As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson, Gove, Farage, Leadsom) 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.
We’re told that the British people have spoken and their will must be respected. But, even setting aside reports of widespread protest voting and regretful Leavers, it’s not clear what ‘the people’ (or 52% of them) voted for, beyond the obvious (leaving the EU). Leaving the EU doesn’t itself specify what alternative arrangements should be put in place.
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. Others 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 TE.
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 Norway, having to accept free movement but without that veto, then the UK would actually have less control over 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 legally binding, 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.