people I have discussed them with, below.

The first point is that the proposal to leave the EU is a major constitutional change and that it is just not apposite to make such changes on the basis of a simple majority in a referendum.

That point is reinforced by the fact that this referendum was agreed on the basis that it was an advisory referendum, not a mandatory one. I suspect that had anyone asked the question. “Why was there no threshold for the decision to be acted upon?”, the answer would have been to reiterate that the referendum was advisory and it was for Parliament to consider it.

The second point follows from that. Parliament should consider it. As such the fatalistic acceptance of the result as if it were a final judgement from an all-powerful deity is not an appropriate course of action for our legislative representatives. So this means that people should insist that such consideration takes place. There is a case for the proposition that the invocation of Article 50 without such consideration is illegal.

The third point is related to that consideration. We should be pressing for that to be a thorough one, and to take into account not simply the numerical outcome of the vote, but also the following:

  1. That much of the thrust of the Leave campaign was to make the referendum an expression of general discontent, which suggests strongly that much of the Leave vote was not based on any analysis of the merits and demerits of remaining in the EU.
  2. That lies were told and distortions promoted on both sides, rendering the process of little probative value. Much of the Leave propaganda was, as Professor Michael Dougan succinctly summed it up, “dishonesty on an industrial scale”
  3. That in any event, the margin of “victory” was insufficient for the result to be clear.
  4. Most importantly, that they should be acting in the best interests of the UK and that the economic and political crisis that this referendum has provoked needs to be managed. That is their job!

For the first time in living memory our MPs’ individual contributions to our nation can really count and it is time for them to stand up and be counted. Members of Parliament (of all parties) must be lobbied without delay to take these points, or like ones, on board and to empower them to act for the good of us all.

My final point is that the political parties appear to be rudderless or lost in the fog, with the exception of the SNP. I do not except from this condemnation our own party.  The rather lame pledge that we would argue for the country to go back into the EU implies that we have accepted that we are leaving, which is a message of surrenderI think there is much more to be done, and we must do it. We should not fall into the trap of believing that the welcome influx of new members indicates that they are contented with inaction now.

So The Liberal Democrats need to seize this moment, and become the voice of the 16 million people (a number substantially more than have ever voted for any winning party in any British election).  We need to lead an alliance of like-minded people from all parties to make sure we stay in and so that our vacuous pledge becomes redundant.

We must get on with it.


* Laurence Mann a fairly long standing member (since 1991) of the Liberal Democrats, and has lived for all of that time in Twickenham, where he served as a councillor for 8 years.

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  • And while we’re at it we’d better update our name from ‘Liberal Democrats’ to ‘Liberal Elite’. After all, our judgment is better than that of the 17 million who voted. It’s up to us to save those who are less clever than us.

    They won’t mind. They’ll say hooray and thank you Liberal Elite for coming to our rescue and overturning the result of that vote that more of us than have done in years were stupid enough to take part in.

    Meanwhile back on Earth – with a slight worry about the absolute commitment to rejoining (without possibly knowing what the terms would be) I think Tim is playing the Lib Dem hand very well right now.

  • Simon

    No. The referendum was a terrible idea and the more complex the issue the worse solution they are. But the point is that we have had the referendum now and on a big turnout Leave clearly won. That can’t simply be dismissed. And the same higher parliament that Laurence appeals to is the same one that set the referendum terms, so the argument is somewhat circular.

    Yes the leave side lied. But was this unique to this vote? They may be crying into their craft bear in Twickenham, but out here in Essex, and a lot of the country, they’re crying into their Kronenburg or WKD.

    They think both sides lied, and always do. They think they voted the way they wanted to despite that. They know that they won.

  • That should be ‘not crying into their Kronenburg…..’ obviously!

    Beginning to see the point of those bigger phones now!

  • christine fishwick 27th Jun '16 - 6:32pm

    Should the Lib Dems decide to go into the next general election on a platform of declaring the BREXIT referendem null and void , you will have my vote. What other western country would axxept such a low margin ….it should have been 70/30 at least . We have all been conned !!!.

  • Laurence Mann 27th Jun '16 - 6:33pm

    I did expect the “we shouldn’t think we are better than the 17 million people who voted to leave the EU because it is elitist.” argument. But it is a red herring. This is not about us or anyone. It is about what is best for the UK. My argument (which interestingly has been replicated in Geoffrey Robertson’s article today in the Guardian (worth a read)) is simply that the process should be followed, and the fatalistic stuff from Cameron today that the “decision must be accepted” is just plain wrong. The referendum was not a decision. It’s our sovereign parliament that makes the decision, and they should consider the referendum result, not just follow it.

    On the point of elitism, let us reduce that to absurdity. We are very used indeed to being the minority party. I was lucky enough to be in a constituency with the best MP in the last Parliament for two terms, but for the rest of my time as an adult, I have had to put up with Tory or Labour MPs. They got more votes than the Liberal Democrats. Did I have to wake up on the morning after the election and recant everything I had been keen to advocate the day before, just because more people disagreed with it than agreed with it? It is not elitist to maintain that the Leave arguments were wrong today, any more than it was elitist to argue that last week. Nothing has changed except that some of the “scaremongering” of the Remain campaign has turned out not to be.

  • paul barker 27th Jun '16 - 6:35pm

    Laurence Mann makes an intelligent & rounded argument which I will have to think abo,ut for a while. However, half of our countrymen have just demonstrated that they have no time for intelligent & rounded arguments. I feel, for now, that we would be better with the emerging Libdem consensus – for a new General Election where we will campaign for Rejoining The EU or staying in if Article 50 hasnt been invoked yet.
    We should lay all our cards on the table & also campaign for a Migration Fund to help areas suffering hardship from Population shifts (of all sorts) & for a full Program of Reform. We should appeal to other Parties to adopt similar Programs & we should not rule out possible Electoral Pacts.

  • William Townsend 27th Jun '16 - 6:36pm

    If we try to deny the result we will be seen as bad losers and we will achieve nothing, I am surprised at how deeply the result has affected me but I believe we have to accept the result. I do not believe in referendum’s and this one was particularly poorly conceived, having no threshold, excluding 16 and 17 year old’s and in truth only called by Cameron to try and deal with his Euro Skeptics. Bad politics all round. We are where we are and to deny it continually will alienate as many if not more of the electorate than it will give succor too. We have to ensure we do all we can to protect the poor, the working class, the old, people of all races, gender, religion and sexuality are protected in the post EU world. We must fight to enshrine all the good that has been achieved from being inside the EU in any post EU settlement.

  • I see that John Kerry has been in Brussels today knocking heads together. It is obviously in America’s interests to put together some kind of face-saving deal as quickly as possible, rather than wait for Pearl Harbour. All power to his elbow.

    Laurence is 100% right. The referendum was a total utter farce. It is for Parliament to take this kind of decision. MPs have access to the time and expert advice to make the decisions that are in Britain’s best interests, and that is what we elect them to do. If we allowed a farcical plebiscite that more resembles a talent show vote than a serious exercise in democracy to bind Parliament, we would be handing over power to populist demagogues like Farage and the rag newspapers who echo their views. Parliament would be failing in its duty to the British public if it acted in a way that it knew was hugely contrary to the interests of Britain and of Europe. Whether or not we remain a member of the EU is for Parliament to decide, and that is how it should be.

    A question I always ask democratic centralists is what would they say if a majority in a referendum voted for the restoration of capital punishment. Would they regard Parliament as obligated to sanction judicial killing? I never receive an answer, and that is because none exists.

  • No, we must leave but the nature of the leaving is a major constitutional change that we should vote again on. To stay without a popular mandate would cause the existing wounds to fester not heal. An EEA or close association option would seem favourite and may just about keep Scotland and Gibraltar from leaving home. And in time, with majority support, we’ll rejoin but only when the country is ready. Frankly the rest of the EU need a break from constant British griping and negativity so they can get on with their vision. Though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sweden and Denmark join us slightly outside if we prove it can be done safely.

  • David Evershed 28th Jun '16 - 12:28pm

    The LEAVE vote won despite REMAIN having the support of the Government, the Conservative party, the Labour party, teh Sottish Nationalist party, the Lib Dem party, and the Green party.

    Without the bias of the establishment, the LEAVE vote would have been higher, maybe very much higher.

    It is understandable that Laurence Mann’s grief at losing the referendum has led to denial. Next comes anger but eventually acceptance.

  • Jayne Mansfield 28th Jun '16 - 7:27pm

    There are some Constitutional lawyers saying that MP’s must now vote on whether to accept the outcome of the referendum.

    Given that our MPs are representatives and not delegates, won’t this leave MPs with the dilemma of whether to vote against what they personally believe to be in the best interests of their constituents? An added factor being that some are being told that they now feel that were duped when they voted in a particular way.

  • @ Jayne Mansfield

    You clearly do not understand parliamentary democracy and constitutional history. I suggest you look at Edmund Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol. An MP owes his judgement to his constituents – but see the speech in full on Google.

  • Sorry, should have said his or her judgement.

  • Derek Campbell 28th Jun '16 - 9:04pm

    @ David Raw

    Is constitutional history binding?

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Jun '16 - 9:44pm

    Jayne is correct. Some constitutional lawyers ARE arguing that parliament will have to vote on the invocation of article 50 because wear a parliamentary democracy so the PM can’t go it alone.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Jun '16 - 9:51pm


    A little offhand with Jayne , I agree with Sue , the situation is all so unprecedented in context , therefore as Derek asks and many would answer , the situation is unique and unclear and needs the Liberal Democrat Lawyers !

  • Lorenzo,

    If there was a referendum on capital punishment with a 52-48 split in favour and you were a Lib Dem mp how would you vote ?

  • Andrew McCaig 28th Jun '16 - 10:11pm

    David Evershed,

    That is complete speculation, I am afraid. There is just as much reason to suppose that the Remain vote would have been higher if it had not been seen as the “establishment” vote. In particular if someone other than Cameron had been fronting it..

  • Derek Campbell 28th Jun '16 - 11:40pm

    @David Raw in response to Lorenzo

    A whipped LibDem MP would vote against capital punishment, that is clear. There is also the option of refusing to vote. But I think we are in danger here of muddling up the debate. I can accept that we live in a parliamentary democracy and that MPs are not legally bound to follow the wishes of the electorate. However, for MPs who frustrate the will of the people on this referendum issue will surely have to abide by the will of the electorate at the next parliamentary election if they cannot gain a majority. MPs will have to gauge for themselves the mood of their own constituents.

    Someone like Nick Clegg has a particular difficulty. Obviously elected at the last GE, clearly a remainer yet his patch (more than just his constituency) voted leave (51:49). No one expects him to vote to trigger Article 50, but he may decline to disregard his electors. There is no obligation to vote, unless the Lib Dems whip the vote, then he has a different difficult choice to make. Of course, he can defy the electorate, but as I have said, he will not be able to disregard their decision at the GE (assuming he decides to stand).

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Jun '16 - 1:11am

    I do not get your point as the issues are so different. I am a moderate on the issue of the EU, but would go with my conscience on it, and capital punishment , voting for the former and against the latter.

  • “There are some Constitutional lawyers saying that MP’s must now vote on whether to accept the outcome of the referendum.”

    Yes, but these are just people trying (successfully) to get their names in the paper. They have no official say on the matter, and the government have already stated that, in their view, Parliament has no role — and I believe the EU concurs with the government.

    Of course, it would be just like the Cameron government to reverse course and decide that, after everything, they do need a vote in Parliament, but that would just be the political needs of the moment speaking, not settled constitutional practice.

  • Jaw-dropping.

    Do this and I will leave the party.

  • Laurence Mann 29th Jun '16 - 12:21pm

    Interesting responses. The bottom line is that the rule of law should prevail. So much emotional capital was invested in the referendum result that many of you find it difficult to disassociate the result from the issue.

    At the end of the day, MPs are responsible and accountable for what they do. it is very likely indeed that the Government will feel obliged to put the matter to Parliament before invoking Article 50, and I suppose it is up to us to decide whether to lobby MPs to do what is best for the country or not.

    I am not suggesting that the result should be ignored, far from it. Instead careful thought needs to be given by MPs. It is fair to point out that a week ago, the economic consequences of Brexit were easily dismissed as scaremongering and propaganda, but you can’t say that any longer.

    Interestingly, in some ways, if our MPs have any guts, this result could be the best possible one. A narrow Remain victory would actually have done nothing but spur Farage into calls for Neverendums, and everything that thenceforth went wrong with the economy would be blamed on the EU. The economic and social fallout in the last few days, and the frantic backtracking by certain people puts it beyond doubt that Brexit is bad news.

    the Liberal Democrats were polling around 7% in opinion polls in April. We have a choice. Obscurity or Revival.

  • Peter Watson 29th Jun '16 - 12:23pm

    @Sesenco “The referendum was a total utter farce. It is for Parliament to take this kind of decision.”
    I am increasingly dismayed and confused by the Lib Dem response to this,particularly those who want simply to dismiss the outcome of the referendum.
    If we support a parliamentary representative democracy, then how can we ignore the fact that in 2015 the electorate chose just such a government which promised to hold a referendum and honour the result?
    If we oppose the principle of such referenda, why in 2010 and 2015, were Lib Dems committed to an EU In/Out referendum in the event of a change in the relationship between the UK and the EU? In 2010 the party also supported the principle of referenda on joining the euro and introducing a written constitution, and in 2011 Lib Dems supported a referendum on AV despite there being no electoral mandate for it.

  • “the margin of “victory” was insufficient for the result to be clear”

    The only clear and necessary margin of victory was one vote. Had a supermajority been required, that would have been written into the referendum bill.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Jun '16 - 1:01pm

    Equally, had a mandatory (as opposed to advisory) referendum been requested, that would also have been written into the referendum bill, and it would have constitutionally obliged Cameron to invoke Article 50 at the summit he has just attended. I wish politicians would stop acting as though this is a mandatory referendum. The final decision must lie with Parliament, whose members are (in this as in any other issue) expected to act according to conscience not mandate.

  • “this referendum was agreed on the basis that it was an advisory referendum, not a mandatory one.”
    This is a very very important point and something various QC’s have also noted in their thoughts on the referendum result and what comes next.

    Stepping back from the result, with the benefit of hindsight, we can begin to see just how badly the whole thing has been managed. Because, throughout the campaigning and now with the result, it has been treated as a real vote of In/Out with consequences and not an opinion finding exercise.

    I suspect a major contributor to this mistake was the decision to permit members of the government and specifically the PM and the Cabinet to campaign. Leaving no one in the government standing above everything and thus occupy the positions of manager and customer. With the position of manager vacant, there was no one who could remind people of the status of the referendum. With the position of customer vacant, there was no one who could stand and say what they would be doing with the results, ie. it would inform future government policy and EU negotiations. In the absence of these moderating roles, the referendum built up its own reality and expectations on what the result means, which it seems all and sundry have brought into and which is now going to be very difficult to rein back in; particularly as David resigned instead of saying: thankyou very much for your opinion which my government will consider, now it’s back to business as usual.

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