Should Brexit be defended as the will of the people?
By Joe Harker
Supporters of Brexit regularly champion it as the will of the people. More people voted to leave the EU than remain during the referendum, therefore it can be said that the British public voted for Brexit and that result should be respected.
However, there are some who think the will of the people argument doesn't hold much water.
Writing in the New Statesman, Jonn Elledge raises the issue that people can be wrong whether it be individually or en masse. They can change their mind and make decisions that turn out to be incorrect. But in the case of Brexit these possibilities are dismissed and the 2016 referendum is treated as the absolute end of any argument by supporters of leaving the EU. Politicians say they are representing the wishes of the electorate, but Elledge suggests the people should have a chance to say more than one thing before their word is taken as final.
Saying the referendum result is the will of the people also overlooks the people not on the electoral register or those who did not vote. Just over half the UK population voted in the referendum but almost 13 million who could have voted did not and just over 18 million people were not registered. While the referendum result saw 52 per cent vote leave and 48 per cent vote remain, each portion represents around a quarter of the people of the UK.
Professor James McDougall, of Oxford University, suggests that the UK needs a better democracy than one dictated by the will of the people. He argues that the referendum result in fact showed the UK electorate was split almost completely down the middle and should not be taken as an absolute victory for one side. He opines that politics is not a football match where one side edges it and is declared the winner, but rather a process that involves the nation and does not dismiss the millions that voted to remain.
Professor McDougall also points toward former UKIP leader Nigel Farage's assertion that a referendum result of 52 per cent for remain would not have stopped him from considering the matter finished. While Farage would likely not want to try the referendum again, his point that such a narrow result means the matter is not closed still stands.
If the will of the people is all important then the idea of a second Brexit referendum may be considered. However, the people can tend to flip flop on an issue and it may be impractical for a government to always try and follow public opinion on matters. Then again, politicians citing the will of the people may only be doing so because it suits their own interests. Perhaps we're all hypocrites in this regard.