‘I think that the electorate can claim a pretty good track record,’ I wrote two weeks ago, on the day of the EU vote. ‘In every major referendum we’ve held thus far, it seems to me that the people have made the right call on every occasion.’
A couple of people have asked me, now that we know the result, whether I still believe that to be true. Did the people make the right call this time? I’ll come to that in a moment, but first I wanted to make a few general comments about this referendum in particular.
First, the huge number of people who turned out to vote suggests that this wasn’t simply a fringe issue, as some had claimed, designed only to address the concerns of a handful of passionate advocates. If you want one of those, then the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system is what you’re looking for. That prompted just 19.3 million people to go to the polling stations; this one got 33.6 million people. If this question wasn’t worth having a referendum about, it’s hard to see what would be.
Second, this wasn’t just a protest vote, as is always feared with referendums. Or rather, if it were, then it was directed at the right target. If some people were seeking to express their dislike of the political class, then they were perfectly entitled to reject the EU bureaucracy, the most elite level of that class.
Third, the numbers involved mean that stereotypes are even less applicable than they normally are. They simply aren’t 16 million Guardian-readers in Islington who summer in Tuscany, just as there aren’t 17.5 million knuckle-dragging xenophobes in the coastal towns of Essex, dreaming of Disneyland.
But I am hearing stereotypes being trotted out, mostly by Remain voters who are angry – genuinely angry – that others disagreed with them. Those who voted Leave, I’ve heard it said, fell for lies, they didn’t understand, they didn’t think it through. Which is insulting (as sometimes it’s meant to be). But there are perfectly sound reasons for not wishing to be part of the European Union, and perfectly sound reasons for staying in. And there are dodgy arguments on either side, as well.
Jeremy Corbyn has been much criticized for displaying a lack of enthusiasm because when he was asked to evaluate his commitment to the EU on a scale of 1 to 10, he opted for around 7-7.5. As someone who voted Remain, I thought that was maybe slightly generous. The nation, however, thought it was far too generous, and went lower, at 4.8, just the other side of the dividing line.
A great deal of the talk has been of the deeply divided Britain that’s been exposed by the referendum, in a way that I don’t think would be the case if it had been 52-48 in the other direction. I worry that much of the academic research is only going to reinforce such assumptions. Because I’m already seeing preliminary studies that analyze the social, generational, geographical and economic factors that shaped each voting block. Nothing much about the balance of arguments; instead, there’s an underlying assumption that the important thing is the objective circumstances, not what people think or feel.
This is political studies striving to be a science, clinging to what is measurable, fearful of the anecdotal, reluctant to acknowledge the intellectual, let alone the emotional or the subjective. And since universities are overwhelmingly pro-EU, and since those who study politics are more likely to be inclined to the Left, it doesn’t take long for a note of condescension to creep in. There was a higher proportion of graduates among Remain than among Leave? Well, there you are then: the Leavers are a bit stupid, really. Uneducated.
There’s not a great deal of humility being shown by the defeated Remain camp. And frankly there should be. I had my opinion, based on the factors I considered important, and I voted accordingly, as I assume everyone else did as well. Except that when the results of 33.6 million variations on that process were all counted up, it turned out that more people disagreed with me than agreed.
As someone who wants to believe in democracy, I can only conclude that they’re probably correct. (Not definitely, perhaps, because the margin was fairly tight, but definitely probably.) Democracy is not about us generously being given a little say in how things are run; it’s based on the idea that the collective mind of the country knows better than me. At least, it does in terms of how society should run itself. Obviously, I wouldn’t trust a mass decision on how to construct an unmanned space probe, but – as Michael Gove pointed out – this referendum wasn’t a question to be resolved by experts. We’re not living in a technocracy, and nor do we want to be.
Of course, the experts may well turn out to have been right in their forecasts. The bad things with which we were threatened may come to pass. There may be a recession, Britain may not have as much power in the world, Scotland may leave the Union. But there was a price to pay whichever side won. And the people have decided that that price – if it happens – is one that’s worth paying, in exchange for sovereignty, and identity, and a feeling that rulers could be sacked, and the right to make economic decisions in the national interest, and all the other arguments for Leave. It was a judgement call, and that was our judgement.
Did the people make the right call? Yes, of course they did. They always do.