I voted to Remain for entirely pragmatic reasons. No great fan of the EU, I nevertheless recognised our dependence on it and understood the huge damage that quitting it would cause both this country and the world. All the evidence suggested that. It continues to suggest that.
A major source of exasperation before the referendum was the apparent impossibility of trying to argue this point with a group that was so hostile to evidence that it preferred sticking its fingers in its ears and shouting to explaining the finer points of its position (or – if one feels like pursuing an ad hominem tack, as, in moments of impotent rage, I sometimes do – a group that struggled to articulate any credible argument, or was so unused to debate that it simply didn’t understand the need to justify its point of view).
Post-referendum, that exasperation has been amplified as many Leave supporters continue to wilfully misunderstand the purpose of debate and ignore the traditional role of opposition in our democracy. “We won,” they crow. “It’s the will of the people. You’re undemocratic. Brexit means Brexit. You’re unpatriotic. Shut up.”
While this is, to a certain extent at least, understandable of people for whom winning – or even being listened to – is such a novelty that they mistakenly think referendum success somehow confers moral as well as political clout, I do find it hard to believe that many Brexiteers would even momentarily entertain such an attitude if the vote went the other way (indeed, even the Brexiteers’ ranine figurehead Mr Farage himself said that he wouldn’t accept a 48/52 loss) or if they found themselves in a similar position following a general election – in which, let’s not forget, their opinion would actually have some constitutional value. (As everyone knows, the referendum was only ever advisory and was so vague in scope as to be fatuously blunt as an instrument of reform anyway. After all, the issue of EU membership is not, and could never be, a binary choice of ‘stay’ or ‘go’ – hence all the hot air about ‘hard Brexit’, ‘soft Brexit’ and every degree of Brexit rigidity in between those poles.)
No, in a general election these people wouldn’t for a moment expect their opponents to say, nor, indeed, would themselves say if they lost: “We will now unquestioningly agree with everything the government says, regardless of how wrongheaded it is and how damaging it clearly is to the country’s interests. We were wrong to vote the way we did. We see that now.”
The fact is that if you lose (or, rather, if the party you support loses) an election, you don’t just have a right to oppose the winners; you have a duty. An effective opposition must hold the government to account – without it, we are but a few steps from authoritarianism, despotism and disaster. The same point applies now. If we’re stuck with this awful decision then we’ve got to make the best of it, and that means we need to debate the issue and keep on debating it. Debate is healthy. The leavers fear this because they mistake convictions for conclusions and can’t handle even the concept of argument. But they, like everyone else, need to remember this: if what you say is right, then you have nothing to fear from anyone challenging you. Facts do not crumple in the face of rebuttal. Logic does not bow to opinion. Attempting to forcibly silence your opponent is the tactic of the tyrant.
It is not the will of ‘the people’ to leave. It is the will of some of them – a small minority. Using the 52/48 numbers is a psephological falsehood. Turnout was 72.2%. Just over 25,000 votes weren’t counted. So 37.5% of the electorate voted to leave, not 52%. To be factually accurate, we should always refer to this number, and to the 62.5% of people who didn’t vote to quit the union. (And if you want to talk about how ‘the UK’ voted, you should be aware that the electorate is 45.5 million and the population some 65 million. The UK did not vote to leave. About a quarter of it did. Saying the country voted to leave is akin to saying the country voted for a Tory government. It didn’t. A small proportion of it did.)
And no one voted to leave the single market – that wasn’t on the card at all.
Even though it’s yet to occur, Brexit is already damaging our country, and will continue to damage it. Leaving the European Union – especially if we handle our departure badly, which we show every sign of doing – will further diminish us, not strengthen us. Saying so is not undemocratic (nor for that matter is it unpatriotic). We need to keep making a noise about this.
It’s an almighty disaster.