Jordan Norris is a Economics Ph.D student at Northwestern University, U.S.A. and a citizen of the UK.
At 6:30 a.m. Friday morning — within two hours of the official EU referendum result being announced — some startling news developed: the integrity and validity of the Leave campaign, in which the majority of UK voters put their faith and trust against virtually all expert opinion, began to break down. When asked if he could guarantee that the £350 million per week that used to go to the EU will now go to the NHS — perhaps the most memorable soundbite promised by the Leave campaign — the leader of UKIP and big name supporting leave, Nigel Farage said “No I can’t, and I would never have made that claim. That was one of the mistakes that I think the Leave campaign made.” By Saturday, promises on immigration restrictions — another central reason for people voting Leave — were being backtracked. When asked if remaining in the EU common market, which the Leave campaign intends for the UK, means accepting free movement of people, Tory MEP Daniel Hannan with the Leave campaign says “[this] does mean free movement of labour, but not EU citizenship with all the acquired rights”. It seems the only pillar of the Leave campaign still standing since the referendum result on Friday is that of UK sovereignty. But there were always cracks in this one: if we want to remain part of the common market then EU regulation will still be imposed on us, the only difference being we no longer have a voice in forming that regulation. Some sovereignty.
With this unfolding in the background, during his post-Brexit first speech David Cameron chose his words carefully when thanking those taking part in the campaigns, describing the case made by Leave as “spirited and passionate”. Throughout the campaign, the Remain side was criticized for employing “Project Fear”, by dramatizing the devastation and economic uncertainty in the event of a leave vote. The Leave campaign, conversely, was concerningly devoid of economic reasoning, even anti-economic in approach, as epitomized by Michael Gove’s unforgettable sneer: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Perhaps we should not be too surprised by this; political spin, after all, is at the heart of politics. But it does raise the question whether we have made a structural error allowing the Brexit campaigns to be entrenched in political discourse.
Voters were persuaded by personality and charisma, rather than rationale and facts — inspired by a single phase, an issue portrayed in black or white, rather than solutions and pragmatism. They sound great; they are memorable. “I hope you will vote Leave and take back control of this great country’s destiny”, heralded Johnson. For voters that are frustrated by the system, disenfranchised by the establishment, it is understandable. A vote to leave became enshrined as a protest vote against the establishment and many were compelled by this opportunity. Unfortunately, in reality, it was in fact a vote to only replace the right wing Tory establishment with a farther right wing Tory establishment. Arguably, something analogous is happening in the U.S. Presidential Primaries with the republican frontrunner Trump.
A good example of this is Wales, whose inhabitants in their majority joined England to vote leave. The EU administration identified the West Wales and Valleys region as the poorest region in the whole of North-West Europe, and as a result has been showered with EU cash. One small town in particular, Ebbw Vale, has already been given upwards of £400 million. And it was this town which had the highest leave majority in the whole of Wales: 62%. Because of the migrants, maybe? In Ebbw Vale, certainly not. It is safe to say there are hardly any migrants in this town. In the days following the referendum result, as the reality sunk in, many leave voters across the UK were already expressing “Bregret” as they thought their vote wouldn’t count and the UK would collectively vote to stay in the EU.
Winston Churchill once said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conver- sation with the average voter.” Truth can be taken from this, and without meaning any offense. A strong educational system is necessary for a strong democracy, but it is not sufficient. It is not feasible for the average voter to understand all the economic arguments for and against EU membership. I’m entering the fourth year of my PhD in Economics, and I do not understand all the economic arguments. So what option do they have if they were not to draw on charisma, or phrases that appeal to their values? Is this not why we elect politicians, to make these decisions for us? Johnson himself seems to agree, on Friday morning saying: “Today I think all of us politicians need to thank the British people for the way they have been doing our job for us.” Our taxes pay politicians to understand these issues; to spend their working days immersed in the information, in consultation with the experts, in debate with other leaders. It is not that the average voter isn’t intelligent enough, it’s that the average voter does simply not have the time to conduct the cost-benefit analysis so critically required to make an informed decision. This foregrounds the severe deficiency intrinsic to the referendum process: for questions of such economic complexity, a referendum will not elicit true preferences of the voters. Rather it exposes their votes to political manipulation. Disappointingly, politicians are unlikely to address this systemic weakness anytime soon; quite the opposite. In the same speech, Johnson praised the process: “it was entirely right and inevitable and there is no way of dealing with a decision on this scale except by putting it to the people.” Simply, the referendum is the ideal political tool: power without accountability. The politician can effect their outcome through manipulation, and all li- ability of any negative consequence is on the electorate. Referenda are paradoxically undemocratic.
The foundations of the referendum on the EU have been shaky from its inception. Cameron has always been pro-Europe and arguably only pledged the referendum for political purposes: to appease his eurosceptic backbenchers, draw in UKIP voters and Tory dissidents, and ultimately keep his job in No. 10. Equally can be said of Boris Johnson, leader of the Leave campaign. He is the former mayor of London; an international city deeply entwined with the EU, reflected by the majority of its inhabitants voting to remain (59.9%). Given his prime ministerial ambitions, his decision to campaign for Leave is suspiciously political. Should we have allowed the leaders of both campaigns to gamble the UK’s economy (and the UK’s four-country union, and the stability of the EU, and the world economy...) for their own political ambitions? Particularly as any ramification of such gamble was to be amplified: in this game, a vote to leave would be permanent, not to be reassessed in five years like for a general election. Should the rules of the game not have been amended to reflect this? Some argue a simple majority was a low bar. The official leave vote was 51.9%; with turnout at 72%, only 37.4% of the electorate voted to leave the EU. Needless to say: less compelling. A case that votes should have been weighted by age can be made too. The majority of young people voted to remain, while the majority of old people voted to leave. Should more weight be placed on younger votes as they are the ones who have to live more of their life with the consequences? Should their be an upper bound, even, on age of voting just like 16 is the lower bound? Controversial, but questions we need to be brave enough to ask.
The Brexit experience has brought to the foreground the problems inherent in the referendum process, and the political process more generally. For Britons moving forward, and for other EU members considering their own EU membership referenda, we all must learn from this experience and make the necessary amendments (for example, Italy’s constitution does not allow popular referenda on economic or foreign affair issues). For the current referendum results, however, its origination without due diligence has lead to a political crisis. The referendum result is not legally binding - Parliament still has to pass the laws and could vote to remain - and it appears that both the Prime Minister and members of the Leave campaign are stalling in its enactment, despite pressure from the EU administration and other member states to hasten exit (markets hate uncertainty). Indeed, there is already talk of overturning the results: a petition of four million signatures asking for a second referendum and the Liberal Democrats pledging to repeal Brexit if elected in a conceivable extraordinary general election when Cameron steps down in October. So what do we do? Acknowledging all of its deep, undemocratic problems, do we still adhere to our institutions and follow the instruction of the referendum? Or do we appeal to rationality, and address the elephant in the room:
Is this a mandate with legitimacy?