Sam Bovill

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Whether you’re a politically savvy individual or you have politically savvy Facebook friends who keep banging on and on about Brexit amidst your sighs of weary frustration and a rapidly-growing headache, you’ve probably noticed that MP David Lammy is calling for the recent European Union referendum result to be ignored and for a new one to take place. Many people are decrying this as an attack on democracy and running around like headless chickens on a sugar rush. Others are putting on their cheerleader outfits and dancing for David in the streets. A lot of people are strongly considering buying shares in beaches nationwide to have a place to stick their head in the sand and wait for this political nonsense to all blow over. Regardless of political persuasion, however, I’m sure that one question has nagged at the conscience of many of these people; can we actually ignore the referendum completely? Did our votes mean nothing?

Short answer: yep. Kinda.

Let’s start with the basics. A referendum is basically all the people in charge asking everyone a yes or no question on what to do. They’re actually extremely rare, and almost always not legally binding, because of something called Parliamentary sovereignty we have in this country. To put it simply, Parliament – the place where our laws are made – is top dog for law-making. It has the legal power to make and unmake any law it likes whenever it likes, provided that everything is done in there properly. If over 50% of MPs vote to make a law requiring everyone to give me all their money, then they are free to do so and nobody can stop them. One of these days they’ll stop ignoring my letters and actually do this, but for now I shall continue to live in squalor. Anyway, because Parliament is in charge of laws and nobody else can tell Parliament what to do in this regard, even a referendum where loads of people vote can’t make Parliament do something; that’d mean it wasn’t sovereign.

So far, all of the referendums we’ve had in the United Kingdom have been non-binding. As I said above, this means that Parliament can legally do whatever it likes with the result. It can follow it, or ignore it, or pass a law to ban referendums because all the MPs feel like it. There has, however, been one exception to this – a referendum in 2011, held to decide whether we would use the Alternative Vote system for our elections and stuff, was actually binding. This was because Parliament made a law before the vote was held (the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011) that forced the government to follow the referendum result. So even then, it wasn’t the referendum that was legally binding, but Parliament’s law – pretty much par for the course.

So what does this mean for you? Well, for starters, David Lammy isn’t breaking any laws or anything like that, so we can’t pounce on him with nets and haul him off to prison for the rest of his life. Was your vote pointless if Parliament can just ignore the referendum result and do whatever it feels like? You’ll probably notice that I’ve used the word “legally” a lot in this article – legally, your vote has about as much impact on the future of the United Kingdom and its laws as a politically active gnat. Legally, Parliament can, for all intents and purposes, tell you to sod off and pass laws requiring us to physically meld Great Britain with the European continent and send them all letters about how much we love them. Legally, your vote meant nothing. Legally, the referendum meant nothing.

However, the legal powers of Parliament aren’t the be all and end all of the situation. Yeah, legally, your vote was meaningless and the referendum was meaningless and life is meaningless oh God make it stop. But to stop here and become a nihilist would be pretty silly – this ignores the political realities of the situation.

I said earlier that Parliament could make a law that forces you to give me all my money, and if you all write to your local MPs on my behalf we could make this happen. However, you’ve probably noticed by now that all your money is safely in your bank accounts and piggy banks. Parliament has the legal power to make this law, but it doesn’t because it would be politically unpopular. Imagine if it were made – whilst I would be very happy, many would not for some strange reason.  The MPs that voted for the law would probably not be voted for again. There could be riots in the streets. Pressure from the public could cause massive resignations. The Committee of Standards could have the MPs suspended from Parliament, which would allow them to be recalled and replaced under the Recall of MPs Act 2015.

Ultimately, your vote in the EU referendum had all the legal force of my hypothetical give-me-all-your-money law. The referendum itself has diddly squat legal force. Parliament can legally ignore it completely. However, politically, you have far more power. It would likely be incredibly difficult for Parliament to ignore the referendum result, as David Lammy suggests it do, due to the political backlash such a course of action would likely incur. If it wishes to do so, it is on incredibly thin ice; ice that could be irreparably shattered by one misplaced word. However, you cannot ignore the fact that Parliament will decide whether we leave the EU or not, and I urge you to pester your local MP to either ignore the result or follow it depending on your political persuasion.

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Last Update: April 28, 2018