The UK in/out referendum result on 24 June 2016 should go down as a black day in British history, for reasons that not everyone will agree on. Like many, I went to bed late on the night of the 23rd assuming the opposite result would occur. The political discourse on all sides has now taken alarming leave of reality and is spiralling out of control; on the streets racist hooligans are attacking anyone they think is an immigrant. This is not the UK anyone wants.
Is the result valid?
The first thing we have to take issue with is the idea that the referendum result somehow represents ‘the will of the people’ and must be ‘democratically respected’, as the political establishment on all sides repeated endlessly in the last few days (e.g. on the Question Time episode on 26 June). This is complete nonsense. Let’s just consider the facts at a statistical level:
- 16 & 17 year olds were not allowed to vote, but we know they would have voted overwhelmingly for remaining in the EU;
- the turnout of other young people (18 – 30) who could vote was low (around 36% compared to a national turnout of 72%), because they never imagined any risk of the outcome being an exit;
- there is growing evidence of people who voted ‘out’ wishing they had voted for ‘Remain’ – this poll predicts a million such people;
- there is much evidence of Leave voters having voted as a protest against the ‘political elite’, not against the UK’s EU membership per se.
These factors alone would have changed the outcome. So if the intention was to gauge the ‘will of the people’, the referendum failed. If it had been run in almost any other country, it would have failed anyway, because a non-simple majority would have been required, e.g. 65% and/or a majority in each territory or state.
More important than simple numbers, we need to remember that democracy is only worthy of its name when voters are informed. It is questionable how much significance we should put on this result when it is very clear that millions of people feel they were profoundly uninformed or misinformed about the issue. Many people who voted to leave the EU had only a limited grasp on what the EU is, what membership provides, how EU regulation works, or the likely consequences of exiting. These are highly complex questions requiring serious engagement, and yet the electorate was asked to vote in a binary way. Nevertheless, there were some fairly predictable consequences of Brexit which many Leave voters afterward expressed surprise at:
- The Prime Minister has resigned;
- Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or someone else unexpected will become the next Prime Minister, with who knows what agenda for the country;
- Scotland will be looking for a new independence referendum;
- 500 of 650 members of parliament are in the Remain camp. Now parliament is in the position of having to pass legislation related to formally trigger an EU exit that the vast majority don’t believe is right for the country;
- Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland has said it will look for a referendum on re-establishing an integrated Ireland. Unlike Scotland, this has the potential to open up dangerous fault-lines and even threaten the peace process there which on its own would be an error so grave as to have scuttled any idea of a vote that could have lead to it;
- The Leave campaign’s promises including its dishonest claim of the £350m/week contribution being spent on the NHS were repudiated almost immediately after the result was announced;
- Short term market reaction has been very negative, sending the sterling to a 30 year low.
A somewhat less predictable outcome was that the Labour party has imploded, with a long planned coup (if we believe Diane Abbot on QT, Sunday night) to remove Corbyn finally finding an excuse to activate – there is now no effective political opposition to the maneuverings of the Tory anti-EU camp.
In sum, we have a massive political vacuum on all sides of politics, a parliament being instructed by the people – on paper – to do something it doesn’t believe in and a very possible breakup of the Union, not to mention a weak currency, early signs of financial and tech sector businesses starting to decamp to Europe, and… no plan for the future on the part of the Leave camp. Worse, it is highly doubtful that the new government will be any more attentive to the disaffected Leave voters in the ‘de-industrialised north’ than the current government, and may well be far worse. Membership of the EU isn’t problem-free to be sure, but it’s clear that none of the events in the UK are going to improve the situation.
My question is: does the referendum result therefore accurately reflect a considered examination and acceptance of these consequences? It is extremely unlikely. On the contrary, I think it’s clear that the referendum result tells us almost nothing about what people think about the UK’s membership of the EU.
Does the result tell us anything at all?
What it does tell us is the level of anger the disenfranchised have for what they perceive as the unaccountable elite. These are the people in towns and cities de-industrialised from Thatcher’s time and declining ever since. They have real grievances, and many are right to be angry. But they have been manipulated by UKIP and other anti-immigration voices into thinking that the cause of their problems is immigration when in fact it has been that they have been cast adrift by the centralised political elite of this nation. They forget that 95% of immigrants are workers, just like them, trying to find a basic future for themselves.
That carefully manipulated anger has been misdirected in a referendum about a different issue, the result of which may have terrible social and economic consequences for generations to come. George Soros and Yanis Varoufakis both think it is likely to lead to the unravelling of the entire European project.
There is no other conclusion: the result of the referendum is invalid on its own terms, and yet is being treated as a meaningful democratic event by politicians on all sides. Cameron’s resignation, the Corbyn coup, the re-arrangement of our political landscape, not to mention the main business of dismantling the UK’s membership of the EU are all predicated on a fiction. It may be true that (some of) the people have spoken. But it is very clear that many were not speaking to the issue in question, and indeed many were hoodwinked.
I mentioned above some of the predictable consequences of a Brexit vote. We should also consider some of the unexpected consequences. One of the ugliest is that – only 3 days after the result – we are seeing a wave of anti-immigrant hate crime. Bizarrely, the offenders in some of the crimes reported so far don’t even seem to distinguish between EU immigrants and random people who just don’t seem English, including UK born and bred residents of Pakistani, Indian, West Indian and other origins. In other incidents, Polish people have been sent hate mail and accosted on the street. Somehow the referendum result has given licence to certain people to turn into belligerent racists on the streets. Did anyone vote for this?
There will be many more unexpected consequences, across all sectors of the economy and all areas of life. The country has voted to jump off a cliff at night and it has no idea if warm water lies 30 feet below, or it’s 1000 feet to concrete.
Is there any way to reverse things?
The first thing to remember is that in terms of constitutional law, nothing at all has happened. As pointed out by Geoffrey Robertson QC, an act of parliament is required to turn what is an ‘advisory’ result into official reality. And MPs can vote against doing so if they believe it is in the best interests of their constituents.
So if we want to do anything about this, there is one possible solution: we all need to write to our MP and convince them not to vote for legislation implementing the EU exit. This may be our only chance to undo this act of self-harm. If we were able to pull that off, then we must get serious about addressing two other things: the very real problems in the EU, and the very real socio-economic problems of those who voted to leave.
There’s a lesson in all this: a referendum is a very bad tool to determine the public mind in a representative parliamentary democracy when the natives are already angry and you haven’t been nice to them.