A Referendum Won With Cheating and Fraud, A Void Result
It has perhaps - until now - been one of the advantages of living in an advanced, functioning liberal democracy that the British have very rarely had to ask about the political legitimacy of their governments.
Perhaps somewhat foolishly, we have seen our political system as less corrupt than others on continental or across the Atlantic.
Not now. On Tuesday, an Electoral Commission probe found that Vote Leave, the official anti-EU campaign group who refused to cooperate with the inquiry, had exceeded its £7m spending limit by funnelling £675,315 through pro-Brexit youth group BeLeave.
In other words, they cheated.
Two officials have already been fined for the false declaration of campaign spending, the Commission has referred them to the Metropolitan Police, and handed over files "in relation to whether any persons have committed related offences" that fall outside the watchdog's remit.
This leaves Britain in the extraordinary situation where we could be on the verge of leaving the EU as some of its prime advocates are charged with offences that further question the 2016 referendum’s legitimacy.
What is even more extraordinary is that this report has not received a greater attention by the government. Britain is about to make one of the biggest changes to its economic, trade and security practises and it might be doing so on false pretences.
no government could simply ignore the referendum result
In 2012, David Cameron promised an In/Out referendum on EU membership. In the 2015 Conservative manifesto, he pledged that his government would respect the result of that referendum and carry out the wishes of the people.
It has been an uncomfortable fact for Remainers that no government could simply ignore the referendum result.
In return, many Brexiter arguments for persevering in the face of economic obstacles have rested on the democratic nature of the decision.
By and large, the citizen body of the United Kingdom accepts the legitimacy of its political settlement. We elect governments at general elections with whom many may disagree but few seriously question their political legitimacy. The peaceful transfer of power acknowledges a winning government’s authority.
At times, governments have lost their moral legitimacy - an example might be John Major’s 1992-1997 government - but so long as a party can command a majority in the House of Commons its political legitimacy is not in doubt.
Since June 2016, many have questioned the moral legitimacy of the Brexit referendum: in support of this, they have pointed to dubious claims of a Brexit dividend for the NHS and dishonesty about Turkey’s application to join the EU as examples.
The Electoral Commission report is different. It questions the political legitimacy of the referendum.
Following the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats petitioned the High Court to overturned the result of the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency election. They claimed that the sitting MP, Labour’s Phil Woolas, won the election by making false claims about their candidate and manipulating images to make political points.
The court found in the Liberal Democrats’ favour. The election was re-run, although without Woolas.
Already tested at the High Court, the advisory nature of the referendum prevents any legal remedies through the Representation of the People's Acts. Any remedy therefore is political.
What is the point of having rules if, when they are broken, they are ignored? It sets a bad precedence, at least.
The question is simple, how can there be address in an inconsequential constituency election, but none in an election with the greatest consequences for the UK electorate.
We can never know how an overspend affected a vote. Just like we will never know whether Woolas’ disputed methods gave him the 103 votes on which his victory rested.
We can say that breaking democratic rules deserves democratic consequences. Not just fines and police investigations.
The Electoral Commission findings follow another judgment against Leave.EU who failed to include nearly £80,000 in their electoral returns. Meanwhile, The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr continues to unearth grubbing findings about meetings with Russian diplomats, potential collusion, illicit funding and the impact of big data and technology on our democracy.
There are too many important questions that few are asking our government to answer.
there is a democratic benchmark that cannot be ignored
Vote Leave responded to the findings by claiming political motivation. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, would they? The condemned rarely pay the judge and jury any compliments.
Objectively, were this result to be covered as any other election, there is a high chance the result would be overturned in the courts. While the solution here may be political, there is a democratic benchmark that cannot be ignored.
A functioning democracy corrects its errors. Theresa May must pause the Article 50 process, and launch an inquiry to gather all evidence. If a rerun of the 2016 election is ruled out, a People’s Vote must be legislated for in its place. There is no alternative.
Leavers should consider this. Much of the debate has turned around whether overturning the referendum result - or even diluting the hardest of Brexits advocated by the extreme right of the Tory party- would be a democratic betrayal of Brexit voters. This has some merit.
However, what now has an equal merit is that the government is about see through a process based on a referendum that a substantial portion of the population see - with some justice - as fraudulent. Such recklessness would be unprecedented.
That is what we are talking about: a fraud was committed during the Brexit referendum. Its result must therefore be void.
About the author
Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.
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