As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable
that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson
) have all
vacated the main stage, leaving it to others to negotiate Britain’s exit from
the EU. This is probably wise on their part, not only because the political
divorce is likely to produce considerable short-term discomfort, but also
because it seems that no one had any clear post-exit strategy.
Some want to withdraw as completely as possible from the
European project – in particular, in order to control migration. Call this
Total Exit, or TE for short. But not everyone in the Leave campaign favours TE.
made quite clear that they welcome trade and cooperation
with our European
neighbours, they merely oppose the EU organisation and the threat of a federal
European state. These people would be happy for the UK to adopt a position like
Norway or Switzerland, not an EU member but not so different in practice. For
want of a better label, call this Weak Exit or WE. (For simplicity, I’ll only
consider two alternatives, though there
are many possibilities
Obviously, these alternatives are incompatible. If the UK
opts for WE, then we will have no more control over migration or over laws and
regulations that continue to bind us. The referendum result will, officially,
be respected – we’ll be out of the EU – but many of the 52% won’t be satisfied.
But, on the other hand, if we got for TE then, though we’ll have control over
these things, we won’t have the strong relations with Europe that were promised
and, further, this is more likely to cause great economic disruption than WE.
Again, a significant number of the 52% are likely to be dissatisfied – while
they may have wanted out of the EU, they didn’t necessarily want TE.
It might be that the 52% are so strongly committed to
leaving the EU that they would prefer either TE or WE to continued membership,
but I doubt all of them feel this way. Someone who dislikes loss of
sovereignty, but is also concerned about the possible economic effects of
Brexit, might reasonably prefer WE to Remain, but also prefer Remain to TE.
That is, their preferences might be WE > R > TE (with ‘R’ standing for
‘Remain). If they were moderately optimistic about what ‘Leave’ meant (i.e. WE),
they would vote for Leave, but they would prefer Remain if the alternative were
Conversely, someone whose chief concern was migration, while
ideally wanting TE, might prefer Remain to WE. The
Leave campaign emphasized the threat of Turkey joining the EU
but, as a
member, the UK would have a veto over this. If the UK ends up like
, having to accept free movement but without that veto, then the UK
would actually have less
migration than before. So it could be perfectly consistent for someone to
prefer Remain over WE, even if their first choice would be TE. That is, TE >
R > WE.
The Leave campaign was actually a coalition of people
wanting inconsistent things. Some were voting for TE and some for WE. Since we
can’t have both of these, it’s likely that a considerable number of Leave
voters will end up disappointed, whatever the eventual outcome – and some of
them might even have preferred to remain in the EU to the eventual outcome.
Given the closeness of the result, it might seem reasonably
likely that, given a choice between ‘Remain or TE’ a majority of the population
would have voted to Remain and, likewise, that given a choice between ‘Remain
or WE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain. However, this
isn’t necessarily the case. So far, I’ve only highlighted divisions amongst the
Leavers, but the Remain voters might also have been influenced by lack of clarity
over the options.
No doubt many amongst the 48% who voted to Remain prefer
that to either TE or WE. However, it could be that some were simply pessimists
about the likely consequences of Brexit. Suppose, for example, that someone
would really prefer WE to Remain and Remain to TE (i.e. WE > R > TE).
Such a person might nonetheless have voted to Remain if they (pessimistically) thought
that Brexit was more likely to result in TE than WE. Had the ballot in fact
given the choice between ‘Remain or WE’ then they would have switched their
vote from Remain to WE. Likewise, someone whose preferences were TE > R >
WE might have voted Remain had they feared that Leave would result in WE.
So, even if some Leavers would have voted Remain, given this
choice, it’s also the case that some who actually voted to Remain might have
voted to Leave, given a more concrete proposal. For all the talk about
‘respecting the will of the people’ the problem is that there are more than two
options. The referendum didn’t really present a choice between two clear
options, but rather a choice between the status quo and a mystery box. Now
we’ve chosen to open the box, what’s inside is still unclear.
Though the referendum was not
, I think it would be politically impossible for the
government to ignore the result. The problem, however, with respecting the will
of the people is identifying what it is that the people want. Given that the
only really clear outcome of the referendum is that the people are deeply
divided, and that both the Conservative Party
and Labour Party
have been plunged into leadership contests, probably the only certainty is that
the political landscape will be unsettled for some time.
Labels: democracy, links, politics