On Thursday, 75% of the young people of this country voted to Remain in the UK. Most of those voting Remain were in work, and optimistic – some 46% of Remain voters believed life in Britain to be better than 30 years ago, as compared to the 22% of Leave voters for whom life in the UK is worse than for their parents. The Leave vote paints a bleak picture of divided Britain. Far from the assumption of the Leavers being the disenfranchised white working class, the figures show something else. A glaring generation gap. Much of the Leave vote came from older people, with the Leave majority kicking in amongst the over 45s and rising to 60% of those over 65. And when the figures are broken down by class, it becomes clear that the Leavers are not the proletariat, but the precariat: the unemployed, who voted Leave in an overwhelming majority; those whose education ended at or before secondary school; two-thirds of them council and housing association tenants.
It’s also a picture filled with the consequences of the lies voters were told, and with bravado and ignorance. Some were led into voting by false promises, later retracted, to pump more money into our National Health Service.Some voted not knowing what it was they were voting for or against.Some voted not really imagining anything would come of it. Some are now gripped with regret. And some are begging to be allowed to change their minds. There’s even a suspicion that the likely next incumbent for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is himself one of those reluctant Brexiters. Millions of those who will be most affected by the consequences of this vote – young people under 18 – were not even given a chance to express their opinion.
To take this referendum as expressing the Will of the People would be a travesty of democracy.
For a start, the bar was set too low. Little care was taken to ensure the design of the referendum would not just throw us into the chaos we now face. As Kenneth Rogoff points out, “Surely, the hurdle should have been a lot higher; for example, Brexit should have required, say, two popular votes spaced out over at least two years, followed by a 60% vote in the House of Commons. If Brexit still prevailed, at least we could know it was not just a one-time snapshot of a fragment of the population.”
Direct democratic methods like referenda give our elected representatives a chance to hear what the electorate thinks on an issue. But in a complex modern day democracy, they’re a complement to other forms of democratic decision-making. They’re not a replacement for them. Without a deliberative process to accompany it, a referendum is no more than a glorified opinion poll. And when mendacious politicians and the misinformation spewed out by tabloid media shape those opinions, we’re in deep trouble.
So what to do?
Treat this as a wake-up call, not a decision. The referendum is advisory to Parliament. It is not legally binding. Few countries have made such far-reaching decisions on so flimsy a basis as a one-off referendum. Ireland held a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – and on the Nice Treaty. Denmark voted twice on the Maastricht Treaty. A petition is circulating to demand that a rule be instated that a second referendum be triggered if there is less than a 60% majority for either side. This may be one way in which Parliament could assure itself that what it was hearing from the people of Britain was not just a knee-jerk, last-minute, ill-informed snap judgement – or a protest vote.
What the results of this referendum show us is a broken political system. Use it to mend that system. The Brexit vote should be a trigger for our political representatives to return to their constituencies, listen to the people they represent – their fears, their tears, their rage, their woes – and begin a conversation that can help shattered Britain to heal itself. We all need to be part of that conversation. Only then should our political representatives come back to Westminster and take a vote, one that will be legally binding and on which basis Britain can then say that it has made a decision to Leave or to Remain.