Peter Bye

Since the referendum, we have heard from many leavers and some remainers that the vote was democratic and we must respect it. In recent weeks, the attitude of the Brexiteers has become somewhat shrill. We are told that the vote represents the will of the people[1]. There is increasing pressure for a second vote with a choice between some kind of deal, and even no deal, and remain, but the hard-line Brexiteers reject the suggestion of another referendum as undemocratic.

But just how democratic was the referendum? Is it undemocratic to ask the public to vote again, now that we know more about what it means to leave? And what does the current situation reveal about the nature of democracy in the UK? In this piece, I’d like to explore these questions.

Was the referendum democratic? Start with the numbers[2]: the result was 17,410,742 for leave and 16,141,241 for remain; the ratio of leave to remain was thus 51.9% to 48.1%. The turnout was about 72% of the electorate. The leave vote therefore represents about 37% of the electorate, with 35% voting remain and 28% not voting. The electorate for the referendum included people aged 18 or more, but did not extend the vote to those aged 16 to 18. (16-18 year olds were allowed to vote in the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence.) Arguably, the 16 to 18s would be the most affected in the long term.

While the 51.9% to 48.1% of those who voted is a majority for leave, it hardly represents an overwhelming vote for something that will fundamentally affect the UK’s future and even the existence of the UK as an entity. It’s interesting to note that Nigel Farage, one of the architects of Euroscepticism, said in May 2016, before the referendum[3]:

‘In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the Remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.’

He now appears to think that the result was decisive and is vocal in expressing his resistance to another referendum. And he recently remarked that the vote in the European Parliament in favour of Ursula von der Leyen as president of the EU Commission (52%) was not convincing[4]. A sense of irony is clearly not a strong feature of Mr Farage’s way of thinking.

The public went into the referendum with little information as to what would happen if we left the EU. No contingency planning had been done by the government as to what the relationship between the UK and the EU would be in the event of a leave vote. All the public knew was the obvious logical fact that, if we left, we would no longer be in the EU; you can’t be in and not in something simultaneously.

The campaign leading up to the referendum was conducted with scant regard for facts, and a great deal of misinformation, particularly from Vote Leave, the organisation leading the move for Brexit. Here’s a couple of examples from a leaflet produced by Vote Leave, entitled ‘5 positive reasons to Vote Leave and take back control’.

The leaflet claimed that ‘we send over £350 million to the EU every week’, or an annual figure of around £18 billion. This is the famous untruth propagated throughout the campaign, appearing on the side of Vote Leave’s bus. As it’s been repeatedly exposed as a lie, I won’t go into it further other than to say that the net contribution was less than half that figure, at just under 0.5% of GDP.

Another reason given was that we will be ‘Free to trade with the whole world’. At present, Vote Leave claimed, ‘the UK has no trade deals with important countries like China, India and Australia’. Being in the EU does not prevent UK businesses from trading with China, India or anywhere else. Other EU countries do it and so do many UK businesses. And the UK is obviously included in any EU free trade deal made with other countries; there are around 60 countries with such deals[5].

The above just scratches the surface of the tissue of untruths and wishful thinking surrounding the Brexit campaign, and continuing since the referendum. We have been promised great opportunities after leaving the EU but without any detail of what they are. Given that Mr Farage would have fought for another referendum had the result been 51.9% to 48.1% in favour of remain, it seems eminently reasonable to give UK citizens a new vote now that we have a clearer idea of what life after the EU could mean; it’s not undemocratic. One argument raised against such a vote is that we do not demand another general election if the result is not what we want. But we do: we have another election after a maximum five year wait, when we can throw out the government if we don’t like what it’s doing.

Where does all this leave democracy in the UK? I believe the political gridlock is the result of a conflict between two forms of democracy. Referendums are a form of direct democracy, and, given the result of the Brexit referendum, there is pressure to honour it. But the UK is a representative democracy: MPs are elected to serve the interests of their constituents and the country at large; they are not delegates to do as they are told. A majority of MPs believe that Brexit is not in the people’s best interests so they are doing their job to prevent harm. It’s hard to see how to resolve the representative/direct conflict without giving the people another vote. Sadly, the current approach of the Boris Johnson government appears to be to force the UK out of the EU, even without a deal, and blame the EU for subsequent problems.

Notes and sources

[1] The ‘will of the people’ is, I believe, a dangerous concept, favoured by dictators who claim they embody it.

[2] The results are available on the BBC website at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/eu_referendum/results

[3] For a report on what he said, see , see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36306681

[4] See ‘Nigel Farage complaining about Ursula von der Leyen being elected on just 52% of the vote is peak Brexit’ https://www.thelondoneconomic.com/politics/nigel-farage-complaining-about-ursula-von-der-leyen-being-elected-on-just-52-of-the-vote-is-peak-brexit/17/07/ He even suggested that she is a Communist – https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/nigel-farage-ursula-von-der-leyen_uk_5d2d94e5e4b0a873f641303f

[5] For details of EU trade deals, see https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/trade-policy/trade-agreements/

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