Thursday, September 05, 2019

Brexit, Boris and Statistics

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, only 38% of the electorate voted to leave the EU.

Over a third of the electorate voted to remain in the EU, while 28% did not bother to vote either way. The percentage voting to leave was higher than the percentage voting to remain, but this referendum was primarily a measure of the will of the people for a particular change, not a contest, despite the political rhetoric. And various factors made it a fairly poor measure, despite the high turnout. Some people, for example, treated it as an opportunity to deliver a protest vote, a vote for a more general change, by voting against both the Prime Minister and the status quo.

Did the 2016 results deliver a mandate for change? Should that Prime Minister have regarded Brexit as mandatory?

To see why not, you only have to consider the 28% who did not bother to vote, who were bothered neither by the status quo, nor by the thought of change. Did those people contribute to any such mandate? Hardly. To see why that matters, consider how big the vote had to be, for there to be a mandate. Had this been a matter that Parliament was indifferent about, then 38% (52% of the turnout) could have been good enough. Why not? But the people were asked, in that referendum, about a change that the majority of their democratically elected representatives did not want, and which the Prime Minister himself did not want. Had more than half of the electorate said that they did want that change, then perhaps their representatives should have taken that result to be mandatory, even if they did not think that Brexit was a good idea; why not? But, that was not what happened. What happened was that there was much talk of a mandate for Brexit, and a lot of other talk. What happened was politics.

All that politics was and is entirely appropriate, because it is up to our democratically elected representatives how to interpret such measures of the will of the people.

There were party manifesto commitments in the 2017 general election. But even those do not make Brexit mandatory, because people vote for a person, not a party, and the influence of a party manifesto on the average voter is arguably less than the influence of the showmanship of the leader of that party. Boris was not the leader of his party in 2017. He is now our Prime Minister, though; and he observes that there was nothing about a deal in the referendum question. As though that means that there was a mandate for Brexit whether deal or no-deal, or deal obtained by means of a threat of no-deal, or whatever. But there was never any such mandate, in the sense of something mandatory, for anything that Parliament did not want. Such a mandate does not trump the political rhetoric; talk of such a mandate is simply part of the political rhetoric. What should trump the rhetoric is logic and the facts, such as the fact that only 38% of the electorate expressed a desire for this rather democratically unpopular change.

Surely the people think that, when it comes to running the country, showmanship should be less important than the facts of the matter.

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