3. Democratic Mandates



On 23 June 2016 Prime Minister David Cameron left Downing Street with his wife to cast their votes at the Methodist Hall in Westminster. It was a peaceful day to start a revolution. Many polling stations had people queuing outside. Voters in London and the South East faced torrential rains and floods (1). Cameron was about to face the biggest storm of his career. He gambled and lost. Next day he resigned.


The Queen gave her assent to Cameron’s European Union Referendum Act on 17 December 2015. The new law set out the question to be voted on. “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union” (2). This prescribed exactly what people could vote for. We were not asked about the single currency, the single market or the customs union or what kind of leave we might prefer.




Cameron was one of forty six and a half million (46,500, 001) people were eligible to vote. (3). EU citizens, already on the electoral register, were denied the right to vote on a matter directly affecting their lives. This injustice went to the heart of Cameron’s failure. Young people fared no better when the Tories did not extend the franchise to the sixteen and seventeen year olds as had been the case in the 2014 Scottish referendum.


Thirty three and a half million people (33,577,342) voted on that day. However, 12.9 million people abstained and hence the turnout of voters was seventy two percent (72%) of the total electorate. (4). This was not as high as in the Scottish referendum (84.6%) but higher than the 2015 general election with sixty six percent. (5)


Turnout is a measure of participation and democratic legitimacy. Had only forty or fifty percent actually voted there would have been questions about how meaningful or valid was the vote. So although there were only two options on the ballot paper, there was a third option sometimes called ‘none of the above’. A significant minority, twenty eight per cent, did not vote. Like leave or remain they abstained for a variety of reasons.


People abstain because they do not see or believe the benefits promised by either side. They are not motivated to go out and vote. Others abstained because they did not trust or support either side in the Tory referendum - Cameron and Osborne on one side and Johnson, Gove and Farage on the other. Some abstained as a deliberate act of opposition and hence over twenty five thousand people went to the polling station and spoilt their papers.


Union and nation


A democratic mandate in the UK derives from two sources. As citizens of a Union state, people can vote in elections for the Westminster parliament. As a citizen of one of the constituent nations, people can vote in elections to the parliaments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. England has no parliament but English voters will be recognised in the same way.


Hence, the 2016 referendum provides a UK wide mandate and majorities from the nations which make up the kingdom. These results can be summarised as follows. The UK wide vote was 17.4 million voting to leave with 16.1 million voting to remain. England and Wales voted to leave. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. Gibraltar voted heavily in favour of remain by ninety six percent.


Voting by Kingdom


Total Remain vote 16.1m


Total Leave vote 17.4m


Total Abstain 12.9m


Rejected papers 25,359


Excluded from voting 3.0m (estimate)



Of those who voted, fifty two percent supported leave, and forty eight per cent voted to remain. Hence the vote to leave the EU was 37% of a forty six million electorate. (6)


Voting by Nation


England has a population of 55.6 million compared to 10.3 million as the combined populations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. (7). In England 15.2 million voted to leave, 13.3 million to remain and 10.5 million abstained. In Wales 0.86 million people voted for leave and 0.77 million for remain. In Scotland 1.7 million voted remain and 1.0 million for leave. In Northern Ireland a majority, like the rest of Ireland, voted to remain, by 0.44 million to 0.35 million. (8)


The referendum votes can be expressed in percentages as follows: England voted 53.4% and Wales voted by 52.5% to leave. In contrast Scotland voted 62% to remain and Northern Ireland voted 55.8% to remain. Gibraltar is a special case, not being a nation but a former British colony on the Spanish peninsular, and voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU to maintain their close relations with Spain. (9)


English voters decided the outcome. There were 1.9 million more leave than remain voters in England. Wales added an extra 0.09 million. On the other side of the scales, Northern Ireland and Scotland together added 0.79 million more remain than leave voters. English voters thus accounted for 1.1 million of the winning margin of 1.3 million voters (1,269,501) and thus had the decisive impact on the result.


England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales


England and Wales voted to leave the EU and hence all the EU treaties. They would no longer participate in political institutions such as the European Commission, Council and Parliament etc. England and Wales would no longer have access to the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, and the Regional Development Fund etc. (10). Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain part of EU institutions and policies.


The whole of Ireland, both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, are in favour of remaining in the EU. However forcing Northern Ireland to leave the EU against the will of the majority creates a political problem. The possibility of creating an economic border on the island of Ireland threatens to break the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty between the UK and the Irish Republic, endorsed by the Irish people in a referendum on both sides of the border.


Scotland has a similar but different problem. In 2014 fifty five per cent of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the UK. In part this was because Scotland was threatened that independence would see them excluded from the EU. Despite sixty two percent voting to remain in the EU, Scotland now faces the threat of being forced out. Ignoring the majority of voters in Ireland and Scotland will create a real grievance.


No mandate


The European Union is not the same as the Euro-Zone, the Schengen Area, the Single Market or the Customs Union. Some European states are members of all these arrangements. Norway is in the single market but not in the EU. Turkey and San Marino are not members of the EU but are in a customs union with the EU. Denmark and Greenland are one state, but Denmark is in the EU and Greenland is not.


Norway, Greenland, Switzerland, Turkey and Canada are not members of the EU. Each has a different kind of relationship with the EU. It is possible to leave the EU and remain in the Single Market like Norway or in a customs union like Turkey. Leaving the Single Market or the Customs Union was not on the ballot paper nor part of the 2015 EU Referendum Act, whatever is subsequently claimed by parties and politicians. There is no mandate to leave the Single Market and Customs Union.


Politicians made a wide variety of promises during the referendum. None were on the ballot paper. There was no mandate to give 350 million a week to the NHS, to end the Working Time Directive or other social and environmental rights. There was no mandate to introduce immigration controls on EU citizens, leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or end the right of UK citizens to move freely to live and work in other parts of the EU.


All these promises and interpretations are a matter of politics and ideology. They were not on the ballot paper. The Crown-In-Parliament has the legal authority to decide a range of matters such as funding the health service, protecting workers rights and controlling immigration. Such matters relate constitutionally to the will of parliament and not the will of the people.


Democratic process


The EU referendum raises many democratic questions about ends and means. It is not simply the result that counts but the democratic process before and after the votes are counted. Education, argument, debate and access to full information are essential for making good decisions based on evidence. Democracy is not a single event but a continual process of learning, decision-making, implementing, reviewing and changing.


The democratic process enables people to make decisions or elect representatives who are accountable and recallable. It is underpinned by an implicit contract between majority and minority. Majority votes provide a democratic mandate for action. The minority has the freedom to criticise but not sabotage or overthrow the majority. Decisions should be carried out and the results subject to review and change.


The democratic process is integral to the working class movement. Trade union democracy, for example, rests on the sovereignty or authority of rank and file members. Voting on elections, resolutions and decisions is normal. Accountability is essential. Freedom of speech is continuous. Strike action is decided by majority votes. The picket line is based on the authority and discipline of the majority. Any minority, opposed to strike action, has the freedom to criticise but not to ‘scab’ on the majority.


The EU referendum asked voters “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union”? People voted on this question, nothing more and nothing less. Millions cast their votes and provided a democratic mandate. We must look to republican principles for a democratic answer to how the ‘will of the people’ should be carried out.


2 November 2019




(1) Guardian 23 June 2016


(2) European Union Referendum Act 2015 - Legislation.gov.uk https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/36/contents


(3) Report: 23 June 2016 referendum Electoral Commission electoralcommission.org.uk accessed 18 November 2019


(4) Commons Briefing Papers CBC 7639 Elise Uberol 29 June 2016 research briefings.paprliment.uk accessed October 2019.


(5) www.parliament.co.uk


(6) Commons Briefing Papers CBC 7639 Elise Uberol 29 June 2016 research briefings.paprliment.uk accessed October 2019


(7) Office for National Statistics accessed 30 January 2019


(8) Commons Briefing Papers CBC 7639 Elise Uberol 29 June 2016 research briefings.paprliment.uk accessed October 2019.


(9) Commons Briefing Papers CBC 7639 Elise Uberol 29 June 2016 research briefings.paprliment.uk accessed October 2019.


(10) Europe In or Out - David Charter Birkbeck Publishing 2016 p 107.



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