Brexit and the democratic will (or won’t) Part 2/3

Part 2 of a series of blogs looking at the Brexit vote, what it means and the issues it raises for the United Kingdom and its place in the world.

From Part 1:

In the wake of a result contrary to their wishes, parts of the Remain campaign have asserted that the vote lacks legitimacy, either because it does not represent a sufficiently large proportion of the electorate or because it is, in some way, a tyranny of the majority to remove the nation’s Remain supporters from the EU against their will.


The decision to by the British electorate leave the EU was reached in a vote with a turnout of 72.2% of registered voters. Since 1979 (at 76%), only two elections have achieved a noticeably higher turnout (1987: 75.3% and 1992: 77.7%) while the average turnout since 2000 has been 63.0%. The turnout at elections in the UK is lower than many comparable countries – Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Italy, Chile, The Netherlands, for example – but higher than other large, stable democracies such as Canada, Japan, India, France and the United States. The referendum turnout was higher than the averages of voter turnouts in parliamentary elections since 2000 for EU countries, for OECD and for Commonwealth countries (based on data from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance).

The Leave vote represented 37.4% of all registered voters, greater than the proportion of UK electors that have voted in any EU election except 2004. In only that one EU election has the UK not been the lowest or within 1% of being the lowest turnout in any EU country of as a proportion of the country’s electorate. Even in that election (2014), the UK electorate’s ambivalence (turnout: 35.6%) was exceeded only by that of the Netherlands (at 33.7%), whose voters have averaged a turnout of 77.9% in their own elections since 2000.

When you actually look at the data, the impression is that the UK electorate is ambivalent about the EU (as an elected body, at least) and consistently more so than any other EU country. Although not a high-voting country, the UK is not generally electorally ambivalent and the turnout for the referendum was higher than most recent domestic elections. The people – at least the ones who speak – have spoken.

However, it would also be legal for Parliament to ignore the result of the referendum or vote down legislation seeking to implement what the Chancellor, Mr Osborne, seems to insist on calling “the will of the British people.” But is it? Grounds for such a vote may be that there is an ambiguous mandate or that leaving the EU would represent, in some way, a tyranny of the majority over some or all of those who did not vote to leave. Since the vote, both arguments have been advanced by those advocating that the UK remain in the EU.

Across the UK, with a turnout of 72.2% of registered electors, the proposition to “Leave the European Union” won narrowly, with 51.9% of the vote. Although, when expressed as an absolute number, a majority of 1.27 million votes seems more decisive. With a turnout of 67.2% of the electorate, voters in Scotland voted by 62% to 38% to remain. That is considerably more decisive. English voters were more evenly split at 53.4% ‘Leave’ to 46.6% ‘Remain’. At best, one could say that the vote is narrowly the will of the English and Welsh peoples, not of the Northern Irish people and emphatically not of Scottish people. That casts a slightly different complexion on it.

Nonetheless, a new Prime Minister is now required, presumably, to steer the country towards exit. The question of Scotland, however, looms large. The Scottish First Minister has declared emphatically that, if Parliament implements the result of the referendum and leaves the EU, there should be another referendum. Referenda on separation of Scotland can, under current law, only be ordered by the Parliament at Westminster; such is the constitutional muddle inherited from the last Labour Government. Not to allow such a vote in Scotland would appear hypocritical: Britain demands separation from the European Union to retain (or return) sovereignty; Scotland cannot have a referendum to separate from Britain but retain (or achieve independently) membership of the European Union. This seems untenable.

The choice may be stark: leave the EU and lose Scotland or stay ‘in’ with both. To demand democracy requires also that its practitioners respect it.


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