The UK and Europe
Is Brexit the settled will of the people?
Andrew Woodcock / Jan 2017
We Brits have shown we can leave the EU and choose a new path. But we cannot avoid home truths: in doing so we are jumping off a cliff politically and economically. The harder the Brexit, the harder the landing. The “Clean Break” now proposed would be the hardest of all. Leaving will mean an all but irrevocable revolution in Britain’s body politic, painful economic losses and possibly a less stable Europe. The consequences may last generations.
While somewhat overlooked in the current debate, the premise for leaving is surprisingly flimsy. A mere 1.9% overturning all democratically elected governments of all political parties in all elections for nearly fifty years. With Brexit’s case resting on verifiably false headliners and fundamentally misleading narratives about the EU that beg the question whether they understood the EU at all. Were sufficient numbers of voters able to spot this? Naturally, any chimera of public support could so easily disappear in the face of ensuing hardships. What is so truly democratic about all this?
Consequently while we may congratulate Brexiteers on their skilled campaign, we might well ask if Britain clearly wants Brexit.
For sure, this referendum cannot simply be ignored once it happened. Picking up the pieces of this mess was bound to be a hospital pass for any politicians given the expectations raised. But constitutionally, referenda can only be advisory. We vote for leaders, not on individual policies (Britain is not Switzerland). Referenda cannot settle multi-issue complex disputes, and tend to degenerate into “neverenda” that resolve nothing. They should not be used to let governments off the hook on difficult controversies. Still less to counter intra-party squabbles. As Mitterrand famously observed, voters rarely answer the question actually posed.
Nobody can honestly claim to know what the Brits actually want based on the result’s closeness and the complexity of the issues. Politicians and pundits alike can only second guess voter preferences based on their own perspectives, agendas and preferences. Hard versus soft, immigration versus trade, sovereignty versus prosperity are cases in point. It takes a particular leap of faith to infer that Britain voted for a clean break.
So what could referenda like this be useful for? One thing only. Namely, establishing whether the governments we elect are significantly and systematically out of step with the settled will of the people on straightforward matters of national importance. Only where that is so may the high costs of Brexit be justified.
In fact, all the result reasonably tells us is that Britain is split, including between its component countries, social classes and inter-generationally. And that for different reasons, many are dissatisfied with the status quo. Of course, the EU may not be (primarily) to blame. It may just have been the only target for protest within frustrated voters’ reach.
Effective governance is what is most needed. Through balanced, informed analysis, governments are supposed to lead rather than follow public opinion. They must take the people with them in the strategic course they choose. However fair the referendum process might or might not have been is no guarantee of wise decision-making or optimal outcomes. Governments cannot abnegate responsibility that easily for decisions taken on their watch. They are ultimately where the buck stops.
If Britain jumps off the cliff, the decision should be based on the people’s settled will. Sadly, the referendum gave no clear evidence that this is so. Without that settled will, Brexit is little more than a needless gamble with Britain’s long-term well being and the Continent’s stability. Future generations may indeed regard this as governance failure.