Written by Robin Dunbar


This article was first published in ‘Briefings for Bexit’ and we re-publish with their kind permission.

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What has been most disappointing about the entire Brexit debate, and particularly its more recent manifestations, is the sheer dishonesty of the claims being made. Not only does it bring politics into disrepute, but it raises serious questions about the democratic process and the entitlement to vote.

Take the statistics that are widely doing the rounds among Remainers on social media this week: that the current Prime Minister holds no popular mandate because he was elected only by some infinitesimal proportion of the population; that only 35% of the population voted to leave the EU; that the Brexiteers lied when they claimed during the Referendum that £350,000,000 a week could be invested in the NHS; that we should have a second referendum because many leavers have changed their minds; that no one knew that leaving the EU would be so difficult or so damaging.

So let’s take them one by one.

The claim that Boris Johnson wasn’t elected by popular mandate so completely misunderstands the fundamental structure of the British political system that one has to wonder whether those who promulgate it would, or even should, pass the Home Office’s tests for citizenship. Britain, unlike France and the United States, does not have a presidential system whereby we elect a specific individual to be the executive government. We have a representative democracy whereby we elect someone to represent us in a parliament of equals; in practise, for better or for worse, these days we tend to select that person on the basis of the political party on whose behalf they stand, and hence on the basis of the policies the party proposes.

Nobody elects the Prime Minister. Indeed, historically the Prime Minister was appointed by the Monarch to promote the monarch’s interests against the troublesome rabble in Westminster. Hence the title Prime Minister. For the last 300 years (effectively since the Hannoverian accession), the Prime Minister has always been the person who can command a majority of votes in Parliament, and since at least mid-Victorian times that has been, by convention, the leader of the largest party. The choice of leader has always been the sole prerogative of the party, and its members. No prime minister in the long history of the Westminster Parliament has ever been elected by popular vote of the electorate.

It is not clear where the claim that only 35% of the population voted to leave the EU comes from. One possibility is that only 35% of the voters in the 2019 EU elections voted for the Brexit and Conservative parties (actually it was just over 39%). That, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that a sizeable minority of the 17% who voted Labour and SNP are actually Leave voters but prefer to vote Labour or SNP in parliamentary elections for sound political reasons that have little to do with Brexit.

The other possibility is that it derives from the fact that only 72% of those on the electoral register voted in the Referendum, of whom roughly 52% voted to leave. Ergo, only 52% of 72% = 37% of the entire population actually voted Leave. On that logic, we can just as easily claim that the non-voters were actually all closet Leavers, in which case 28% plus 37% = 65% voted Leave – a slightly larger majority than the 62% that actually voted to Remain in Scotland. Which, by the way, is another bizarre statistic: Scotland is invariably presented as having “voted to Remain” by both the SNP and the media, yet at 62% it was very far from being an overwhelming majority – an example of the well known logical fallacy of concluding that “all” follows from “some”.

I hesitate to raise the wretched number on the bus yet again, but it seems remarkable that this hoary old chestnut keeps coming back. Actually, it is the only evidence ever produced to support the claim that the Leave campaign was deliberately misleading. If this really is how people saw it (and I have been assured that 99% of people interpreted it literally), then it surely raises some very serious questions about validity of the democratic process. The point being made was a very simple one: we send a lot of money to the EU each year and, rebate or no rebate, project funds or no project funds that we get back, we do not decide how that money is spent. That decision is wholly in the hands of an unelected bureaucracy over whom we have no control, and who haven’t filed accounts for such a long time that, were they a business, they would have been prosecuted by HMRC a decade ago.

The point was quite obviously that, if we so choose, we could spend that money on the NHS. Ultimately, as with all such electoral “promises”, how the money gets spent depends on negotiations between ministers in closed discussion in cabinet as Ministries battle out with each other for their spending priorities – subject, of course, to the baleful and invariably Scrooge-like oversight of the Treasury and its accountants. No government has ever done everything it promised in its manifesto, though I don’t recall any great national uprising in protest as a result. Some people evidently have conveniently short memories.

(Continued in Part 2 which will be published here tomorrow)

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