There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the importance of respecting the result of the referendum. But which result should be respected? There is, of course, the primary result of the simple count of votes cast but it is at least important, surely, to respect the secondary result, the emotional upheaval that the vote has triggered. And if the primary and secondary results are in conflict we have to choose between them.
But are they really in conflict? Does the primary result truly represent the clear mandate for Leave that most people are saying it does?
How are Parliament to determine the will of the people when 28% of the electorate declined to vote? A glib answer is to dismiss them as apathetic and say that they had their chance and only have themselves to blame if they’re distressed by the result. But what about the ones who had not yet woken up to the issue emotionally and didn’t vote from diffidence, because they recognised that they didn’t understand it well enough to make an informed judgement? (Many of them could have given the question far more thought than some who didn’t actually care but did vote anyway, because they were pushed into it by family, friends or a hectoring media bombarding them with a message that they had a duty to do so.) Should we not give some thought to how democracy might respect their will?
I’d say that the question of which side won the referendum isn’t in fact as straightforward as it appears. In any ballot the issue of how abstentions should be regarded is crucial. Most people seem to take it for granted that the 28% who didn’t vote should be ignored, or assumed to be split in the same proportion as those who did, but I think that view ignores an important distinction between different types of ballot. And that failure to distinguish imposes an obligation on the electorate to engage actively with questions which they should have the right to delegate to government.
A healthy democratic system ought to recognise that there are fundamentally different types of decisions and that people’s motivation to engage with the issue at hand depends to a large extent on which type of decision it is. I categorise them, by analogy with a road journey, into T-junction, Y-junction and slip-road type decisions.
In a T-junction type vote, where external factors force a choice between different changes of direction, it’s perfectly appropriate to assume that people who don’t vote are split in similar proportions – because there’s no basis for any other assumption. A Y-type junction, where a major road divides into two clearly-defined roads of equal status, is similar in many ways and, again, it’s reasonable to regard those who do actually vote as being representative of the public as a whole.
In a slip-road type vote, however, where the choice is between an unforced change of direction and simply continuing on the established path, I’d say it’s more reasonable to regard abstentions as a vote for the status quo – especially where there is considerable doubt about which alternative road would be taken. On that basis, the result of the Brexit referendum is that 38% have expressed a definite desire to leave, but 62% are content to stay in.
These different types of situation affect the electorate’s engagement with the issues in different ways. On a journey, T-junctions positively require a decision and Y-junctions demand active attention to ensure you’re in the right lane. But slip roads can generally be passed by on autopilot: the navigators don’t need to give the driver explicit instructions to ignore each slip road as it approaches, they only need to be alert when they’re approaching the particular junction they want. But with a clamour of back-seat drivers all urging that ‘this is the road we should be taking’ it’s wholly understandable if the bulk of the passengers disengage and it’s unreasonable to expect them to re-engage for every side road that a vociferous minority wants to go down.
So was this a situation where the public should have been expected to be alert, should have been expected to have researched the issue and thought about the consequences sufficiently, in advance, to arrive at a considered judgement? As far as I can see, it was widely regarded as a product of internal conservative party wrangling which David Cameron had called as a way of silencing a fractious minority. It’s clear that much of the establishment, both here and abroad, initially took a Remain victory for granted and only woke up to the possibility of a Leave victory in the last few weeks. If people who are fully engaged with the political process could take it for granted it’s not surprising that much of the general public did so too.
The poll we’ve just had has now woken people up to a breadth and depth of feeling in their fellow citizens which many of them were clearly unaware of. Engagement in democratic processes can be purely intellectual but for many people it needs emotional involvement. The Leave camp have had that for years because they have been alienated by the status quo, but many people have only discovered the depth of their own attachment to Europe in the last week. If it is a flaw that we often only discover where our hearts lie when what we value is threatened, then it is a flaw which nearly all of us share and it would be absurd for our political processes not to allow for it.
I said above that failing to distinguish between different types of choice imposes an obligation on the electorate to engage actively with questions which they should have the right to delegate to government. That doesn’t mean that I think this particular issue falls into that category; the depth of feeling on it and the extent to which it is polarised clearly mean that it’s right for the question to be settled by the electorate rather than by Parliament. But that is only clear after the event; if David Cameron’s assessment had been right – if the passion to break away had been confined to a small minority – then it would have been perfectly reasonable for the public to leave it to their elected representatives.
What that means is that the poll we have just had cannot reasonably be treated as a definitive indication of the public will – because it pitted one camp who were fully engaged with the issue against another camp who were half asleep. That poll was needed to wake us all up and it has undoubtedly changed the status quo. It has set us on a path towards disengagement (and in a second binary referendum it would be reasonable for abstentions to count as passive votes for that new status quo) but, in itself, it does not truly answer the question of what the public really wants.
A second binary referendum on the same question, however, would ignore a hugely important factor: this result has not only provoked a constitutional crisis within Britain it has also provoked one within the EU itself. For many people who voted Leave (and for many people throughout Europe who would like to) the unforgivable flaw in the EU is its lack of genuine democratic accountability: it has a Parliament of directly elected representatives but that Parliament has no authority. It’s quite possible that the EU will now face up to that flaw and put it right and it would be a tragedy if Britain walked away only to see the EU reinvent itself as a true democracy as a result of our vote.
This referendum asked us whether we want to stay in the EU in its present form or leave. What I think will be needed now is a new poll on whether we should leave, regardless of any reforms it might introduce, or remain in a newly-constituted EU which has addressed the issue of democratic accountability that helped drive this result. In order to have a poll of that kind, whether it be another referendum or a general election fought primarily on that single issue, we need to clearly understand what constitutional reforms would be needed and what the prospects are of other European countries agreeing to implement them.