The endgame of “Brexit” is upon us, and if the UK’s Prime Minister is to be believed, the chances are high that the country will leave the EU without a deal at the end of October.
This is not what the majority of the country’s citizens want. It is not what most European leaders want. Yet, in response to attempts at discussing the issues, very many “Brexiteers” simply resort to the statement that “Brexit means Brexit!“, and most are usually unwilling to engage in any kind of further rational debate on the issue. The opprobrium poured on those who dare to try to debate the issue, the threats of violence, and the abusive posts on social media all testify to how divided our country is. I have argued elsewhere that this was because those voting to leave in the 2016 referendum did so largely on emotional grounds, whereas most of those voting to remain did so on rational grounds. However, whenever I hear it, I am always struck how very, very problematic this slogan is. So, let me once again, please try in the simplest possible ways to convince those who believe that the slogan is true, that the referendum vote really does not mean that the UK should leave the EU:
- People did not know what they were voting for in the 2016 referendum. There was absolutely no clarity at the time about what the options would be for leaving the EU, nor were the real implications fully understood. It is therefore actually meaningless to say “Brexit means Brexit”.
- The referendum was only advisory. The referendum was not legally binding, although some politicians did say that they would abide by it. In the UK, though, there is a fundamental distinction between what is legal and what is not. In some countries, referendums are indeed legally binding, but this one was not.
- The referendum campaign was repleat with lies. It has been argued that neither side told the truth about Brexit during the 2016 campaign, but it is fairly widely accepted that those campaigning to leave lied to a far greater extent than did those campaigning to remain. I have posted a selection of these lies and half-truths in my 2018 post The half-truths and misprepresentations that won Brexit.
- Brexit campaigners have been shown to have broken the law regarding the funding of their campaign. Leave.EU was fined £70,000 over breaches of electoral law. Moreover, in October 2018 Open Democracy reported that the “Police (are) still not invesitgating Leave campaigns, citing ‘political sensitivies’”.
- The Brexit campaign illegally used social media to influence voters. The illegal funding was largely used to support targetted social media, and experts suggest that it could well have influenced over 800,000 voters. The Leave campaign only won by 634,751 votes. Moreover, there is strong evidence that disgraced firm Cambridge Analytica had indeed used sophisticated social profiling techniques to target voters.
- Only 27% of the total UK population actually voted to leave. While 52% of those voting did indeed vote to leave, this represented only a small percentage of the total population. Moreover, the 700,000 British citizens who had lived overseas for more than 15 years were also excluded from the vote. Likewise, European citizens living and working in the UK were not permitted to vote.
- A majority of people in the UK now wish to remain in the EU. By January 2019 demographic factors alone meant that there were more people likely to vote to remain than to leave, because of the number of elderly people (likely to vote leave) who had died since 2016, and the number of young people who are now 18 but could not vote in 2016 (likely to vote remain) who are now eligible to vote.
- If politicians can change their minds, why are the people not allowed to? One of the most remarkable things about the last three years has been the willingness of parliamentarians to change their minds about Brexit, and yet they have not given the chance to the people of this country also to change their minds. This seems to me to be hugely hypocritical. Indeed, former Prime Minister May is the classice example of this. She voted to remain, and yet continually emphasised once she was Prime Minister that Brexit means Brexit. For those who are interested in how other politicians continue to change their mind, do look at my post on Flip-flop views over Brexit.
Those are the main grounds why the observation that 52% of those voting in the 2016 referendum supported leave does not mean that we should leave the EU now in 2019, and especially not without any kind of agreement.
However, for those who wish to read a little further, let me highlight the absurdity of the figures and the way the referendum was constructed. How would those supporting Brexit have reacted to a 52% vote in favour of remaining? Might they not have tried to make similar arguments to those above (assuming of course that they were willing to debate these issues)? What if only 25 million people had voted, and 52% had voted to remain. That would only represent some 13 million people, or just under 20% of the total population. Surely that could not be a legitimate basis for remaining they might say!
Whether to leave or remain has clearly divided the country, and indeed parliament. However, in such circumstances, the wise thing to have done would have been to say that this is an insufficient mandate for change. Indeed, as in many other key referendums, specific criteria could have been built into the original referendum. For example, the referendum could have stated that it would require at least two-thirds of those eligible to vote to leave, or more than 50% of the total population voting this way, for the government to initiate procedures to leave. The shaping of the referendum which was purely advisory has itself led to many of these problems. The UK is a divided country, and in such circumstances where there is no clear mandate for change, our government(s) should have explored other options. The actions of the Tory party over the last three years have only exacerbated the divides within our society. After all, though, Brexit was never realy about the interests of the British people, but was instead fundamentally concerned with the survival of our existing political parties, and about the careers of individual politicians who saw it as an opportunity for their own engradisement.
Whatever happens in the future, it will be essential for huge efforts to be put into reuniting our country. The social divides that Brexit has opened will take years to heal, and may be even more damaging to the country than the economic crisis that will befall the UK if we do indeed leave, especially without a deal. Today’s protests against PM Johnson’s plans to suspend Parliament are just a beginning. There is very considerable potential for widespreead violence, and as in the run-up to most civil wars, families, communities and workplaces are all now becoming increasingly divided. We need wise, brave, strong, visionary and inspirational leaders. Tragically, there is no evidence that we have such politicians.