4. The 23rd June Republic



The European Union referendum was the “biggest exercise of democracy in modern British history, as over 33 million people from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar all had their say” (1). The people spoke. Those in power were shaken and humbled. Things would have to change.


We have woken up in a different country” said Jonathan Freedland. (2) “The Britain that existed until 23 June 2016 will not exist anymore”. England divided with major cities - London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol - for remain and the rest of the country along with Wales for leave. But as Northern Ireland and Scotland were for remain “there is now a genuine question over the shape of this kingdom”. (3)


The UK had breached its constitution by embracing a republican idea. Professor Vernon Bogdanor recognised that “Europe has been responsible for the introduction of a new principle into the British constitution: that of the sovereignty of the people. This, in practice if not in law, supersedes the sovereignty of parliament”. (4)


In his speech in Downing Street on 24 June Prime Minister Cameron acknowledged this saying “the will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered”. This would have to involve “the full engagement of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments to ensure that the interests of all parts of our United Kingdom are protected and advanced”. (5)


Republic Day


The 23 June saw the authority of the Crown-In-Parliament give way to the ‘will of the people’. Politicians, parties and the national media confirmed it. People expected it. The defeated Prime Minister recognised it and promised to honour the result. As an exercise in popular sovereignty it was an historic day, a ‘republican’ moment after more than three hundred years of constitutional monarchy.


It bears comparison with 4 January 1649 when the Commons wrested sovereignty from the Crown by declaring England a ‘commonwealth’. This marked the beginning of a republican inter-regnum. Charles Stuart was put on trial for his crimes and executed on 30 January. On the seventeenth and nineteenth of March 1649 the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished as “unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous”. (6)


On 23 June 2016 sovereignty passed to the people. No shots were fired. Nobody was arrested or put on trial. No parts of the constitution were formally abolished or replaced. Her Majesty’s government promised to implement the ‘will of the people’. The Crown took back control as Cameron handed authority back to the Queen who transferred it to Theresa May. Sovereignty was thus gained and lost.


The 23 June was a ‘republican’ day because every other day was not. It is more reminiscent of the Roman festival of Saturnalia; the one day of the year slaves were ‘free’ to eat, drink, and be merry at tables served by their masters. The slaves were ‘sovereign’ for a day because the rest of the time they were in chains. The ‘republic’ died on the day it was born. Yet the ramifications of ‘republic day’ continue, like the shock waves from a constitutional earthquake.


Republican programme


The votes cast in the referendum provide important information about the question on the ballot paper. More than this it highlights the collective wisdom, accumulated over years, of a largely Euro-sceptic country split down the middle over whether the best bet is to leave or remain. It is, however, more than an opinion poll. It is a mandate for action.


A republican plan or programme is a mandate from millions of citizens, expressed though the democratic principles of popular sovereignty, national self determination, and the rights of recall and ratification. Whether we voted remain, leave or abstained, this is the democratic and republican benchmark against which to assess any settlement. This action programme is summarised as follows:


Trigger Article 50 to begin negotiations with the EU.


England and Wales to leave the EU


Northern Ireland and Scotland (and Gibraltar) to remain in the EU


The UK remains in the single market and the customs union.


Reform of the franchise to include all EU citizens and all 16-17 year olds.


Ratification referendum on any agreement reached with the EU


Triggering Article 50 starts negotiations with the EU. It is a political act which recognises and accepts the democratic mandate as an instruction from the people to Her Majesty’s government to begin negotiations for leaving the EU. This is a matter of principle not about the best time to start negotiations.


Negotiations based on republican principles recognise that England and Wales voted to leave and Northern Ireland and Scotland to remain. Gibraltar, although not a nation, voted overwhelming to remain. There is no mandate for any part of the UK to leave the single market or the customs union. This was not on the ballot paper and therefore nobody was able to vote for or against it.


A settlement based on the referendum mandates does not require economic borders between any part of the UK or between the UK and the Irish Republic or with the rest of the EU. It would minimise economic disruption. Respecting the mandates from Ireland and Scotland would avoid the danger of creating new grievances from an imposed Brexit.


Republicans recognise that all EU citizens resident in the UK must be included in the franchise for any future elections or referenda. Furthermore young people must have the right to vote with the franchise extended to all 16-17 year olds. The exclusion of these citizens in 2016 was an injustice which produced an unsafe result.


Once negotiations are concluded the results must be brought back for parliament and people to ratify. Hence a ratification referendum ensures the agreement of the people to any significant constitutional change. It makes government accountable to the people for agreements and treaties made in their name. Republicans oppose any deal imposed on the people without the right to vote in a referendum.


Ireland and Scotland


The referendum result in Northern Ireland reflects the democratic and republican movements which have developed since 1968. Irish republicanism grew out of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, the defence of the nationalist communities in Derry and Belfast and the rebirth of the Provisional IRA. In the 1980s the Hunger strikes saw Sinn Fein become a mass republican party and win seats in Westminster.


In the 1990s the republican movement reached a political impasse and settled for a negotiated peace treaty, the Good Friday agreement. This was endorsed by a referendum on both sides of the Irish border. It secured the future of Northern Ireland in the UK with a power sharing system of government, an open border between both parts of Ireland and the possibility of a united Ireland through a future referendum.


The open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was made possible and acceptable by EU membership. Fifty five percent of people in Northern Ireland voted remain and this indicates majority political support for the EU across the whole of Ireland. Leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union stands against fifty years of republican struggle as embodied in the Good Friday Agreement.


Forcing Northern Ireland to leave the EU creates an economic border on the island of Ireland. This can be avoided by redrawing the EU border down the Irish Sea or by the device of an Irish backstop until another solution is found. The political solution is for the whole of Ireland to remain in the EU through the re-unification of Ireland into one state.


Republicans defend the right of Northern Ireland to remain in the EU as part of the struggle for a united Irish republic. The present crisis links the economic issues with the need for democratic political and constitutional change. The current paralysis over the Good Friday Agreement indicates the need for a new democratic constitutional settlement founded on the sovereignty of the Irish people.


Since the 1970s Scotland has followed a parallel road towards democracy and independence. The vote to remain in the EU can be traced back to the democratic struggle against the anti-poll tax and the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1998. The national democratic movement reached its highest point in the 2014 independence referendum when forty five percent voted to leave the UK.


Scotland remaining in the EU was an issue in 2014 referendum. The Cameron government raised it as part of the vote ‘No’ campaign of fear. Cameron said that if Scotland voted ‘Yes’ they would be forced to leave the EU. This affected the vote to remain in the UK because many Scottish voters saw membership of the EU in a positive light. This was subsequently confirmed in 2016 when sixty five per cent voted to remain in the EU.


Scotland’s 2014 and 2016 referenda votes are not separate or even contradictory results. They express or confirm the growing support over the last decade for democratic constitutional change and a more European national identity. Many Scottish people see their future as an independent social democratic nation identified with Norway and Denmark.


The national democratic movements in Northern Ireland and Scotland have different histories and traditions. They have in common politics which is anti-Unionist, either openly republican or proto-republican, more internationalist and European. The results of the 2016 referendum is shaking n up Irish and Scottish politics, drawing the conclusion that remaining in the UK and the EU are incompatible.


Denmark and Greenland


The question arises as to whether this republican programme is practical. There have been a number of possible examples or models for a new relationship with the European Union. The most well-known have been Norway, Switzerland, and Canada. However, the lesser known example of Denmark and Greenland most closely corresponds to the ‘will’ of UK voters.


Greenland and the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Demark, which joined the European Community (EC) in 1973. In 1979 Greenland secured home rule, with its own government and parliament. In 1982 Greenland voted in a referendum to leave the EC. In 1985 Denmark remained whilst Greenland left and secured special status as an associated ‘Overseas Countries and Territories” (OCT) (7).


The EU is Greenland’s major trading partner. Greenland is involved in the EU's internal market through association agreements and operates within the EU's common external tariff. It receives funding for sustainable development. In March 2015 Greenland and Denmark signed 'an umbrella' framework document and a Joint Declaration increasing cooperation with the EU. (8) Adam Ramsey says “Denmark is a union of three countries, only one of which - the place you think of as Denmark - is a member of the European Union. This means that the possibility of Scotland staying, even without independence, is real” (9). Greenland and the Faroe Islands have “a strange constitutional position. Both are part of the Danish Realm. Both have seats in the Folketing, Denmark’s parliament. But neither is in the EU”.


Ramsey argues that Scotland and Northern Ireland could remain in the EU. But “there are two ways that this could happen. Either, the two countries could secede from the UK – respectively by forming a United Ireland, and holding a second independence referendum. Or, perhaps, they could do what I call a “reverse Greenland”. (10)


He believes this is a practical option, pointing to comments by Manfred Weber, leader of the biggest political grouping in the European Parliament and a close ally of Angela Merkel. Weber has said that “Northern Ireland and Scotland would be welcome to stay in the EU”. (11) It is possible to deliver the “will of the people” for Northern Ireland and Scotland and for England and Wales which can be confirmed in a ratification referendum.


23 June ‘republic’


The 23 June ‘republic’ is a metaphor for the democratic mandate given in the 2016 referendum as represented through the democratic principles of popular sovereignty and the right of nations to self determination. Of course, this did not establish a republic. It merely showed that England and Wales wanted to leave the EU and Northern Ireland and Scotland wanted to remain.


The ‘republic’ records the combined and uneven development of democratic consciousness across the UK. This reflects our history, culture, economic development and struggles for democracy. The advanced part in Ireland and Scotland is more republican and European in attitudes, whilst England and Wales is more monarchist and British in outlook and values.


This is not the full story. Within England, we find more republican and European views in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle. In Wales this unevenness can be found in Cardiff and Welsh-speaking areas in North Wales. The same kind of unevenness can be found in one city. West Belfast is more republican and European compared to Protestant East Belfast which is more loyal and British.


The 23 June ‘republic’ is more than simply a description of the ‘will of the people’ in 2016. It is an action plan or programme for a democratic road to the future. The whole of the UK remains in the single market and customs union whilst England and Wales leave the EU and Northern Ireland and Scotland remain and thus continue to elect MEPs for the European parliament etc. The sovereignty of the people over this plan is guaranteed by a ratification referendum which includes EU residents and young people (16-17 year olds).


The UK would be half-in and half-out of the EU, an unevenness which reflects not only the democratic mandate in 2016 but the attitudes and values of the people. It follows the precedent set by Denmark and Greenland. This would maintain the rights of EU and UK citizens and economic advantages of trade with the EU. It would put England and Wales outside of the imperative for ‘ever closer union’. In a deeply divided multi-nation state country it makes sense not to put all our eggs in one binary basket of full leave or full remain.


The Denmark and Greenland option is not a final answer to the question of which social class is best served by leaving the EU. People voted on the basis of their perceived interests and ideas and various predictions and economic forecasts about the future. The test is what happens in practice. This will show working people whether voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland or England and Wales made the best assessment of the propaganda and predictions. We should expect public opinion to shift accordingly.


Constitution in crisis


The UK constitution has been strained to breaking point. The referendum put the republican idea of popular sovereignty at the centre of politics. It divided the people and triggered a struggle between the Crown, parliament, people and the constituent nations over future relations with the EU. It has transformed a long simmering ‘crisis of democracy’ into a parliamentary shambles, exposing the fig-leaf of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’.


Is this growing constitutional crisis an aberration before normal constitutional service is resumed? Or was it the moment when our Humpty Dumpty constitution fell off the wall? If so we cannot return to pre-2016 politics. All the king’s horses and all the kings men will not be able to put Humpty back together again. In which case the country passed unknowingly or unintentionally into a ‘republican epoch’ without any plan for the future and any way back to the old regime.





(1) Daily Telegraph 1 July 2016 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/01/whine-for-a-second-referendum-all-you-like-but-if-you-wanted-to/


(2) Guardian Jonathan Freedland 24 June 2016


(3) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/eu-referendum-britain-different-country


(4) Financial Times 9 December 2016)


(5) www.gov.uk – PM statement 24 June 2016)


(6) Civil War – the wars in the three Kingdoms 1638-1660 Trevor Royle Abaucus 2004 p 505)


(7) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland%E2%80%93European_Union_relations accessed October 2018


(8) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland%E2%80%93European_Union_relations accessed October 2018


(9) Independent Adam Ramsay 24 June 2016).


(10) Independent Adam Ramsay 24 June 2016 (11) Independent Adam Ramsay 24 June 2016



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