Following the 2016 referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Union, the political establishment was quick to interpret the slim majority for leaving as a clear expression of the will of the people, an instruction which they had no option but to obey.
I’ve explored some of the more obvious absurdities of this interpretation elsewhere but there are also some more nuanced reasons why the result should not have been treated as simplistically as it was; in particular there is the question of what assumptions should be made about the wishes of those who didn’t vote and how their interests should be respected, and there is the question of whether the pre-referendum debate was adequate considering the importance of the decision.
How are we 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 chose not to vote out of 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.)
It’s not just those who chose not to vote, though. What about those who were unable to – because they were too young, or had lived abroad too long or aren’t British citizens – but whose lives might be transformed by the decision? Surely, a genuine democracy must respect their rights, just as much as the wishes of those who did choose to vote.
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 either be ignored, or assumed to be split in the same proportion as those who did. But that view ignores an important distinction between different types of decision. A healthy democratic system ought to recognise that there are fundamentally different types of decision and that people’s motivation to engage with the issue at hand depends to a large extent on what type of decision it is. To use a road journey analogy, the election of an MP is as different to a referendum as a roundabout is to a motorway slip road.
In the first case, where one phase has come to an end and a choice has to be made between equal alternatives, 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. It’s reasonable therefore to regard those who do actually vote as being representative of the public as a whole.
In the second case, however, where the choice is between an unforced change of direction and simply continuing on the established path, it is more reasonable to regard abstentions as a vote for the status quo – especially where there is considerable doubt about what alternative path should be taken. On that basis, the result of the Brexit referendum was that 38% expressed a desire to leave, but 62% were content to stay in.
This is not just a matter of what the rules should be, though, because these different types of situation affect the electorate’s engagement with the issues in different ways. Extending the road journey analogy, roundabouts positively require a decision and demand active attention to ensure you’re in the right lane. Slip roads, on the other hand, can generally be passed by on autopilot: the navigators don’t need to give the driver explicit instructions to ignore each slip road they pass, they only need to be alert when they’re approaching the particular junction they want. When there’s a clamour of back-seat drivers, though, all urging different changes of course, it’s wholly understandable if most people largely disengage from debate and focus only on what directly concerns them.
Was the 2016 referendum 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 I recall, it was widely regarded as a product of internal Conservative Party wrangling, a ballot which David Cameron had called as a way of silencing a fractious minority. My impression is that much of the political establishment initially took a remain victory for granted and only woke up to the possibility of a leave victory in the last few weeks of the campaign. If people who are fully engaged with the political process could take the result for granted, it’s not surprising that much of the general public did so too.
In the event, the poll woke people up to a breadth and depth of feeling in their fellow citizens which many of them had been unaware of. Engagement in democratic processes can be purely intellectual but for many people it needs emotional involvement, and that was only present on one side. Ardent opponents of the EU may claim that both sides had equal chances to put their case but the reality is that they had spent years cultivating support among those who felt let down and alienated by the status quo. Supporters of the EU, on the other hand, had assumed it was a matter that had been settled years ago and, in many cases, only discovered the depth of their own attachment once they realised our membership of it could no longer be taken for granted.
Treating that poll as the last word on the matter, rather than the beginning of a proper debate, ignores the reality of how the public actually engages with political issues. And not making allowance for that reality effectively imposes an obligation on the electorate to engage actively with questions which they should have the right to delegate to government (and potentially allows politicians to selectively abdicate responsibility on troublesome issues that they find tiresome).
Whether this particular issue falls into that category is open to question. On the face of it, the passions that have been aroused by the referendum seem to suggest that the issue should indeed be decided by the public; but if David Cameron’s assessment had been right – if the passion to break away had been confined to a vociferous minority – then it would have been perfectly reasonable for the public to leave the matter to their elected representatives. And it is quite possible that, if more fundamental sources of dissatisfaction had not been allowed to fester, most of the public would indeed have regarded the issue as one that is best delegated to people who have the time and knowledge to come to an informed judgement on it.
The question of when politicians should have the right to abdicate responsibility on specific issues is far from straightforward but, given the complexity of disengaging from the EU, it seems unreasonable that the public should have been expected to arrive at an informed opinion on the subject in advance of the referendum, when most people were not awake to the importance others put on the issue – and it is equally unreasonable that the public should be expected to accept that the referendum definitively settled the matter, when it was only the result of that poll that woke them up.
Over the last two years, many people have clearly found their attachment to the EU growing stronger rather than weaker, and many are determined that, if Britain does indeed leave, they will immediately campaign to rejoin. David Cameron might have hoped to put the issue to rest once and for all but it seems likely that, until we have a mature debate on both the narrow issue of our relationship with our European neighbours and the broader issues underlying people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, our relationship with the rest of Europe will continue to be as contentious an issue as it has been for the last few decades.