When we debate how to deal with the result of the 2016 referendum, that is the fundamental question we are grappling with, and it matters a great deal not just for Brexit but for democracy as a whole.
Two years ago, the British electorate voted by a slim majority to leave the European Union. However, polls currently indicate that support for Remain has risen since then, and the data suggests that if the referendum were to be rerun now, Remain would be likely to win.
But can we act on that? On the one hand, the democratic vote in 2016 supported leaving, which we haven’t done yet. On the other hand, if the public has changed its mind, is it undemocratic to bypass its current will in favour of a past one?
Much can be said for and against the validity of poll data. As Anthony Wells, director of political research at YouGov points out, measuring poll data from two years ago against parallels today is not a fair comparison. Methodologies have changed, sample sizes differ, and different polling agencies always end up with somewhat disparate results, no matter how hard they try to control for every possible variable they can think of.
The result of all that ambiguity is that polls are a terrible measure of public opinion, but also the only data we have to go on. Before the referendum, they predicted a Remain victory almost unanimously, and were proven wrong. It’s a similar story if you look at the run-up to the 2015 general election, the 2016 US presidential election and even, to some extent, the 2017 general election.
Surely, though, if there is even the slightest indication that public opinion may have shifted in the last twenty-nine months, we should go back to the population and ask their opinion again before going through with the momentous and potentially irreversible political manoeuvre that is Brexit. In the age of Twitter, assuming we can keep those pesky hackers out, there must be an efficient way to obtain a snapshot of public opinion before we cross the point of no return.
Except, of course, it is far from that simple. Public opinion is extremely volatile. It is entirely possible that viewpoints have flipped since 2016, but who can say they won’t flip again in 2020? Referenda are much more complicated than elections because if the public changes its mind about a politician or government — which it almost always does — it can simply vote them out when their term is up.
This is not true of Brexit. The Brexit vote was arguably the most significant phenomenon in British political history since 1945, simply because of the implied permanence of the result. Leaving the EU is not a temporary thing; nobody advocated a trial period which could be reversed if we don’t like it. The vote was — or should have been — final.
Fundamentally, democracy simply means political power being in the hands of the people. When it comes to actually implementing that idea, it quickly becomes very clear that there is no easy way to go about it. Dozens of countries around the world call themselves democracies but no two countries have identical systems of government; each has a different interpretation of what it means to give power to the people.
Take Maoist China, for instance. Chairman Mao is widely seen as a dictator, his personalist dictatorial communism often contrasted with an idealistic view of Western democracy. He, though, would have vehemently disagreed with this undemocratic portrayal of his government. In his view, the Chinese Communist Party is a far more effective vehicle for democracy than any European or American governmental institution.
The way Mao saw it, Western democracy is just a recipe for oligarchy. While in theory anyone can run for office, in practice, in order to acquire any meaningful political power, pre-existing connections and substantial disposable funds are necessary. And, if you ever do get into government, you’ll need a fair bit of help from other powerful people in order to stay there.
We can see what he meant even today. The controversy surrounding Arron Banks’s financial contributions to the Leave.EU campaign are evidence of what Mao would have said was undemocratic government; contrary to the idealistic notion of equal distribution of power (everyone gets one vote) in a capitalistic society such as ours, those blessed with plentiful resources always get a bigger slice of the political pie.
In contrast to that, in China, there is only one party in government so politicians have no need to cosy up to businesses in order to gain and retain power, nor do they have to strike an impossible balance between fulfilling the public mandate they were given when they were elected and cooperating with the endless checks and balances present in a modern democracy.
Democratic votes can always be construed as undemocratic one way or another. If a government is elected to a five-year term but two years later public opinion suddenly condemns them, is it not undemocratic to force that population to live under that same government for a further three years?
How, though, does one decide what is undemocratic? In chasing this ultimate democracy, we would be constantly having votes to decide whether or not to have further votes. If polls are flawed, then elections and referenda suffer similar flaws. 52% of voters backed Leave in 2016, but that was only 17.4 million people — roughly 27% of the population.
The ultimate problem with this theoretical democracy is that it is incompatible with practical politics. Brexit is extremely complex; the negotiations process was always going to take at least two years, and the transition, implementation and backstop periods could last much longer than that. Politics moves much more slowly than our minds. We can change our opinions like flicking a switch but putting those opinions into practice takes a very long time and a huge amount of effort.
The result is that it is essentially impossible to cater to our every whim. So, as with Brexit, we have to make do with a rough estimation of public opinion. That is the reality of democracy.