Can 17,410,742 people really be wrong? The decision by a slim majority of the British public to leave the European Union has been met with widespread disbelief and disgust. It is hard to see, in the short-term at least, the vote having anything other than negative consequences. Rarely is there a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but some may be minded to claim that Brexit is the latter; plainly, simply and unequivocally. If this is true then should the issue, with the potential to have such negative ramifications, really have been left in the hands of the people?
Cry Havoc! How dare I suggest such a thing! Surely it’s petulant to argue against democracy just because it hasn’t gone your way – that’s its very nature. But this isn’t what I’m saying. If the British people had been in possession of all the facts and had known the full consequences of voting to leave the European Union then I would indeed have accepted their decision regardless. But it has become ever-more clear over the past few days that many did not. Some have even said they wish they’d voted to remain knowing what they do now. After Brexit there came the Regrexit.
So what exactly have these former Brexiteers learned to make them change their minds? Few now deny the great uncertainty, particularly in the long-term, at home and abroad which the vote has caused. It is for this very reason that global markets are tumbling and sterling has fallen to record lows. This is hardly helped by the seemingly inevitable prospect of a second Scottish referendum and the increased likelihood that Scotland will also move to ‘reclaim its sovereignty’ after having convincingly voted to remain. Another inevitability – following the resignation of David Cameron – is the almost comical situation of Michael Gove or Boris Johnson being the favorites to become the next Prime Minister: a choice between a moral or an intellectual vacuum. We do then know some of the immediate effects of Thursday’s vote. None of them does much to reassure me that the future will be brighter.
But there must have been some reason why people supported Brexit. I don’t think anybody is claiming the British public is a group of nihilists. Rather, nearly everyone who participated in the referendum, Leave or Remain, would admit that Britain faces many problems: Social and economic inequality, NHS funding and immigration are all issues which few deny need addressing. The fundamental difference between those who voted for and against Brexit however was that the Leavers believed that the better way of solving our problems would be to do so outside of the European Union.
Yet it hardly seems likely that a right-wing, pro-Brexit administration would be particularly concerned with the inequality, particularly economic, which is currently rife in this country and only getting worse. Neither is it obvious that such a government would spend more on the NHS to lessen its funding crisis. Nigel Farage even admitted, within hours of the result, that he was wrong to promise that the money saved by not being members of the EU would be spent on the health service. What’s more, there is nothing to suggest that a ‘Brexit Government’ will retain any of the key pieces of European legislation such as The European Convention on Human Rights or The Social Chapter upon which millions of ordinary people rely. Even on the issue of immigration, if Brexiteers are really as keen as they say they are to protect trade with Europe, then they will have little choice but to accept the free movement of people – hardly increasing the control we have over our borders. Whilst it is perfectly understandable, in regards to all of these problems, why many would think Brexit was preferable, upon reflection it is clear to see that not being a part of the EU will do nothing but make them worse. If we take their amelioration to be an objective good, which I assume the vast majority would agree with, we can only view Brexit as an absolute bad.
Yet those 17 million people who voted Leave were not wrong in any way similar to Brexit itself. Neither was it due to their opinions being second class or invalid, but rather because they were misguided and under-informed, voting for something other than that which they thought it was. Had this not been the case , it isn’t difficult to imagine that Thursday night’s result would have been very different. Yet given the hubris, hyperbole and downright hate which characterised much of the campaign, on both sides, it does make me wonder whether people ever had a chance of making a balanced and informed decision. This is reason I think our membership of the European Union shouldn’t have been left to a public vote.
It was the French revolutionary Rollin who infamously said ‘there go my people, I must follow them for I am their leader.’ Having adopted a weak style of leadership through his overreliance on referendums, David Cameron has cost himself his job, but his country far more. It is his responsibility to do the best for Britain, not what is easiest politically. Unlike the public at large, he is the one with access to the most expert advice which shouldn’t be dismissed – as certain politicians think – merely because it contradicts popular opinion. By calling for a European referendum, aware that many would be voting without full possession of the facts, the Prime Minister disgracefully abdicated his duties as head of government. We should not therefore blame those who voted Leave for what is about to happen to this country, but David Cameron for being led, not being the leader of his people
We must also remember that Britain is not an Athenian democracy. The people do not vote on everything but they instead elect representatives to do so on their behalf. This is because it is accepted that on certain issues a popular vote would be an uninformed vote. Many people have far more pressing concerns, such a putting food on the table and paying the bills, than ensuring they are sufficiently informed to vote on every piece of legislation that comes up in Parliament.
While some may cry ‘vox populi vox dei’, it certainly wasn’t the voice of any God the people expressed last Thursday. They may not have been deceived, but by no means did they possess the whole truth. Allowing Britain’s membership of the EU to go to a public vote was instead a foolish act of cowardice. Now we will require an act of divine inspiration to make the best of this precarious situation.