It has only been 48 hours since the result to vote Leave was announced but it feels like it was years ago. The worst of my dismay and despair has faded. The winners’ euphoria will take longer to fade but fade it will. But, as this drama unfolds, doubtless there will be further spikes of emotion and some on the Leave side are going to experience their share of disappointments as inevitable compromises are made. A referendum should never have been held but, now that it has, we have to learn to live with it. But it’s time to move beyond sour grapes and offer what are hopefully some constructive suggestions.
Democratic politics is not just about deciding an issue by the vote. What happens after the vote is just as important. That means, the losers must respect the verdict but neither should the winners treat victory as licence to ride roughshod over the interests of the losers. That is especially the case when the margin between defeat and victory is as a narrow as it is, in this referendum.
Democratic politics should not seek to do away with divisions but to manage them. That can be done by conversation, argument and debate, which is endless. To regulate this, at intervals of several years, elections are held, to allow opposing sides to contend for power. Disagreement is far less likely to turn violent if those on the losing side know that they will have an opportunity to take power, some time again, in the future. This strikes a rough and ready balance between the need to get things done but also to make sure opposing sides are heard and their interests accommodated. I discussed this at greater length in an earlier post and don’t feel a need to repeat myself here.
As for referendums, they can be dangerous devices because they seek a yes/no answer to questions that admit no yes/no answers but can only be asked and discussed again and again, not with a view to finding the final answer but a provisional answer, one that will do for now, not for all time.
Referendums can be a ploy to end a discussion by the majority using the vote to shut down the minority, once and for all. Doing this shuts down an essential safety value of democratic politics: the faith that minorities have that defeat in a vote is not once-and-for-all, and that they will have an opportunity to have another go. But this means that those backing the winners on any given occasion are prepared to be the losers another time.
Referendums provide an opportunity for demagogues to deny any need to balance the interests of losers and winners, deny the need to manage disagreement. They promise instead that it is possible to take decisions in which no one loses and everyone gains, and all it takes is a simple yes and no, just once, to end disagreement. My previous post argued that the Leave campaign relied, in large part, on just such demagogic promises, promises which are bound to be unfulfilled.
Technically, our own referendum was a mere vote on whether we wanted to be a member of the EU or not. But it was much more than that. It was a vote on two opposing ideas of what it means to be British, and where a British identity stands in relation to a wider European one. These ideas have profound implications for what sort of society we want to be, and who should be included in it. These questions cannot be settled by a question with a yes/no answer but, to my mind, that is what some members of the Leave crowd have sought to do, to drive alternative conceptions of being British out from the field of ideas altogether. If they think thi referendum will do that, then this is a terrible mistake. The Remain camp, though defeated, has not been routed.
Therefore, two things need to happen. First, the Leave camp must not ride roughshod over the interests of the Remain camp. Second, and in return, Remain respects the verdict. Some reassuring noises have been made from people like Chris Grayling on the Leave side, noting the size of the Remain vote, 48 per cent or just over 16 million people, means their interests have to be respected.
I remain cautiously optimistic that elements of the Leave camp will reach out to the Remain side to find some common ground. For this to happen, it means accepting some degree of compromise, and ditching the uncompromising Farage, whose demagogic instincts are implacable.
Whether this is feasible depends on whether Leave can wrest itself free from the populist expectations it has created. Readers of the Sun will have been left with the impression that we ‘took our country back’ on Friday morning. The realisation is bound to dawn upon many of its readers that we have not in fact done any such thing; indeed, might not be able to do any such thing, in the sense this phrase has been understood. The confounding of such expectations that the Leave camp has done so much to stoke up will surely come back to haunt them.
Remain could do its own bit, irrespective of what happens on the Leave side. It should drop any call for a second referendum, for the same reasons as I argue for saying that it should never have been called in the first place. Referendums are not the tools to settle questions such as the ones we are discussing. Leave voters have something to say and it should be silenced with the blunt instrument of a referendum. Remain needs to make some acknowledgement that the motivations of Leave voters were complex and cannot just be narrowed down to a mindless hatred of foreigners. It should drop talk of London ceding from the rest of the UK, because if you don’t want to live alongside people who are not like you, then how can you complain about Leave voters who voted in order not to live among people who are not like them?
Apart from Northern Ireland, where the vote has split along confessional lines, I don’t think the impact of the vote will be violent. The next Tory Prime Minister will have unprecedented challenges on his or her hands, managing not only the consequences for Britain’s relationship with Europe but also for its component nations. What began as an intra-Tory feud about our place in Europe has spread, throughout the United Kingdom, and threatens to unravel the union itself. A movement that was once written off a one of permanent opposition is on the cusp of finding itself in government. The referendum propelled them there but their victory does not end the argument. So long as the argument carries on, their victory is by no means final. Interesting times lie ahead.