Brexit we are told repeatedly by the zealots represents the ‘will of the people’. But this, like much of the Leavers perceptions is seriously flawed. The vote to leave the EU amounted to just 37 per cent of those eligible to vote and a 52 per cent majority of those who did vote can never be construed as the overriding will of the people. Further doubt is cast because it is impossible to know what type of Brexit people voted for. We have no idea how many people voted to Leave in the mistaken belief that there would be an increase of £350mn per week for the NHS, or in the mindless belief – following Farage’s ‘scurrilous ‘Breaking Point’ campaign poster – that immigration would be halted. Perhaps some naively believed Boris Johnson when he said Brexit would do ‘a great deal to neutralise anti-immigrant feeling generally’. Voters aside, it is now clear that even Mrs. May, despite her dictum that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ did not know what it involved.
Arguably the Leave campaign’s most powerful slogan was ‘take back control’ but if this reflects the ‘will of the people’ it requires a consensus as to its purpose as it is impossible to exercise control if there is no agreement. Before the referendum, an Ipsos MORI survey found voters ranked Europe as their 8th most important issue behind immigration, the NHS, the economy, terrorism, poverty, housing and education. The Vote Leave campaign cynically and mendaciously grouped these issues, implying that membership of the EU prevented the government dealing with them. EU immigration aside, every other one of these issues has always remained completely under the government’s control. Since the referendum net migration from the EU has fallen to its lowest recorded level since 2009 and is now one-fifth of net migration from outside the EU which despite being under the government’s control has risen to its highest level since 2004. Moreover, the government could, had it so chosen, have registered EU migrants as they arrive as Germany does, impose a time limit on any stay without gainful employment as Belgium does and outlawed social dumping as France has.
In terms of economic consequences arguably trade policy is critical and perhaps the zealots imagine that the will of the people coincides with their hotly contested claim that being free to pursue our own trade negotiations would be beneficial. Again there is no consensus. Theresa May has yet to achieve cabinet agreement on post Brexit trade policy and opinion polls reject not only Mrs. May’s proposals but also the no-deal and Canada plus options as well as Norway plus variants that leave the UK as a rule-taker – the very opposite of taking back control. Only a Canada plus option gives the UK complete control over its negotiating stance with the EU and other third countries, but this does not amount to achieving the alleged benefits of control. So far the EU has proved to be the master, and its leverage will be greater if it ever comes to negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal. Its dominance reflects the fact that its post Brexit economy would be six times larger than the UK’s but also the Withdrawal Treaty constrains the UK to negotiating against the clock alongside the trade-off of living with the ‘backstop’ or suffering serious economic disruption.
The phrase ‘taking back control’ is as meaningless when it comes to trade negotiations with third countries. The hapless Liam Fox claimed that by 29th March the EU’s 40 free trade deals with third countries would be ‘rolled-over’ and ready for signing. In fact he has agreed just eight – overwhelmingly with the UK’s smallest trade partners – amounting to just 3 per cent of the total value of the UK’s trade, though according to the UK Trade Policy Observatory, his claims that these have been rolled over in their entirety is, not surprisingly, misleading. More revealing, Mr. Fox has failed to conclude deals with the EU’s larger trading partners such as Canada, South Kora and Japan. Indeed, his desperate attempt to get Japan to agree a deal was rebutted and must await a final agreement with the EU.
It should not be surprising that any link between Leavers’ claims and the ‘will of the people’ has proved illusory. Despite the lack of a clear idea of what leaving involved, any assessment of the cost and the threat of serious and long lasting economic damage, a reckless former Prime Minister – in a forlorn attempt to hold the Tory party together – called an ‘advisory’ referendum which he then, without Parliamentary approval, translated into a mandatory vote during the campaign. Given the foregoing, I question whether the referendum can unambiguously claim to represent the will of the people: it certainly does not warrant blind obedience. Had the will of the people been Theresa May’s priority, rather than appeasing the zealots in a desperate attempt to shore-up an irredeemably divided Tory party, she might have avoided, or at least mitigated, her government’s pitiful performance, the political turmoil and the ceding of the Brexit timetable to the EU.
Now thirty-three months after the referendum, the evidence grows daily that minds are changing. An estimated one million people marched in London on 23rd March demanding a peoples vote. The petition to revoke Article 50 at the time of writing has exceeded an unprecedented six million votes and is still rising. The respected British Social Attitudes survey reveals that since 2016 the proportion of people wanting to leave the EU has declined while the proportion that want to stay within the EU in some form has increased to now heavily outweigh leavers. The idea that the ‘will of the people’ continues to favour Leave is now a ‘will-o’-the-wisp.’ Democracy demands that Parliament takes account of these new facts and before committing the UK to a weakened state that could last a generation or more it should decide whether continuing with this debacle is in line with the ‘will of the people.’