Will of the People: The Brexiteers’ Greatest Lie

Brexiteers love to tell us that anyone who opposes Brexit opposes democracy. Here’s just a part of my case for why the now notorious four-word tagline is a load of hot air…


Since last year’s referendum, the hopes and promises of the Vote Leave campaign have fallen like a house of cards. The first cracks began to appear within days, with the discrediting of the now infamous promise of a £350m a week funding boost for the NHS. Since then, a heady mix of economic slow-down, stalling negotiations, rumbling of anti-EU myths and many other factors have shifted the logical, fact-based argument increasingly in favour of Remain.

Faced with a shortage of robust factual arguments, Leavers have tried a variety of tactics to keep their momentum going. Some maintain optimism, a mentality which appears to rely mostly on portraying examples of damage limitation as though they were real progress. Others rely on more emotive arguments, but since the over-reliance on buzz-words like “freedom”, “independence” and “patriotism” appeals mostly to first instinct, continuing in this approach seems unlikely to win over anyone it hasn’t convinced already.

As other arguments fail, more and more Brexiteers fall back on their simplest (and, at first glance, strongest) argument – the notion of the “will of the people”. The Brexiteers would have us believe that to continue to oppose Brexit in spite of the referendum result is to oppose democracy itself.

I suppose I must concede that that’s a clever move; after all, no-one wants to be branded as undemocratic. Neither will I deny that trying to pull this trick on me is like showing a red rag to a bull. The reason for my anger is simple:

The idea that Brexit is “the will of the people”, and that, by extension, opposition to Brexit is undemocratic, is fundamentally deeply flawed.

The “will of the people” notion is a sickeningly unfair argument, and it’s heart-breaking to realise that even some Remainers are falling for it; the good nature and liberal mind-set of Remain finally becoming an Achilles heel. Yet many more of us, confident in our facts, have found we are not deceived.

Here are some reasons why…

EU immigrants were not allowed to vote.

The UK is home to about 3 million immigrants from other EU countries. These people (and yes, they are people, though right-wing politics has a tendency to forget that) have been more affected than anyone else by the referendum result. Yet they were not allowed to vote.

Many EU immigrants have lived here for years or even decades. They have families here. They work here, often in low-paid, tough jobs that most UK-born workers wouldn’t touch. They pay taxes here. They prop up this country. Their plight was frankly tough enough before the referendum, chiefly thanks to the xenophobic narrative of our politicians and media, which have for a long time being systematically belittling immigrants’ outstanding collective contribution to this country; a denial which results in social isolation, racism and even hate crime.

This hostility has only gotten worse since the referendum. Hate crime has spiked while the increasing popularity of anti-immigration politics has destigmatised hatred itself. Most notably, however, more than a year after the referendum, EU immigrants are still living in fear of the possibility of being ethnically cleansed from British society through mass deportation. It’s impossible for most indigenous Brits to comprehend the level of anxiety and suffering that results from the possibility of being forced to leave the country you call home – to abandon, in many cases, all you know, and start over again – but for the purposes of empathy, I encourage my readers to try anyway. This, in a nutshell, is the plight of EU immigrants in Brexit Britain. This is the plight of the people that the government didn’t allow to vote in the EU referendum.

It’s also worth mentioning that this fatal flaw in the referendum’s democratic process arguably renders any debate on the possibility of racist motives of individual voters (an argument which has raged fiercely since the referendum) as surplus to requirement. After all, we would seem to be largely missing the point if we repeatedly analyse whether or not individual voters were motivated by racism, yet fail to address the denial of EU immigrants’ right to vote, which is, quite simply, a blatant and systematic act of institutional racism. Forget the possibility of racist individuals – we have a racist system.

Emigrants to the rest of the EU were not allowed to vote.

I must of course clarify that most of what I have written above applies equally the other way round; to UK-born immigrants to other EU countries. Here we see another group of people, some 1-1½ million strong, likely to be massively affected by the referendum’s outcome. Yet these people were also not allowed to vote.

It is my personal feeling that, both before and after the referendum, these UK-born immigrants have largely not been exposed to the same levels of racial hatred as those who have migrated in the opposite direction. The discrepancy in attitudes runs so deeply that it is reflected even in terminology. Notice how those who migrate to the UK from other EU countries are labelled as “immigrants”, a word which, for many, has numerous negative connotations. Those moving in the opposite direction, however, usually escape this label and are described as “expats”. Most people are reluctant to call them emigrants or immigrants, even though that is undoubtedly what they are, and even though there is, of course, nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

This social discrepancy aside, however, UK-born immigrants to other EU countries still face overwhelming daily anxieties about their future. Over a year on from the Brexit vote, they still don’t know if, and how far, their basic rights will be protected. At worst, they face the same fears as their EU-born counterparts; the fear that their homes, lives and everything they know will be cruelly taken away. That is a colossal burden to live with – especially for people who weren’t allowed to vote.

16- and 17-year-olds were not allowed to vote.

Notice a pattern emerging?

Here we need to clarify the fundamental way in which the EU referendum differs from a general election. We can debate the rights and wrongs of 16- and 17- year olds missing out on the right to vote in a general election but, whatever your view, it’s reassuring to know that those so affected will have the chance to vote in the next election within, at most, five years. Brexit, however, is a once-in-a-generation occurrence. To deny a voice to 16- and 17- year olds is to steal from them an opportunity that will likely never come again. Brexit is undoubtedly a long-term change. People aged 16 or 17 at the time of the referendum will be feeling its effects long after older voters have gone. So, here we see another example of the people most affected being disqualified from voting. (No doubt, of course, that some Leavers will question how far 16- and 17-year-olds can be trusted to vote “responsibly” and, in doing so, these Leavers will compromise their own democratic credentials still further by keeping us on the slippery slope of questioning, or even, as in this case, completely denying, other peoples’ right to vote.)

Time and time again, Remainers have raised concerns about these grievous shortfalls in the referendum’s democratic process. Yet the Leavers, in keeping with their one-track belief that to oppose Brexit is to oppose democracy, have down-played and denied our concerns, even decrying them as undemocratic. It seems that, for all their talk of championing democracy, Leavers don’t seem very keen on the idea that everyone should have been allowed to vote. It is this contradiction in terms more than anything that shows just how ridiculous the “will of the people” argument really is.

In summary, according to Brexiteers, it’s undemocratic to defend the right to vote.

The long-term nature of Brexit also calls other issues into question. The possibility of a shift in public opinion, for example – the normal system of general elections allows any voter to switch party allegiance at least once every five years, yet the EU referendum offers no equivalent provision. Still more significant are the changes in the demographic of the electorate itself. There is clear evidence that Brexit, and right-wing politics in general, is more popular among the older generation. New Remainers come of age every day while the older, more Brexit-backing generation fades away. With this in mind, we can say with confidence that the government’s mandate to pull the UK out of the EU is not only fatally flawed, but is also rapidly approaching its use-by date. More generally speaking, concerns such as these are the main reason behind the credible case for the requirement of a set majority for any major and permanent constitutional change – a case which, in this situation, has been systematically ignored.

Of course, all of this is magnified greatly by the narrowness of the referendum result. Not only is the Leavers’ majority arrived at by fatally flawed democratic methods, it’s not even a large or clear majority at all. The ability of even all of the above concerns combined to eat away at a majority of 85%:15% may well be questionable. Yet their ability to completely discredit the interpretation of a near dead heat of 52%:48% as a clear or fair victory for Leave is absolutely irrefutable.

I find I have much more to say on the “will of the people” issue, and more articles on the subject will certainly follow. I will conclude, for now, by squeezing in one final point that many of my Remainer readers will have no doubt been waiting patiently to see mentioned; that whatever else last year’s advisory EU referendum was, it was also just that – merely advisory.

To be continued…