If democracy is all about deliberate deception, dishonesty and political spin, then the referendum was certainly a masterful display. I readily accept that the Remain campaign was flawed, but that reinforces the case that the result is unreliable.
Since when has our democracy been about ordering MPs to blindly obey what a majority of people supported in the past, even though it has subsequently become clear there is a risk of severe damage to the country? MPs have a duty to protect the national interest.
Some 17.4 million citizens (37 per cent of the electorate and a quarter of the entire 65 million-plus UK population) voted to leave the EU in the advisory 2016 referendum. This is said to justify depriving 50 million fellow countrymen of their EU rights and citizenship in the name of democracy.
With a career in pensions, I have seen many examples of mis-selling in my lifetime. But never have I seen the scale of misrepresentation, fraud or illegality that has come to light in connection with the 2016 referendum.
On top of the financial irregularities which were revealed in recent months, the referendum also involved fraudulent use of large companies’ logos implying they supported Leave; false claims that Turkey – and even Iraq and Syria – would soon join the EU; false assurances that leaving would make Britain wealthier, increase free trade and provide all the benefits of membership, without the burdens or costs. None of this is true. In addition, the campaign made no mention of the risks to Northern Ireland, our services, research or medical sectors.
If you decide to buy a pension on the basis of a false prospectus, you would have the right to reconsider, or be compensated and those selling to you would face suspension or sanctions. However, voters who believed the misleading narrative about Brexit, and based their decision on it, are denied the opportunity to change their mind.
Of course, Parliament must respect the referendum. But it has. Triggering Article 50, passing legislation for withdrawal and extensive negotiations with the EU trying to deliver an agreed Brexit for the British people clearly honours the result. But the outcome is nothing like the promises which many voted for. In any normal circumstances, democracy would take account of new realities.
Many people were encouraged to vote for the first time in their lives. But we have no idea how many of them would have voted for no deal, or Theresa May’s agreement, or even for leaving the Customs Union and Single Market. We also do not know how many believed they would be better off.
Surely MPs need to know what the majority think, given these new Brexit realities? This is not an affront to democracy, it is the logical path to take.
MPs ploughing ahead regardless is the real threat to our representative Parliamentary democracy. If citizens find out they were deceived, when it is too late to do anything about it, what faith will they then have in ‘democracy’?
Checking the will of the people, before forcing the whole country onto a damaging path, is particularly important because Brexit is effectively irreversible. If we are not sure this is what 17.4 million voted for, we should not leave now. We would still have the option to do so in future, but would meanwhile retain our current position in the EU – including the rebate, being outside the Euro and Shengen. If the majority confirm they still wish to leave, I would certainly accept that but we should not give those up lightly.
I would far rather not go through the trauma of another Brexit vote. But it is hard to see how MPs can honestly claim to be honouring the will of the people without checking what it is. Parliament is gridlocked. Asking for voters’ informed consent is simply respecting people’s democratic right to change their mind.
Pensions cannot be sold on the basis of false promises. Telling someone their pension is very low risk, when it could lead to huge losses, is illegal. Surely even stricter rules should apply to Brexit which is about so much more than pensions? As risks have turned out to be so much greater than explained in 2016 or 2017, the British people should have a chance to change their minds before an irreversible damaging outcome. Asking the people to confirm their views is the most democratic way forward.
Ros Altmann is a Tory peer and a former Pensions Minister.