Whelan: One throw of the dice – How Brexit split a nation

Democracy is defined as a system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives. And given the Brexit outcome, one can argue, democracy won, 52 percent of the people (out of the 72% that voted) felt the United Kingdom was better off outside the European Union. And there’s been a lot of tears lost over spilt milk, especially from those who decided not to vote – a lesson for all South Africans come August. Political analyst Paul Whelan wonders if it was such a wise idea to give the people such a choice, given the decision may be dependent on their mood when signing ‘X’. And he believes this throwing of the dice literally split a nation. – Stuart Lowman

By Paul Whelan*

Paul Whelan
Paul Whelan

Brexit was not about ‘ordinary people’ being confused by the facts; not about expert opinion being superior to grassroots opinion and who is right and wrong; not about bureaucracy and sovereignty as if these are absolutes; not about ‘getting your country back’ and ‘saving’ £380m a week in EU contributions that will go to the National Health in future – not about any of the populist sloganeering and mendacity that passed for a serious national debate.

Fundamentally the issue was – and remains – how you run a democracy, specifically Britain’s democracy, in a responsive and responsible manner in a complex global world. And that, very plainly now, is not by asking the public to decide a major issue in an inadequate one-off referendum got up purely to ‘settle’ the Tory party’s internal problems. No number of referendums could ever settle those.

Read also: Simon Kuper: Brexit an elitist game between old-Etonians. Now for reality.

The evidence comes straight from the horse’s mouth. A few weeks before the Brexit referendum, Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), an alarming right wing threat to both Tory government and party, was nervous about his chances. To guard against a narrow defeat, he declared that a narrow victory for Remain – say, around 52%-48% – would not end the argument. And, indeed, for millions of people such a victory would be unconvincing. Mr Farage was pointing out the obvious.

But the change was startling when the Brexit camp in fact won by much the same margin. Now the referendum was, unarguably, a ‘clear mandate’ from the British people to leave the EU, presumably unconditionally and forever. Equally, of course, had the Remain camp won 52%-48%, we would now be hearing the British people had given a clear mandate to stay in the EU, presumably on existing terms forever.

in_out_BrexitOnly those on whichever side eventually won would ever find this scenario satisfactory. ‘The people have spoken’ does not describe the outcome where even the 72% who felt strongly enough to vote split almost down the middle. On another day, in different circumstances, even just different weather, the people could clearly give a different ‘clear mandate’.

A referendum is arguably no more than a measure of a nation’s mood, a manifestly unreliable way to determine what ‘the people’ wants, and no way at all to run a country. That is why the UK evolved into a representative democracy with parliament sovereign, not a ‘direct democracy’, whatever that is imagined to be and however it is supposed to function.

What now, after the framers of the futile turmoil have quit and gone? Only the hope that new leadership will restore stability and a sense of reality, as frightened and chastened politicians shamefully row back on the lies and false hopes they raised.

  • Paul Whelan is a political analyst and freelance writer. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics in international history and politics.