The Voice of the People?


The people have spoken. More accurately they rather quietly slipped into the isolation of polling booths and secretly made their marks on ballot papers. This amidst the clamour of hyperbolic voices speaking with forked tongues.

The constitutional status of referenda in Britain is ambiguous. The broader history of the plebiscite is troubling, it being the favoured tool of the despot eager for at least a vestige of popular credibility. It is a blunt instrument allowing only choice between predetermined polls.

The 2016 referendum on EU membership was essentially called to settle a long running and acrimonious dispute in the Conservative Party in particular, and British capitalism more generally. It was largely a campaign of competing assertions largely devoid of factual detail.

The result was a small majority in favour of withdrawal from the EU. This has subsequently become the democratic will of the British people as a whole, or at least that is essentially how it is being portrayed by triumphalist Brexiteers.

That there was a majority is beyond question, around 17.4 million people voted for leaving. However, that is only about 37% of the electorate. Therefore, 63% did not vote for Brexit, a rather larger if quietly spoken voice.

Of course that figure includes more than a quarter of the electorate who did not vote, but this must not be construed to imply apathy. Indeed, this may well be the most clear sighted section of the electorate, the ones who realised there was no rational way of voting either way.

With an absence of certain data and no possible way of knowing what the future consequences of staying or leaving might be – both sides could only offer partial speculation – the only reasonable response was not to vote either way. There should have been a third option on the ballot paper, “Neither of the Above”.

The onus could then have been on the Leave campaign to achieve a clear majority of the electorate. This, at least, would indicate a more accurate view of voters’ wishes at that moment. Yet, another problem lies here though.

So far consideration has only been given to the electorate as constituted on the day of the vote, but the implications of acting on that vote affects the futures of everyone, even, perhaps especially, those not eligible due to age.

Voters in favour of Brexit constituted about 26% of the population. This, it must be remembered, was a referendum, not an election. Were a government returned on 26% it would only be for 4 or 5 years, after which that result could be reversed.

Also, those too young in any given election do eventually grow up and have the opportunity to vote and undo whatever political mess their elders might have created. The Brexit vote is being cast as once and for all time, allowing the past to dictate to the future.

The 2016 referendum actually resolved nothing. The inequalities, the social and economic problems, the pernicious ideological influence of nationalism, all of which influenced the vote, are symptomatic of capitalism. Following the vote, following withdrawal from the EU, capitalism will adapt and remain.

Voting in the referendum, either way, was largely an exercise in magical thinking, that an X on a piece of paper is some sort of votive offering to forces beyond the control of ordinary men and women that might grant a future much better than the present.

Whatever it was, the referendum result was not the voice of the people ringing out loudly and clearly. In fact, it wasn’t even a majority, but, in capitalist terms, a democratic decision notwithstanding.

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