This is a post I’ve had on my mind for the last two years but I’ve been fearful about posting my political viewpoints. Thanks to the support of some wonderful friends (shout out to the Inner Circle!) I have finally plucked up the courage to start writing about the things I want to write about. I won’t pretend to be the most knowledgeable, I am merely sharing my own interpretation of events.
A word that I’ve hated since the day it was coined (to be fair I’m not a fan of portmanteaus in general). An issue that has divided friends and families across the UK, and indeed Europe, since David Cameron announced there would be a referendum on whether the UK should stay or go.
The Leave campaign won the vote. I say won they won but at 51.89% for leave and 48.11% to remain, the margin was slim. And on the night itself, at one point it looked like remain would win and Nigel Farage even conceded. But still, it was a win. And even as someone who voted to remain, after the initial tears (yes, actual tears were shed) and a day or so of grieving (I’m dramatic like that), I accepted it. It was “The Will Of The People”, a phrase that has been bandied about so much since June 2016.
And then I dug a little deeper and found it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
Going to the Polls
While the voting turnout was considered high at 72.21%, that still means that 27.79% of the electorate didn’t even vote (a discussion over voter turnout is perhaps another subject for another day). This means that 37.48% voted leave and 34.73% voted for remain, a percentage which, along with the narrow vote between Leave and Remain, isn’t exactly a resounding victory.
In most democracies across the world, a threshold for referenda is usually set ahead of the polls.
In the first referendum for a Scottish Assembly in 1979, Parliament set a minimum threshold of 40% of the total electorate for such a huge change. Even though the 52% of those who turned up to the polls voted for a Scottish Assembly, it converted to less than 40% of the electorate, therefore Yes lost. Usually there will be a threshold of 50% of the total electorate or two-thirds of those who turned up to the polls will be set for such significant changes. If the threshold isn’t met, the status quo stays in place. In the case of the EU referendum, no such threshold was set.
Nigel Farage (who I’m sure needs no introduction) himself said in an interview with The Mirror a few weeks before the referendum, when Remain were ahead in the polls “In a 52-48 referendum, this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the Remain campaign wins two-thirds to one-third, that ends it.” Funnily enough, since the exact results he quoted as being unfinished business happened in his favour, he has consistently pressed for Brexit and recently accused Alistair Campbell of ignoring the result because he is supporting a second referendum.
But let’s take a deeper look.
Whilst polls aren’t fool-proof, they usually give a good indicator. Likewise, so-called “bellwether” constituency results are often a good indicator of the national mood. I live in a bellwether constituency that, for the first time in four decades did not reflect the national mood, either at the referendum, or the general election that was called a year later. Knowing I lived in such an area, I was excited when the local results came in. Two years in a row, I cried when the national results were announced.
Prior to the referendum, the polls were consistently in Remain’s favour.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, polls showed that those who didn’t vote were, in large, Remain supporters. Throughout political history, if a particular point of view or party is ahead in the polls, people who support that view tend to not make so much of an effort to vote.
Thanks to the First Past the Post system in General Elections, people don’t think that their vote counts, their voice isn’t heard. In the FPTP system, the candidate with the largest number of votes wins. This usually means that most people in that area will not have voted for the winning candidate.
With the EU Referendum, there was a simple yes or no vote. Whichever way you voted, you vote mattered. People knew they would be heard. I’ve heard countless stories from people who voted Leave “to teach parliament a lesson”.
However, in my opinion we didn’t know what Brexit meant when we went to the polls in June 2016. No one did. Even Brexiteers couldn’t agree through the referendum what Brexit looked like. Granted there were all sorts of theories thrown around and promises made (remember the red bus?) but given no country had actually left the EU before, we couldn’t know what would happen. I don’t recall any discussion around one of the key issues of the Northern Irish border. The Good Friday Agreement, which has brought about such a change on the island of Ireland, prevents a hard border (and let’s face it, no-one wants a return to the Troubles) but a border in the Irish Sea would almost certainly mean Northern Ireland would be very different to the rest of the UK.
Of course now, Theresa May has brought a deal back from the EU that will almost certainly fail to get through Parliament. After that? Who knows what will happen. She has already delayed the Parliament “meaningful vote” once and has gone back to the EU to seek reassurances over the Irish border issue but whether those verbal reassurances will be enough for the deal to pass through Parliament remains to be seen.