Denying the will of the people on Brexit could put Welsh devolution at risk

Welsh flags at the Senedd on St David’s Day. Picture by the National Assembly. (CC BY 2.0)

Huw Davies

The demands for a second Brexit referendum are rising, not only in Westminster but also in Cardiff Bay.

From the Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price to the Labour AM for Torfaen, Lynne Neagle (both whom represent constituencies which voted to Leave the EU).

Welsh nationalists and devolutionists alike are almost hand in hand in backing another referendum.

But I believe this action is rather foolish. Not only would calling another referendum damage trust in our democratic system, it also could undermine Welsh devolution itself.

If the vote for Brexit in 2016 can be overturned with a turnout of over 70%, the highest for a national UK poll since 1997, then it could bring into the question the validity of both devolution polls in 1997 and 2011.

Remember, the vote for the Assembly was passed by just over 6,000 votes, around less than 1% margin over the ‘No’ vote and on a turnout of just 50.1%.

The 2011 Further Powers referendum had an even lower turnout of 36%, both votes for devolution were passed on just 25% and 22% of the total electorate.

Yet we are told by those who backed the creation of the Assembly, and even Assembly Members themselves, that 37% of the electorate voting for Brexit makes the referendum result invalid.

If the so-called ‘People’s Vote’ campaign is successful in its aim of getting a second vote on Brexit, with the aid of devolutionists and Welsh nationalists, then they may bring about questions about how valid the devolution settlement in Wales really is.

If the Brexit vote can be reversed, when more people in Wales voted for it than in either devolution referenda, then those same people who want to stop the UK’s exit from the European Union cannot deny the people a vote to reverse devolution if they wish to do so in the future.

It cannot be that the people of Wales can be listened to in referenda results when those in the Assembly like the result and not be listened to regarding Brexit when a greater number of people voted for that than the institution of the Assembly itself.

Devosceptic

Now I can hear the echo of the argument that the proposals put to the people of Wales in 1997 and 2011 had Government White Papers backing them up, so the voters would sort of know what they were voting for.

The continuity Remainer position is that we may have voted to leave the EU, but we didn’t vote for a destination and there was no official plan put to the people when they voted Leave.

But there was a white paper, one which went through all our letterboxes delivered by the postman. It cost £9 million of taxpayer’s cash.

It held within it the immortal words of ‘This is your decision. We will implement what you decide.’ It was the UK Government’s own advisory booklet on how to vote in the EU referendum.

So, it was made perfectly clear to the people that there was no turning back – that the result would be implemented.

How can those words sent to the nation be possibly be betrayed? How can nationalists and devolutionists seriously say that the people of Wales were right in 1997 and 2011, but they were wrong in 2016?

To do so, would not only damage trust in our politics but could tear-up the very institution to which they support.

I will admit, I am a devosceptic and the only benefit I can see of a second Brexit referendum would be that it would potentially undermine the devolution settlement.

But I emphatically don’t want to do that. I want to achieve my aims in a far more democratic manner.

Even though if I had been alive in 1997, I would have been disappointed in that referendum result, I would have not sought to have reversed it while it had not been delivered.

It was completely right that the results of referenda in 1997 and 2011 were delivered, to have not done so would have also brought serious questions about our democracy.

I do not see a problem in people campaigning to take us back into the EU after Brexit, but let it be delivered first. To not do so could cause bitterness and divisions for decades.

Bitterness

Nationalists and devolutionists should be the first to know about experiences of how Government stitch-ups with referenda and the result not being delivered cause great political problems.

Back in 1979, in the dying months of the Callaghan Government, the people of Scotland went to the polls to vote on proposals for a Scottish Assembly.

The result was that the pro-Assembly campaign had carried the day, but only just. But due a backbench Labour amendment put into the Scotland Bill a few months before, commonly known as the ‘40% rule’, the decision was not implemented.

The 40% threshold meant that at least 40% of the electorate voting on that day must have voted for the proposals to ensure its smooth passing through the House of Commons.

But only 32.9% of those voting voted for the establishment of the Assembly.  For the next 18 years after that vote, Scottish politics was full of division, mistrust of politicians and bitterness.

The Thatcher years compounded the argument of many for devolution in Scotland along with continuity campaigns to deliver the referendum result.

This was until, again, in 1997, when the divisions over the devolution question were partly settled by a referendum with a very large majority.

Reversing one vote on Brexit can mean that if the question does come again, it may be that the result will be the same, but a bigger margin for Leave.

So, I say to nationalists and devolutionists who want to stop Brexit, beware opening that Pandora’s Box because you may find that what comes out is more detrimental to you than Brexit ever will be.

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