Brexit - Whose will is it really?

Posted by Paul Gardner

Paul Gardner considers why some populist votes are being ignored while Brexit, which has a significant constitutional impact and the narrowest of majorities, is held as a beacon of the 'will of the people'.

Brexit - the will of the people?

Let's face it, the only reason this “will of very slightly more than half of the people” has even got this far is that it is the will of Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond and Arron Banks.

I'm sick to death of hearing the phrase "the will of the people" in connection with a split of 51.9% to 48.1% in a certain poll that you might have heard about from last summer.

So I thought I would look at a few other examples of the "will of the people" that are not being implemented:

  • Renationalising the railways, water companies and other utilities
    58% for, 17% against
     
  • Increasing the top rate of tax for people earning over £150,000 to 60%
    52% for, 23% against
     
  • Requiring companies listed on the London Stock Exchange to have employees on the board
    51% in favour, 7% against

(Source: YouGov, August 2015)

Those are all MUCH bigger margins than the Brexit result, yet I don't see politicians or the media clamouring for these to be implemented and denouncing anyone who opposes them to be "enemies of the people".

When you look at those differences in terms of ratios, the Brexit “will of the people” decision is even less remarkable. It was a ratio of 1.079:1 among votes actually cast. Note that I'm only counting the votes that were actually cast here – I don't have any truck with arguments that count non-voters for one side or the other; if you don't vote, you forfeit any say.

But that wafer-thin, teeny-weeny margin looks even less impressive when compared to the other examples I listed above:

  • Renationalise utilities – 3.411:1
  • Increase top tax band to 60% – 2.26:1
  • Put employees on Plc boards – 7.286:1

We can quibble over whether YouGov is reliable or whether I am cherry-picking figures here, but the point is that there are many populist ideas that are actually much more popular than Brexit, yet somehow these don't matter because the people who own and run our media, such as Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond, along with the businessman Arron Banks (who bankrolled Leave.EU) don't support them.

Ever since 23 June 2016, seven magic words have been uttered constantly on social media and under online news articles by the half (all right, very slightly more than half) who liked the outcome of this poll: “We won, you lost. Get over it.”

I half suspect that this mantra is more to reassure themselves than anyone else. They are obviously not very effective magic words on anyone else, otherwise they wouldn't need to be repeated so often.

The problem here is the very concept of “won” and “lost”. Democracy is not like a football match and if you think it is, maybe you should have marked your ballot paper with a crayon. Nor do you get to tell people to stop debating and campaigning because of one single vote that went the way you liked. That isn't democracy, it's mob rule. A true democracy protects its minorities and values freedom of speech for all, not just those who agree with you, otherwise, we all lose.

Older, wiser heads have also long been aware that a simple majority (i.e. 50% + 1) is fine for day-to-day issues but the bar should be set higher (typically 60% or 66.6%) for more serious constitutional issues. For example, amendments to the US constitution require a two-thirds majority.

The reason for this higher standard (sometimes called a “supermajority”) is precisely because the endless bickering we have had since last summer is what you get when the win is by such a narrow margin. People accept the result when the margin is convincing – but when the ratio is as tiny as 1.079:1, it's far from convincing and the issue is likely to come back to haunt the people who steamrollered things through with such a feeble mandate. Let's face it, the only reason this “will of very slightly more than half of the people” has got this far is because it is the will of a small, but powerful, group of Eurosceptic media owners.  

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