Is it undemocratic to oppose Brexit?

The March for Europe

Leavers’ complaints that those opposing Brexit are behaving undemocratically have gone into overdrive in response to the big turnout for the March for Europe today. As I wended my slow way from Park Lane to Parliament Square with tens of thousands of others this morning, I did find myself indulging in an internal debate about whether or not the Brexiteers are right.

On the face of it, they certainly seem to have a point. A clear majority voted to leave the EU in a referendum with a decent turnout that was fought over many weeks and in which the various claims of both sides were subject to intense scrutiny. If this result was ignored by the Government under pressure from Remainers either lobbying behind closed doors or because of a growing clamour from street demonstrations then democracy would indeed have been seriously undermined.

The problem with this argument is that no-one — or no-one I have come across — is actually suggesting that the executive branch of government overrides the vote. In fact, there seem to be three options proposed by Remainers:

  • Parliament does not act on the ‘advice’ of the Referendum and fails to invoke Article 50;
  • Article 50 is not invoked before a General Election at which point parties can lay out their plans for how to progress — plans which would almost certainly include a proposal to stay in the EU from the Liberal Democrats and possibly other parties;
  • a second referendum is called to either confirm or nullify the first.

None of these are undemocratic options. Parliament is sovereign in all matters by virtue of the fact it is democratically elected by the people. A General Election is clearly a democratic process as is a second referendum. The worst we can say of these three options is that they are more or less democratic as follows.

It seems reasonably self-evident that Parliament which was elected in May 2015 when the EU was not a major issue on the voters’ minds would not be acting particularly strongly in the spirit of democracy to ignore a vote taken a year later specifically focused on the EU.

A General Election would involve a decision of the people taken later than the referendum and so could more realistically claim to be democratic. However, many factors would weigh on voters’ minds in an election other than Europe. It would not be clear that an election could give quite as precise an indication of the democratic will of the people on the specific question of the EU as the previous referendum.

In fact, almost certainly the most democratic demand of Remainers is probably the one that has received the most opprobrium from Leavers: a second referendum. It would by definition happen later than the first referendum giving a more up-to-date account of the British peoples’ view on the issue and it would without question be unaffected by other concerns such as which party leader might make the best Prime Minister as in an election.

Leavers may be inclined to reply that that is all very well but it ignores a fourth option which is clearly the most democratic: to simply accept and act on the decision expressed in the referendum on 23rd June.

This is an argument with some force but a declining one.

It has become clear over the last week that simply voting for withdrawal from the EU let alone undertaking brexit itself has had some very serious consequences for the UK. Financial markets have been highly volatile, sterling has dropped in value, a number of major businesses have suggested that the vote has affected their profitability and willingness to invest in the UK, house prices have dropped, the integrity of the Union has been put under threat, incidents of race hate have risen significantly and far right parties across Europe are seeking to capitalise on the vote.

In addition, it has also become clear that many of the rather simplistic claims made by Leavers during the campaign are now unlikely to be delivered particularly as the other EU nations seem keen to force the UK to make a trade off between continuing access to the single market and the right to opt out of the free movement principle.

Leavers may like to shrug off these developments but they are hardly small affairs. In fact, each one of them is a matter of deep concern to the well-being of the UK’s citizens.

It is highly improbable that all of these issues will be resolved in the short-term. In fact, issues such as the constitutional position of Scotland and Northern Ireland, the precise terms of the negotiations with the EU and the economic fall-out seem likely only to deepen and become more complex. As such, it is probable that the wisdom of the vote will be increasingly questioned, citizens’ concerns about brexit will grow and many who voted Leave may wish they could have voted otherwise.

Under those conditions, pressing ahead with brexit might actually become less democratic than respecting shifting opinion and the revealed reality of EU withdrawal by giving the people a chance to vote again.

Leavers might argue that that does not make the case for opposing brexit now. But it could be that those marching on the streets of London this morning were in the vanguard of what may become a significant shift of opinion against the referendum decision. Equally they may not. The truth is we do not know for sure. Which is why the great philosopher of liberal democracy, John Stuart Mill, argued that the minority must be allowed to express their views and make their demands, no matter how uncomfortable they are to the majority, for the simple reason that the minority may well be right. And in that sense, at the very least, the marchers were actually upholding a deep principle of democracy rather than undermining it.

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