Allison Drew, professor emerita at the University of York, discusses Brexit and democracy in the UK.

THE spectre of democracy haunts all debates about Brexit. Yet the meaning of democracy and its relationship to Brexit has scarcely been discussed. The present Brexit campaign began with Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that if the Conservatives won the May 2015 general election, their government would hold an in-or-out referendum on EU membership.

The referendum that took place in June 2016 was a vote on a general principle only – to remain in or to leave the EU. It was advisory only – the 2015 European Union Referendum Act stipulated a vote on EU membership but did not require that the result be implemented.

There was no serious discussion of legislation for the referendum – despite the magnitude of the issue – because neither government nor opposition expected Brexit to win.

After all, opinion polls showed a clear majority favoured remaining in the EU. Although British Social Attitudes surveys showed a rise in Euroscepticism, that did not translate into a desire to leave the EU. Its July–November 2015 survey showed 60 per cent supporting remain and 30 per cent backing withdrawal.

Despite the advisory nature of the referendum, on March 29, 2017 the British government invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, stipulating withdrawal from the EU by March 29, 2019. And yet it had no withdrawal plan. The great puzzle is why the opposition went along with this undemocratic decision.

Why undemocratic?

Firstly, the decision to treat an advisory vote as if it were legally binding is profoundly dishonest and undemocratic. Secondly, the decision to implement a vote on a simple majority is problematic. Constitutional change typically requires a larger winning margin or support from a required share of electorate, not just from those voting. For example, rules governing strike ballots in Britain demand hurdles beyond a simple majority. It is harder to vote for a strike than it was to vote for Brexit.

The referendum’s result should have opened the door to discussion and research. Instead, so poisonous was the political atmosphere after the referendum that people who questioned the advisory referendum and the top-down decision to implement it were themselves decried as undemocratic.

Yet open discussion and informed choice are necessary and fundamental to the democratic process. Much detail has emerged in the aftermath of the June 2016 vote that undermines many claims of the Vote Leave campaign, which was marred by illegal spending.

What about a second referendum?

The crucial difference between the June 2016 referendum and a second referendum is that the first vote was on a general principle – in or out – while a second referendum would be a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s specific plan. In everyday terms, the decision to buy a house does not necessitate buying a particular house if the structural survey reveals problems. This is the situation we are in with Brexit.

Leave supporters claim they want their sovereignty back. Yet state sovereignty is always constrained by international laws and obligations. More importantly, Britain’s greatest recent controversies – the Iraq war and austerity – were not decided by the EU, but by British governments chosen by British voters. We must stop scapegoating the EU for our national decisions.

Despite growing popular pressure for a second referendum, rumours are swirling that the Labour leadership seeks to block this possibility. Yet Labour’s socioeconomic policies would be undermined by Brexit’s economic damage.

The public stance on the EU has fluctuated over the decades. People are certainly better informed than they were in June 2016, and we have the right to change our minds. The June 2016 advisory vote should never had been frozen into an absolute standard. That is the root of the present predicament. Opposition to a second referendum cannot be justified on democratic grounds.

What are the next steps?

Firstly, Article 50 must be suspended, not merely postponed. We need a breathing space to consider all options – not least a People’s Vote – without an unnecessary deadline looming over our heads. The European Court has ruled that a parliamentary vote to withdraw Article 50 would terminate the current Brexit proceedings. Secondly, a referendum on May’s specific proposal with the option to remain in the EU must be put to the people.

The Conservative and Labour parties have spent two and a half years respecting and trying to implement the June 2016 referendum result, imbuing this vote on principle with opposing meanings. They have failed. The people must decide the way forward.

Allison Drew is Professor Emerita at the University of York, and a member of York for Europe and Another Europe is Possible