Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker has been sharing his thoughts on referendums with the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly. The self-proclaimed ‘hard man of Brexit’ told the assembly that the Brexit referendum “probably should have been a supermajority” requiring 60% voter support. That’s despite his having voted against an SNP amendment to the EU referendum bill in 2015 calling for just that. He added that it would not be advisable, in any future vote on Irish unification, to accept a “50% plus one” decision.
We’d have lost
Baker was a prominent figure in the Leave campaign in the run up to the Brexit referendum and an active ‘Brexit Spartan’ in its aftermath. Despite Theresa May’s hard red lines on Brexit, Baker voted against her deal three times, presumably because it wasn’t hard enough. He later told Newsnight that “holding those tigers by the tail”, between 2016 and 2019, had cost him his mental health. Much of the country felt the same way. Many of us still do.
Baker suggested that not having a supermajority threshold had caused the country serious political “trouble”. Indeed. But he failed to mention the government’s seeming willingness to stir up that division, to spread misinformation, and to fail to have any implementation plan whatsoever.
He admitted that had there been a supermajority in the Brexit referendum, “we’d have lost and we’d still be in (the EU)”. But at least “everybody would have abided by the result”, including the government, presumably. He added that it was “inconceivable” that we would have had “all of the political difficulty which followed from members of parliament in particular refusing to accept the result”.
Referendum “met the threshold for illegality”
Baker failed, of course, to mention that those refusing to accept the result, politicians or no, were raising other important issues when “refusing to accept the result”. Such as the outrageous promises and outright lies of the Leave campaign. Or the fact that, according to Sir James Eadie QC, Theresa May’s legal counsel, the referendum “met the threshold for illegality”.
In my 2019 court case – ‘Wilson and others versus the Prime Minister’ – I challenged the government over the legality of the referendum result. With the referendum being merely advisory, rules that would have applied had the result been binding, did not apply.
Had the referendum been legally binding, parliament would have had “a statutory legal mechanism by which it would be annulled”, as they do with elections. So, the government, and Baker presumably, knew the referendum result to be illegal but decided to proceed regardless, and with no idea how to do so. While David Cameron had promised to honour the result, that was before the illegality was fully known or understood. And in any case, he didn’t hang around long enough to honour anything.
An ulterior motive?
I don’t doubt that Baker is sincere in hoping to ensure that, in the event of a vote on the unification of Ireland, a supermajority threshold be required. Not only would it give the result legitimacy, but it would make it easier for the public, and the politicians, to get behind the outcome. It might also make the unification of Ireland a more difficult goal to achieve – a factor that may be influencing Baker’s thinking.
Baker says that had 60% of the voting public decided to leave the EU in 2016, the road to Brexit, even with the Conservatives in charge, would have been smoother and the country less divided. Whether to ensure legitimacy or prevent division, there will be those arguing for a supermajority in the event of any future referendum on rejoining the EU. No doubt hard man Baker and his fellow Spartans will be amongst them.
But, even if the hard man of Brexit has now gone soft on democracy, it’s hard not to conclude that he has an ulterior motive – one that will ensure that his beloved Brexit is secure. He’s known all along that a supermajority is a much tougher threshold to achieve. Which is why he voted against it 2015.