The British are discovering that Brexit is a decision far too big for one close vote riddled with faulty information.
By Jolyon Howorth*
The Brexit process ground to a halt after UK Prime Minister Theresa May realized that the number of votes necessary to get her “deal” through the House of Commons fell short by, in her own words, “a significant margin” – as many as 200 votes. She accordingly cancelled the vote.
Disapproval for the package, after more than two years of debate under two prime ministers, came from three quarters: The “hard Brexiters” wish for a complete break from the European Union. The residual Remainers had never abandoned hope of reversing Brexit. Others prefer another type of “soft Brexit,” such as the EU relationship currently enjoyed by Norway. May’s proposals were seen as making little sense. In part, but only in part, because of the intractability of the Irish border situation – leaving the Irish border open to trade, people and services in the event of no deal while awaiting more negotiations. This would leave the United Kingdom indefinitely bound to adhere to almost all obligations of EU membership while abandoning any role in the decision-making process and continuing to pay into the EU budget.
Some decisions are so massive that snap judgment is not enough, and sustained constitutional approval over time is required.
It is worth stepping back to consider the math behind May’s mission to withdraw the UK from EU membership. It has become almost commonplace for commentators to write that “a majority of the British people” or, if an attempt at nuance is made, “a majority of the electorate” voted to Leave the EU. This, for starters, is incorrect. It is true, that of those who cast a vote, 51.9 percent voted Leave and 48.1 percent Remain. The numbers of registered voters at the time of the referendum was about 46.5 million and turnout was about 72 percent. Those voting Leave numbered 15,188,406 – 32.66 percent of registered voters. Not all UK citizens of voting age were registered. Given that membership of the EU had been the default constitutional situation in the United Kingdom since 1973, the reality is that less than one third of UK citizens actively voted to Leave.
The parliamentary arithmetic is more revealing. Prior to the referendum, constituents called upon British MPs to declare their position: Those backing Leave numbered 158; those backing Remain numbered 479. Within the Conservative Party, deeply divided on the issue, 138 backed Leave while 185 backed Remain. The corresponding figures for Labour were 10 and 218. Former Prime Minister David Cameron scheduled a referendum rather than a parliamentary vote because he was confident that a sizeable majority would back Remain, putting an end to the civil war over this issue that had so bedeviled conservative administrations of his predecessors Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
The math is incontrovertible. Those actively in favor of leaving the EU constituted at most one third of the UK electorate and less than a quarter of MPs. This raises the issue of whether a constitutional change of such magnitude should be enacted by a simple majority of those casting a ballot – as opposed to by a much higher percentage – say two thirds, as is the case in many countries, including the United States. It also raises the question of whether direct democracy, a plebiscite, as opposed to representative democracy, a parliamentary vote, is the most appropriate means of making such a profound, complex and far-reaching decision.
The way in which this math has translated into the current political impasse is instructive. Hapless Cameron resigned. An internal Conservative Party selection process chose his successor, Theresa May. May, who had favored Remain, decided that the best way of attracting a maximum number of Conservative MP votes was to coin the slogan “Brexit means Brexit.” Like many Conservative MPs, she was nervous about the verdict of citizens who had voted Leave.
Thus, the politics of Leave transmogrified into the mantra that “the people have spoken” and that democracy demands respect for their verdict. There are two problems with this approach. The first is that democracy presupposes the ability of voters to change direction in a subsequent ballot. Leaving the EU, however, was not intended to be reversible. The second problem, more intractable, was that no one – May and least of all the electorate – had the slightest idea what leaving the EU would involve.
The politics of May’s Brexit mission involved many self-inflicted wounds. The decision taken on 29 March 2017 to invoke Article 50 of the EU Treaty – starting a clock that would oblige the UK to quit the EU two years later – was gratuitously premature. There was no vestige of consensus in March 2017, within the Tory Party or the country, as to what precisely the UK was trying to negotiate with the EU.
May’s decision to call an election in June 2017 in the hope of giving herself a large majority in Parliament to boost her negotiating position, backfired massively when she succeeded in losing the Tories’ existing majority and found herself hostage to a small extremist Irish party.
Above all, her unbending determination to deliver on her promise that “Brexit means Brexit” has been her undoing. Within months, it became clear to most objective observers that May herself did not have a clear or achievable objective. In an uncompromising speech in January 2017, she laid down several “red lines” insisting that unless the EU respected these, the UK would leave without a deal, threatening chaos for both the UK and the EU. These included ruling out membership of either the single market or the customs union, refusing the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, refusing to pay into the EU budget, and signing a free-trade agreement with the EU while simultaneously signing trade agreements around the world under her new slogan of “Global Britain.”
To date, she has failed to deliver on any of these red lines. Leaving the EU has turned out to be infinitely more difficult than May imagined. The government’s own economic forecasts confirmed those by an overwhelming majority of experts: The UK economy would suffer significantly from Brexit.
By the summer of 2018, the EU had imposed a package of concessions on the UK. This package made little sense, not so much a “deal” as scrapings May had extracted from the depths of the EU barrel. That package, known as the “Chequers Plan” for the name of the prime minister’s country house where it was discussed with her cabinet, led to the resignation of her main cabinet colleagues and today’s impasse.
This is where the math and the politics come into direct collision. She is at least 150 MPs short of a majority for her package. More than a third of her MPs, 117, have disavowed her. The number of UK citizens polling in favor of Remain has risen while those clinging to Leave have dropped. Current polls put the respective scores at 55 to 45. Since the referendum, 700,000 older voters, who favored Leave by 70 percent, have died. A similar number of younger voters who favored Remain by 70 percent have joined the electoral register.
May nevertheless rejects mounting pressure for a second referendum, which would put the Brexit question to an electorate fully aware of the issues and the stakes, as “undemocratic” – since it reneges on her promise that “Brexit means Brexit.” It would take an act of unparalleled statesmanship for May to acknowledge that the fundamental problem with Brexit is Brexit. If the math had favored Remain in 2016, the indications are that a second vote would confirm that preference. That is the essence of democracy. To hold out against such a course would be fundamentally undemocratic.
*Jolyon Howorth is a visiting professor of public policy with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He was a visiting professor of political science and international affairs at Yale University since 2002. He is professor emeritus of European politics at the University of Bath, United Kingdom, and visiting professor at Luiss Universitá Guido Carli, Rome. His recent publications include Security and Defense Policy in the European Union (second edition, 2014) and Defending Europe: The EU, NATO and the Quest for European Autonomy (edited with J. Keeler, 2003). Howorth is currently studying power transition in the contemporary world.