When is the will of the people not the will of the people? Daniel Finkelstein argued in The Times yesterday that a second referendum on Brexit could not be held because “the damage done to trust in democracy would be huge”. He also characterised the June 2016 vote as when millions of people “challenged the interests and attitudes of the political establishment”.
But he depicts a simpler picture than – and the politicians he cites failed to foresee – the fractious muddle we have ended up with. For a start, we are talking about the will of 52 per cent of voters. And it has since emerged that more than 400 fake Twitter accounts believed to be run from St Petersburg put out tweets about Brexit. So we may be falling over ourselves to uphold a result that reflects the will of some wily Russian hackers.
Then there is the risk of characterising the vote in only one way, when we know it can be understood in many others: the time when millions of English and Welsh challenged the interests and attitudes of the Scots and Northern Irish; or when millions of over-65s challenged the interests and attitudes of the younger generation; or when peace in Northern Ireland was threatened; or when Nigel Farage got his day in the sun.
And then there is the issue that has dogged British understanding of the EU all along – it is too foreign or too boring. For decades, the EU (EC or EEC) and its related institutions elicited in the main a knee-jerk rejection or a heavy apathy. They have been taught, and largely reported, as an economic and political entity, its pacific aims ushered out of the British discussion. So membership of the EU and exiting it have been grossly over-simplified – like the proverbial blind men describing different parts of the elephant and being unaware of the whole.
What does leaving mean? The fact that politicians are still bickering over what sort of Brexit to haggle for shows how ill-thought-through the referendum was. Had the ballot papers asked about membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, voters would have been forced to engage with the complexities. Instead, we read into the in-out question what we wanted to, based on the amount we understood. The black and white nature of the referendum did not anticipate the dappled response voters gave.
Finkelstein rejects the notion that the political establishment should step in to “save” Leave voters “from the consequences of their earlier folly”. To the extent that Brexit was about populism – and as I’ve said, I think it’s more complex than that – it’s not patronising to give people a chance to vote once they are better informed about the consequences of their decision. I am always distrustful of shops that don’t tell you how much an item costs. So if I picked something out that I thought was a good idea, I would count it a sign of respect, not disrespect, if the assistant let me know if it was going to be unexpectedly costly.
Many regions that voted Leave were economically disadvantaged, and the referendum result has been seen as a rejection of the government’s austerity measures. But Remainers represent far more than the establishment. Young voters (under 25s were overwhelming pro-Remain) are looking at weighty student debts and skyscraper-high house prices whether Britain was in or out of the EU. The same national pride that some older voters cited in voting Leave could cost their more globally-minded children and grandchildren opportunities to study and work – and represent Britain – overseas.
Brexit and what has followed has become a national shouting-match. Quite apart from membership of the EU, the vote has highlighted the urgent need to address economic disenfranchisement, technological vulnerability and an educational deficit. The EU is neither a panacea nor should it be a scapegoat.
A second referendum would follow a deal that tries to interpret “the will of the people”, which doubtless will not to the taste of every Leaver. Honour us with a second vote once we know the cost of exiting, and let’s hope both sides improve the quality and intelligence of their campaigning – on Brexit and on the issues it has exposed – to make a re-vote worthwhile.