I don’t like the use of referendums for major national constitutional issues, but am reluctantly coming round to the view that they are now an established part of our (unwritten) constitution. There have been three UK-wide referendums (in 1975 and 2016 on EU membership; in 2011 on the Alternative Vote system). They have also been used a number of times on constitutional issues in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland, and widely used on regional and local matters, such as on directly elected mayors in parts of England or Sunday drink laws in Wales, as well as on local neighbourhood plans.
But in the context of Brexit, there is one particularly relevant precedent from 1998. In May that year electors in Northern Ireland were asked to approve, in a referendum, the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. On a turnout of 81% it was approved by 71% to 29%. So 59% of the electorate voted Yes. There was a parallel referendum in the Republic of Ireland which also voted Yes. It was a critical matter for the future of Ireland, and the final decision was put to the electorate.
In my view there is good argument, using that Northern Ireland precedent, for the terms of any Brexit Agreement (including leaving with no deal) to be put to the electors of the UK to approve or reject. There isn’t room in this Blog to discuss what the rules for such a referendum might be, such as who could vote, what majority would be needed etc. However, and learning the lesson from the 2016 referendum, it would be vital that the consequences of each of the two possible outcomes were made clear to voters in advance. A majority in favour would mean approval of the Agreement. A majority rejecting the Agreement would mean that Brexit is itself rejected and that the UK would consequently withdraw its Article 50 application and remain a member of the EU.
What do others think?