This autumn, Mrs May told the House of Commons that she is siding with Britons who voted for Brexit.
“Siding” with those who voted Leave was an interesting choice of word. It seems Mrs May is not merely “respecting the outcome of the referendum” and ensuring that we leave EU, she is taking sides. She presents herself as pursuing the interests of those who voted Leave, against presumably the interests of those of us who voted Remain.
And let’s be clear, “siding” with those who voted Leave is not the only viable position. She doesn’t have to rub Remainers’ noses in it. She might have reasonably concluded that the country was pretty much split down the middle and that some attempt at consensus and reconciliation was called for. While determining to take the UK out of the EU she might have encouraged a form of Brexit that gave everybody something. But no; it appears that the agenda of the Hard Brexiteers and arch-Europhobes is to be imposed; the views and interests of the 48% are to count for nothing.
Sadly, this displays a shallow understanding of democratic statecraft. Democracy degenerates into a kind of sporting competition. The winner gets the cup and exults over the defeat of their opponent. This kind of crude majoritarianism does not lead to a contented society. Look where Shi’ite majority rule in Iraq has led or where Muslim-Brotherhood-majority rule took Egypt. Fortunately, in more established democracies, there are all sorts of reasons why the vanquished are not going to resort to violence. But while the crude impositions of the majority are likely to be tolerated by the minority that may not lead to a happy, contented or healthy society. I’m not sure if the prime minister reads any political philosophy but she might benefit from a perusal of the Madison, Hamilton and Jay’s Federalist Papers, the seminal defence of US constitutionalism which explores the dangers of majoritarian tyranny.
There is a further, arguably, more fundamental flaw in the prime minister’s thinking: she cannot properly use the referendum vote as a justification for the kind of Hard Brexit she is apparently pursuing.
The British people have not voted for the kind of Brexit deal that the Tories seem to want to “negotiate” (or for the kind of Brexit we will get if the UK crashes out of the EU without any agreement). The referendum tells us that 52% of those who voted on 23 June approved of Britain leaving the EU while the remaining 48% disapproved of Britain leaving the EU. It tells us nothing more than that.
The referendum allowed for no nuanced answers: there was no opportunity to vote “yes-but”; no chance to express a “perhaps-if”, no chance to express a preference for one particular version of Brexit. The pro-referendum, Pro-Leave, camp argues that the preferences of the British people should determine Britain’s future. But the referendum result offers a fundamentally deficient account of the preferences of British voters. The complexities of Brexit have brought the inadequacies of decision by referendum into full light.
In the course of the referendum campaign it was clear that opinions differed within the Leave camp and, for that matter, within the Remain camp. On the Remain side some people were wholly committed to the European project; others were reluctant Remainers, anxious to see a wholesale renegotiation of the terms of membership. On the Leave side, there were supporters of a Hard Brexit and supporters of a Soft, free-trade, Brexit (which prior to the referendum was commonly referred to as a Flexcit). The referendum did not allow voters’ specific preferences to be disclosed and tallied. And, of course, we can never know for certain what the wider preferences of voters were on 23 June. But it might be worth imagining what the result might have been had people been able to express themselves more fully.
For the sake of simplicity we may bracket the various options as at 23 June as 3 fairly exhaustive alternatives: (A) stay in the EU; (B) leave the EU on Flexcit/Soft Brexit terms (i.e. probably remaining in the European Economic Area like Norway), (C) leave on Hard Brexit terms. What might the result of the referendum have been if voters had been asked to give a fuller account of their preferences, if they had been offered the fuller choice of A, B & C and allowed to place these options in order of preference? [It might be noted that many voters would not even have realised that there were different kinds of Brexit. Many Leave campaigners argued that the rest of Europe would definitely allow free-trade post-Brexit because the rest of Europe had so much to lose.]
Can the actual result of the referendum tell us anything about how voters might conceivably have voted in an ABC/123-type vote? What can the vote that did take place tell us about the wider preferences of voters? It seems likely that the vast majority of the 48% of voters who voted to remain would have specified option A (staying) as their 1st choice. It is conceivable that some people who voted to remain might have voted (i.e. voted 1st preference) to leave if they were clear that the option was to leave on Flexcit terms that protected the economy; the lack of clarity about the basis upon which would Britain leave may have led them to vote Remain.
What about the 52% of leavers? From the tenor of the campaign, we may reasonably suspect that a modest fraction would have given B as their first choice and the rest of the 52% would have voted for C.
What can we say about second choices? It is reasonable to infer that almost all stayers would have voted B as their second choice. There is greater uncertainty as to the second choice of leavers, the second choices of those who would have voted B or C. It is definitely not safe to assume that the second choice of all those whose first choice was B, soft Brexit, would have been C. It seems likely that a significant number of soft Brexiteers would, if push came to shove, have preferred remaining in the EU to leaving on hard, WTO-trading, terms. And I think it is a reasonable surmise that hard Brexiteers with first preference C would have split between A and B as second choices. Many hard Brexiteers speak disparagingly about the EEA, Norway-esque, option: many would perceive it was having most of the demerits of being in the EU (including making sizeable financial contributions) without having any say in what the rules of the EU are. Many Hard Brexiteers may well have perceived staying in the EU as a better option than leaving on “Norwegian” terms
So it is a plausible guess that if the British public had been trusted to offer a more detailed account of their preferences the result might have been something like this.
A (1st preference) 45%, guessing that 3% of voters would have switched from Remain to Leave given the greater definition of options B & C. [I assume that these Remain voters would switch to B as their first choice.] Of the 45% voting A as 1st preference, we might guess that they divide 38% ABC (i.e. 1st preference A; 2nd preference B) and 7% ACB.
That leaves 55% with 1st preference votes going to either B or C. I will guess that 15% of voters prefer option B [that is 3% of voters (who actually voted Remain) and 12% of voters (those who voted Leave)]. Again, making vaguely informed guesses, that 15% might have voted 7% for BAC [the 3% who voted Remain + a third of those who voted Leave and preferred a Soft Brexit] and 8% BCA.
That leaves 40% who might have voted C as 1st preference of which we might guess that 35% (of all voters) would have more particularly voted CBA while 5% (of all voters) would have voted CAB.
There are considerable philosophical and mathematical difficulties involved in turning individual preferences into a corporate, collective, preference. There are different ways of doing so and they do not necessarily produce a similar result. But consider, if ballots were counted as per AV elections.
1st preference votes: A (45%); B (15%); C (40%). As option B gets least votes, those votes are reassigned to the voters’ second choices. The final count then is A (52%); C (48%): a clear majority in favour of remaining in the EU as against leaving on Hard Brexit terms.
Of course, I do not know or pretend to know what the actual preferences of the British people were on 23 June as between A, B and C. They weren’t asked. I do not know if that sub-set of the British people who actually voted on 23 June preferred a Hard Brexit over remaining in the EU. But then neither does the prime minister. She speaks falsely if she claims that she has a mandate for a Hard Brexit.
And, as those who voted Leave were not asked on what terms they wanted the UK to leave the EU or what precisely they wanted beyond a formal departure from the EU or indeed what they perceived their interests to be, we should note that “siding with those who voted Leave” can mean pretty much whatever the prime minister wants it to mean.
 PMQs – 12 October 2016