The 2016 referendum feels like a long time ago now but Parliament is perhaps, at last, trying to have the discussion that (in my innocence) I’d assumed would follow the shock of the result. Is it too much to hope that, before committing ourselves irrevocably to a profoundly disruptive course of action, we might take the time to properly understand what the country voted for?
The political establishment were quick to embrace the result as the will of the people and promise that it would be respected. But that haste allowed us no time to reflect on what the vote actually told us about the public’s real wishes, no time to answer the obvious question: does that poll constitute an instruction from the public or does it simply demonstrate that the country is in two minds on the subject?
The fact that Leave got more votes than Remain is only the most superficial aspect of the result; the closeness of the vote and the uncertainty around why people voted as they did are also important factors that should inform a mature response. At a deeper level, the fact that 27% of the electorate didn’t vote is also significant, as is the fact that Leave’s win came as such a shock to so many people, both within the political establishment and beyond.
A proper understanding of the meaning of the vote would demand an exploration of all those factors and more. But right now, with a deadline looming and an urgent need to reach some kind of consensus, it is the narrow margin of victory and the question of what people were really voting for that are most important; in particular, the question of how many leave voters were primarily concerned about our membership of the EU and how many were simply choosing the only change that was on offer, out of a feeling that something, somewhere is fundamentally wrong with the status quo.
Just looking at the numbers, the ‘instruction’ argument implies that if a mere 4% of the active electorate had voted the other way, that would constitute an unarguable rejection of the case for leaving. On that logic, more than 96% of possible outcomes of the referendum should be regarded as a clear expression of the people’s will, one way or the other, with less than 4% of possible outcomes representing the realm of uncertainty where the will of the people is in flux, or is more complex than a two-option poll can properly represent. But isn’t it only within that realm that constructive debate can take place and compromise can be found?
When we look beyond the bare numbers and take into account the different motives that led people to vote as they did, the absurdity of the ‘instruction’ argument becomes even more apparent. It seems to be widely accepted, on both sides, that many who voted leave were primarily voting against a status quo they find intolerable, and it’s common to see ardent leavers using that fact to justify the demand that we should just leave now, with or without a deal. But I’ve seen very little discussion of whether some other, less drastic reform might satisfy a majority in both camps.
It’s safe to assume that the 17.4 million leave voters are so dissatisfied with the status quo that they would like to see it changed drastically, but the vote itself provides no way of knowing how many of them genuinely believe our membership of the EU is undesirable. It tells us nothing about what specific changes most of those leave voters might actually prefer. Conversely, those who chose the remain option can’t be assumed to endorse the status quo in its entirety; all we can be sure of is that more than 16 million members of the electorate explicitly rejected that specific change. There is no reason at all to assume that those 16 million people would not welcome other fundamental changes – changes which might radically alter the feelings of those who voted to leave, but which might avoid the upheaval and damaging consequences that are entailed in withdrawing from the EU.
There are other, more nuanced arguments why a responsible administration would have treated the result of the referendum with extreme caution. But the closeness of the result and the uncertainty around leave voters’ real wishes ought to have been enough to make the government and Parliament look for other ways of honouring the result. Instead, Theresa May staked her claim to leadership on a commitment to take the UK out of our 40-year-old involvement with our European neighbours, painting the result as the ‘will of the people’. In doing so, she effectively ruled out the kind of mature debate that might have led to a consensus on what the country should do next.
So, how else could the result have been honoured? Well, if politicians had looked properly at the underlying problems that led people to vote as they did, they might have recognised the connections between this issue and other equally contentious ones. The UK’s relationship with its European neighbours does not stand alone, divorced from all other factors; it is part of a broader constitutional question of how sovereignty should be shared between different levels of society, a question that also takes in the union between the four countries of the United Kingdom, and the relationship between local and central government generally – both of which have been sources of huge dissatisfaction for many years.
When people feel their voices are not being heard and their local communities have no real autonomy, it’s no surprise that they feel resentment towards remote administrations whose workings they know little about. For years, though, national politicians have blamed the EU for decisions that have actually been made in Westminster.
If the government had initiated a proper debate on the relationship between local government and higher authorities, it would almost certainly have shown that public frustration has far more roots in London than it does in Brussels. In that case, restructuring the UK’s internal governance might well have dissipated much of the hostility currently directed towards the EU. Even if that process had ended up confirming the desire to leave, it would have allowed the whole issue to be debated in a more balanced fashion than was possible once withdrawal had been declared the only option.
A narrow debate of that kind might have worked in the immediate aftermath of the referendum (though it wouldn’t have got to the heart of the country’s problems) but it wouldn’t be enough now. The last two years have laid bare the inadequacies of our current political system and many more people now recognise that, whatever happens with Brexit, we need fundamental change, not just in our relationship with Europe but also in the way our domestic politics works. To truly honour the referendum now, we need a proper debate on political reform – one the public will trust to be more than just a way of sweeping the issue under the carpet.
Cross-posted from T’Reasonable Man