PKWTVF is an argument for remaining in the EU — not leaving it.

Paul Evans
Mar 24 · 4 min read

I’ve argued that the Brexit referendum (like all crude binary referendums) was a faulty signaling mechanism, and that no sensible democrat can take any instruction from it.

However, let’s pretend otherwise, just for the sake of argument. The “People Knew What They Voted For” (PKWTVF) argument is much more popular among Brexiteers, than among Remainers, yet its logic actually works strongly against them.

Advocates of PKWTVF are very quick to make their case about how Leave voters did know what they were voting for, so, hopefully, they will also accept that it also applies to Remainers too? After all, it is fairly clear what “remaining in the EU” means isn’t it? Slightly more than 48% of the voters who voted (the only legitimate constituency to the Brexit camp) can be clearly boxed off on one side of this division.

By contrast, over the last two years we have seen that many of the people who voted for Brexit regard many versions of leaving to be actually worse — a less preferable outcome to remaining.

  • Members of the ERG have gone on the record saying that Theresa May‘s version of Brexit is worse than staying in the EU and have voted accordingly on a number of occasions.
  • Brexit In Name Only (BrINO, or ‘soft Brexit) is also held by many Brexiters to be worse than remaining in the EU, yet some Leavers claim that they voted for this as they believed it would be a catalyst that would shake the EU into reform.
  • Many of the people who voted Leave know that the ERG-favoured hard “WTO” Brexit would be worse than remaining in the EU.

I have yet to see any examples of people who voted Remain saying that they did so thinking that any of the above was preferable. Once faced with any specific version of Brexit, there is, therefore, a clear majority in favour of remaining in the EU, based simply on counting the votes in the 2016 referendum.

Of course, unless it is being used to argue for Remain, the PKWTVF argument is so plainly wrong that I’m struggling to think of a reason why anyone still uses it, except to argue in poor faith. There are no leave voters who could honestly claim to have much of an idea of which version of Brexit was going to emerge from the Article 50 process, because, even now — nearly three years in — it would be a brave soul who would forecast which version of Brexit we will actually adopt if we do leave the EU.

The reason I’ve been fairly confident throughout the Brexit process that we won’t leave is because ultimately, this logic has to prevail. Parliament will try every other, more faulty, reading of the ‘mandate’ before they recognise the unavoidable fact that there is no version of leaving the EU that has anything like as much support as Remaining.

Add to that the fact that Brexit is economically unknowable, and it may result in economic harm that will come back to bite pro-Brexit politicians badly, Parliament’s quiet resistance shouldn’t surprise anyone. Even it’s most enthusiastic advocates say it could result in a period of pain.

Then add to this that, once we leave, we face years — maybe even decades — of our political landscape being dominated by the issue, with the humiliations of early 2019 forming a template for future negotiations. “End the nightmare” is a also a Remainer argument.

I don’t believe that Parliament will take the risk when push comes to shove. So where does this leave us?

It leaves us with a much-derided British constitutional settlement that is grounded in Representative Democracy. One that actually does do the right thing once it has tried every other alternative. Its a settlment that is working, however rustily.

As I’ve argued before, voters on both sides of the argument were equally unqualified to decide this issue in a crude binary referendum. “Leave” is not a stupid or dishonest argument any more that “Remain” is.

Thinking that a referendum is the right way to decide it is stupid though. Even the idea that the once-pristine argument for leaving has been destroyed by political incompetence doesn’t stand up. Choosing to leave by using a referendum fatally weakened the UK’s ability to negotiate well.

Given the evidence, anyone who still believes that there is a democratic mandate to Leave the EU is doing so for reasons that are very difficult to fathom.

Paul Evans

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Author of “Save Democracy — Abolish Voting” published by @demsoc — everything written in a personal capacity. Personal website:

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