There have certainly been mistakes made by the Remain campaign, which makes them “bad workmen”. But the tools they had – the referendum – were dodgy too. Criticisms of the EU Referendum are valid, and the word “democracy” cannot be used as a blanket decision ever made by a majority.
On Thursday 23rd June, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union 51.9% to 48.1%. A key debate following this outcome is whether or not this referendum result should be respected. To many, this appears the backlash of those on the losing side of the referendum. This appears to be a dangerous line of reasoning because it challenges the democratic voice of a people.
However, there was little about this referendum that was democratic. Labelling it as such – and thereby affording it the shield of majority voice – is dangerous.
In Ancient Athens, there was “direct” plebiscite democracy. Every (admittedly only male) citizen would gather to vote on every decision. On Thursday we saw the flaws of reliance on direct democracy: people can be fooled. Within hours of the vote for Brexit, Farage admitted that the £350 million figure was difficult to actually pin down and that any money the UK did find would not necessarily go to the NHS. Even after video evidence of him pledging the money emerged. Hannan admitted that there would be no “radical decline” in immigration because a free trade deal (which requires free movement of peoples) is necessary. And let’s remember that Hannan was part of the Campaign Committee of the official Vote Leave campaign, which, famously, used this picture on the side of their campaign bus.
Of course, there are intellectual arguments for leaving the EU. But these do not appeal to the average working British person who has more practical concerns – or been told to fear Schrodinger’s immigrant; the immigrant who both lazes at home taking all their benefits and steals their jobs.
Today we supposedly live in a representative democracy. The electorate chooses who makes decisions on their behalf, because the volume and technicality of decisions require prolonged consideration. This is something that cannot always be achieved through the mess of political campaigns.
Take the example of the economic arguments surrounding membership. Voters cited the falling share of world GDP held by the European Union as an indicator of its irrelevance. In the 1980s, Europe was 30% of the world economy. Today, it makes up 18% of world GDP. Yet the context is that China in the 1980s only made up 2% of world trade. Now it makes up 17%. It isn’t the EU which is diminishing. It is simply that the developing countries are catching up by industrialising their own economies. Evidence is the fact that the G7 in 1974 were made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the US and the UK. In 2034 there will be no EU countries: only Brazil, China, India, Japan, Us, Russia and South Korea. The EU as a whole however will remain the largest economy even in then.
Let’s go even deeper: the UK’s membership of the EU gives it a huge boost thanks to financial services “passporting”. Passporting means that a firm authorised in any one area of the European Economic Area (EEA) can provide services in all of them. The cost of losing the passport is that (for example) investment banks must conform to other regulations in the target country in which they want to invest. Any double burden (i.e. having to meet two sets of regulations – those at home and those abroad) is always more expensive to the firm.
The EU referendum was an experiment of democracy in the 21st century. It did not work: many believed that they could vote on impulse and reject the advice of experts: this has only led to regret.