‘Will of the People’ or ‘Population Snowflake’: Why Not Just Say That People Didn’t Know What They Voted For in Brexit?

I find Brexit an endless source of invention – perhaps that’s my unconscious reason for wanting it drag out as long as possible, what I’ve called ‘Fabius’ Delight’. I shall get to the phrase ‘Population Snowflake’ toward the end of this piece. But let’s work our way to it.

There are three faces of Brexit and they mirror the characterization of the early 19th century Romantic poet and Greek freedom fighter, Lord Byron, as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Together they constitute Byronic Brexit:

Mad = Brexit aims to do the impossible, to enable the UK engage in free trade with the world while controlling its own borders.

Bad = Brexit aims to run the economy into the ground in the name of border controls.

Dangerous to know = The terms of our Brexit negotiations with the European Union can’t be divulged, let alone approved by Parliament, because that would destroy our chances of getting a good deal

But these three faces of Brexit don’t quite capture the spirit in which the outcome of the referendum to leave the European Union has been received. The House of Commons was 4 to 1 and the House of Lords 6 to 1 against leaving the EU. Yet most parliamentarians now at least pay lip service to the claim that they need to ‘respect the will of the people’, which means implementing Brexit in some way or other.

But is ‘respecting the will of the people’ anything other than treating the people as infallible when it comes to matters relating to their own interests? Certainly this was what Rousseau thought because he imagined that the ‘General Will’ inherited the prerogatives of the absolute monarch, who in turn was presumed to enjoy some divine right. An interesting feature of this sense of ‘infallibility’ is that it’s operationalized as ‘irreversibility’; hence, the taboo on calling a second referendum.

Now, what if the people are just wrong and they need another chance to admit it and change their collective mind? A big problem is that this question is normally framed in terms of the people having been duped by both sides during the referendum campaign with false claims, statistics, etc.  But this makes it seem as though the people were somehow deceived from believing what they should have – which in turn further assumes that the people had correct beliefs about the EU in the first place. However, this likely to be false.

More likely is that the people had no clear views whatsoever about the EU – not to be confused with Europe itself — and so both sides simply supplied views that would be otherwise lacking. This would explain why whenever voters were questioned why they voted one way or the other, they always quoted campaign talking points – no independent research on the part of the voters is ever in evidence. I would say that this was mainly an oversight of the Remain campaign, which should not have taken for granted that residents of relatively impoverished regions in, say, Wales and the North of England would already know that the EU massively subsidizes various projects that keep these places afloat. When commentators speak of ‘Leave’ voters from those areas as ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’, this is what they mean.

The brute fact – which no politician dares utter – is that the people were not sufficiently informed about the European Union to vote meaningfully in the referendum.  I don’t mean that the politicians did not sufficiently inform them, but rather that the people did not have enough independent views about the EU prior to the calling of the referendum. Thus, they had no baseline in terms of which they could evaluate the various campaign claims, true or false. (This is not to deny that there were people who voted on Brexit who were ‘informed’ in my sense – but they were only a fraction of the overall vote. At least this is what I propose as a hypothesis for further sociological research.)

I happen to believe that it was a mistake to have had the referendum, partly because it was a bit like asking the public about whether to accept a proposition in cosmology. (So I was on the side of former Tory Chancellor Ken Clarke, who believed that the referendum defeated the whole purpose of having representative democracy.) No doubt, the people could be informed of various opposing views during a campaign, but they would be coming to the issue largely as blank slates without any independent views. This is not the spirit in which referenda are normally called. Referenda are supposed to be called on rather specific questions where there is good reason to believe that the voters would have first-hand knowledge lacking in politicians – e.g. on whether to raise taxes in general or hypothecate taxes in certain ways. In such cases, there are usually tricky trade-offs the outcomes of which would affect individuals differently.

Those of us living in the UK know that the referendum was called largely to enable Prime Minister David Cameron to placate the significant number of Tories clamouring for a referendum to get the country out of the EU. Indeed, it seemed (both in the imagination and in votes) that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) would end up splitting the Tories if a referendum were not given. He also thought he would win the referendum, we’d stay in the EU and UKIP would be vanquished. Well, UKIP may be on its way to being vanquished but largely as a victim of its own success!  The fact that no one either in or out of government had prepared a strategy for Brexit speaks to the general scepticism in the political class that a majority would vote for Brexit.

Be that as it may, Brexit prevailed. Even if you agree with me that the very calling of the referendum was a mistake, we are stuck with the result as the starting point for further political debate. So what to do? I have come to believe that a second referendum may be necessary to get the people to reconsider whether they really understood what they had voted on in the first place. I don’t mean a literal re-running of the referendum, of course, but a version that puts more flesh on the bones on the proposal to connect more directly with the voters. After all, this is how referenda are supposed to be framed. That this basic point disappeared in the first place is, of course, the downside of the UK’s ‘improvised’ style of constitutionalism.

So, I’m not saying anything about when the second referendum should happen — or even the exact wording of the referendum. However, I am saying something about the need for academics and politicians to be more vocal about claiming that the people did not know what they voted for when they voted in the referendum – either for or against Brexit. In other words, the referendum constituted an inappropriate use of direct democracy. It overestimated the population’s ability to judge the matter of Brexit – not because they’re inherently stupid but because they lacked the baseline intellectual resources needed to judge critically the opposing campaigns. At the very least, I would hope my argument persuades people of the need for more secondary school civics education!

Finally, the taboo against simply calling the Brexit voting populace ‘ignorant’ (and perhaps blaming PM Cameron for exposing that ignorance) comes from the basic Rousseauian assumption that the ‘general will’ is infallible in a democracy. But is this not to treat the people as Population Snowflake, a phrase I fashion from the leading free speech advocate Claire Fox’s Generation Snowflake, which aims to complain about how young people today feel entitled to have protected spaces from opposing views (and perhaps even truths) that disrupt their world-view. Who could disagree with this premise?  All that I’m saying is that the principle should extend to members of an entire society who have been flattered by politicians of various persuasions into thinking that they know more about their society’s existential conditions than they really do.

In effect, I am calling for a two-step Popperian solution to the Brexit quandary. First, the politicians admit an error in holding a referendum, and then a referendum is held with people specifically instructed to learn something about the European Union before the campaign formally starts. Even if the first step is unlikely to happen, the second step could happen in some cleverly finessed way (perhaps once a Brexit strategy is available). If the UK’s sense of improvised constitutionalism got us into this mess, it may get us out of it!

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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