Desperately seeking alternatives to Brexit financial mess: Don Pittis

On Friday the Brexit vote to leave Europe seemed like the end. But suddenly, as the British union threatens rip itself apart and a rudderless Britain is seeking an alternative. Don Pittis examines the failure of the referendum process and how the United Kingdom is struggling to search out a second chance.

Suddenly even people who voted to leave are looking for a way out of the Brexit morass

In a country where parliament is sovereign, is a referendum enough? (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

As if the first one didn't get them into enough trouble, Britons are calling for a second referendum. A third if you count another Scotland vote to leave an increasingly dis-United Kingdom.

People who voted to leave are saying they didn't realize the implications, as the nations governed by the mother of parliaments in London begin to tear apart and the country's dominance as Europe's financial centre is threatened.

But after a weekend of political chaos, help may be on the way, as those who dislike the result begin to propose political moves to circumvent the referendum.  

For people who believe in strong democracy, comments by some of the people who voted to leave indicating that they really didn't know what they were voting for, were devastating. 

Regrets, I've had a few

"I would go back to the polling station and vote to stay simply because this morning the reality is hitting in," said one Leave voter interviewed by British television in a piece of tape widely circulated on Twitter.

Many said they thought the Remain side was so sure to win they only voted Leave to give the government a scare. The turnout at 72 per cent was high by the standards of modern electoral voting.

Nonetheless other critics complain that the narrow margin of victory for the Leave side combined with the fact that more that a quarter of those eligible didn't vote means the U.K. is being torn apart by a relatively small group.

Higher bar?

"So 37 per cent of eligible voters wreak havoc with those inside AND outside U.K.," tweeted Canadian Jim Boxall. "Shouldn't nature of issue and impact suggest a higher bar?"
Good bye to Europe? Not so fast. Boris Johnson, head of the Vote Leave campaign waves to media assembled outside outside his Oxfordshire home on Saturday after his Brexit victory. (Reuters)

Boxall isn't alone in thinking referendums do not always provide a healthy democratic result. Many people, including the founders of the U.S. constitution, feared that voting each issue by popular consent, sometimes called government by referendum, would create confused and irreconcilable outcomes, says Harvard scholar Jennifer L. Hochschild.

Many politicians and scholars have long maintained that unschooled voters can be manipulated into making decisions that are against their or their country's national interests. They are just not properly informed.

More referendums

​"Political scientists and activists still debate whether citizens are capable of making wise choices through direct elections, and whether referenda on substantive issues should be limited," writes Hochschild.

Now as a solution to the problems created by the first referendum, a group of activists in the as-yet-United Kingdom want to hold another.
Millions have already signed a petition demanding a second referendum to counteract the first, claiming not enough people had voted in favour of separation from the EU.

"We the undersigned call upon HM Government to implement a rule that if the Remain or Leave vote is less than 60 per cent based a turnout less than 75 per cent, there should be another referendum," says an online petition that as I write has more than three million signatures. 

But further petitions may not be necessary. With a skirl of bagpipes, the Scots are marching to the rescue. Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon says that on the breakup of the European Union, the votes of the Scottish parliament outweigh that of a referendum.

The Scottish challenge

"Looking at it from a logical perspective, I find it hard to believe that there wouldn't be that requirement.  I suspect that the U.K. government will take a very different view on that and we'll have to see where that discussion ends up," Sturgeon told the BBC.

At stake is one of the founding issues of the British constitution, the Sovereignty of Parliament. That means that neither the Queen, the courts, nor even a referendum can stand in the way of what the elected representatives decide.
Scots to the front. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, says that a separation of the United Kingdon from the EU cannot happen without the consent of the Scottish parliament. (Reuters)

A Scottish challenge to the referendum could send the decision straight back into the hands of Britain's highest court, Parliament, the place where many say outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron, who has announced his resignation following the fiasco, should have left it.

Political decisions are complicated. In a parliamentary system it is up to our elected representatives to study all those complexities, find a course that is in the country's best interests and then take responsibility for that decision. 

Referendums are a pretense to take that responsibility out of their hands.

Cameron gets the hook

As usual, one of the best fingers on the pulse of British current events is the BBC satire show Dead Ringers that has a remorseful Cameron singing these words to Elton John's Candle in the Wind

"While it may be me who got us into all this bloody grief," sings the discredited PM in the skit, "I can't be asked to fix it so I'm off to Tenerife."   

As the song says, with the Prime Minister stepping down, with Leave campaigner Boris Johnson set to take power and a revolt against the party leader in the Labour Party, Britain is without a credible government to fix the problem.

Reader John Aumuller reminds me in an email that the vote does not necessarily mean Britain wants to leave Europe's economic union and that we should avoid gloomy hysteria. That said, there are strong political forces in Britain that do not want the referendum vote to stand. 

By itself the referendum has no legal binding power. Opponents will make the case that for such a staggering eventuality, which could include the dissolution of the historic United Kingdom, a referendum is not enough. Britain needs an election.

Perhaps that is why that wily political operator, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is in no rush to impose Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that would seal the British divorce from the EU. Merkel knows that in politics, it is never too late for reconciliation.

Or in the words of that other great political commentator, Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over." 

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.