The people have spoken. 16,141,241 of them said the same thing. 17,410,742 said 17,410,742 different things. That is 16,141,241 and 17,410,742 out of the 72.2% of the electorate who voted, you understand. We are told that the margin of 1,269,501 votes for 1,269,501 different things constitutes an overwhelming majority and a mandate for the Government to implement whichever of the abovementioned different things it fancies. This is Punch and Judy politics.
The trouble is, the stage on which it is happening is not a wooden box in front of fifty bored children at the seaside. This is Britain, and we only have one of it. This is Europe, and we only have one of it. And the show will not be repeated every weekend throughout the summer. We have one go at it. Then it’s over.
All the more reason, you might think, for immense care. All the more reason to keep all options open, including the possibility of retreat. All the more reason to scrutinise minutely the arguments for continuing on our present course.
Not a chance. This Government is as open-minded, as careful, as scrupulous, as four teenagers crammed into a Dodgem. Bang goes this, crumple goes that, splinter go the windows in the EU greenhouse. What does it matter, thinks the Government. Hostility in Europe and disdain for the “elite” at home will strengthen its arm. Behind it, it has the mighty Will of the People.
We need to stop this hooliganism before it smashes up the shop.
The referendum of June 23 was advisory, not mandatory. If David Cameron promised that the vote would be implemented, that was his problem: his promise is not binding on Theresa May. She has chosen to make it binding. She has entirely political reasons for that. It is her only hold on the premiership. If she stopped driving Brexit forward, she would cease to be Prime Minister within five minutes.
The margin by which the Leave campaign won was slender: 3.8%. The actual percentages were 48.1% to 51.9%. (Of 72.2%, be it remembered.) Remain was 1.9% on the wrong side of 50. That margin is hardly the “stunning” majority claimed by Government spokesmen and invoked to justify treatment of Remain voters as a pathetic and deluded remnant left behind by the shipwreck of a discredited idea. Perhaps Government spokesmen do not understand percentages. Quite likely. They certainly don’t know much about population statistics. The percentage of males in the general population is 49%, which is also a minority just on the wrong side of 50 but is not, as far as I’m aware, commonly used to suggest that men are a pathetic and deluded remnant, although it is true that the three ministers responsible for Brexit are all male.
The bar set for the vote, 50%, could not have been lower, and the slenderness of the majority should be seen in this context. Many countries would regard 50% as absurd for a constitutional change: Japan, Italy and the USA require a two-thirds majority, France and Turkey three-fifths; and it is worth noting that, since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, Westminster has to return a two-thirds majority to demand an early General Election, suggesting that the British government is less bothered about leaving Europe than about protecting whatever clique is in office.)
Still, this referendum is touted as an exercise in democracy par excellence. “The people” voted. More of them voted than normally vote in General Elections. What more stirring demonstration could one want of the popular will? If you reject the vote, you are not a democrat. Since it is not possible decently to be anything else, that means you are scum. This line of talk has so terrified MPs and a great many other people that free expression of opinion has become stifled and any hope of a truly free vote in Parliament looks dead.
It is hogwash. There is no democracy without a free press, because how can an uninformed electorate vote intelligently? It is an open question whether we have a free press at the best of times, when so much of the media is corporately owned, but the referendum was not the best of times, it was the worst. The pro-Brexit press behaved like a dog pack with rabies. The BBC attempted “balance” but, as usual, had no idea, beyond following two minutes of A with two minutes of B, what a true balance might mean. Serious argument there was none. Facts were hysterically denied as soon as they poked their heads out. Boris clowned. What should have been a national debate was a national disgrace and, in the middle of it, democracy, far from flourishing, was being tortured in a cave.
Worse: “the people” were not merely denied the information they needed, they were systematically fed false information. The most notorious lie, the £350 million per week that was paid to the EU and would be given by a future British government to the NHS, was withdrawn by Farage the day after the vote. There never were 70,000 Turks ready to storm British borders. It is untrue that vast sums of money are paid annually to Europe from the British exchequer 1, that Britain ceded some of its sovereignty to Europe 2, or that Brussels demanded bananas be straight 3. There is much more like this.
We are talking about 3.8%. But we aren’t really. We are talking about that percentage halved. If 1.9% of the voters had realised they had been lied to and switched their vote from Leave to Remain, the referendum would have resulted in a dead heat. And there would be no Brexit, because the situation would have reverted to the status quo. Is it really credible that the campaign of disinformation mounted by Leave was as unsuccessful as that? How many spin doctors are begging on the streets?
All parties exaggerate in an election campaign, say the Brexiteers, smiling. This is disingenuous. It pretends that the referendum vote was like any other vote. It wasn’t. If you vote for a party at a General Election and you then don’t like what it does in office, you can hope to get rid of it in five years’ time. The referendum vote was for ever.
And, as is often remarked, the Leave voters didn’t know what they were voting for. How could they, when no-one had soberly laid the information before them, there was nothing on the ballot paper to help them, and the incessant voices in their ears were all demanding that they feel something rather than think? They were left to pick out from the chaos what most mattered to them. The NHS. Immigration. Jobs. Bankers’ bonuses. Two fingers up to the Government. Housing. Benefit cuts. Fishing quotas. Underpasses for newts. The past, which was better than the present. Globalisation. Most of this had little or nothing to do with the EU, but they had been encouraged to think it had. The cross in the box was an answer to a question that was not on the ballot.
Should all this be respected? It seems to me that the only element of it that should be respected is the honest effort people made in going to the polling station.
Brexit is going to be the great car crash of our time, and if “the people” had been given reliable information, if they had not been lied to, and if the bar for the vote had been set at a reasonable level, it would not be happening. It has to be stopped.
MPs who are Remainers but are afraid to vote that way must find the courage to act (as they are expected to) in what they believe to be the country’s interests. That does not mean timidly putting forward an amendment to soften the impact of this or that. It means rejecting the referendum result lock, stock and barrel. Nothing else will do. To attempt to “respect it but get the best possible deal” is useless: it is to sell the pass.
The vote was not honest, it was not fair, it was not democratic. It is time to stand up and say so.
1 “In 2015 each EU citizen would have paid an average of 278 euros to the Union, a fraction of what he or she pays in national taxes.” The Routledge Guide to the European Union, Leonard, D. and Taylor, R., Routledge 2016.
2 Theresa’s May’s White Paper admits as much.
3 See earlier blog post, Truth, 1: Ducks and quarks.