We are told constantly that the 2016 referendum gives our government a mandate for a No Deal Brexit, and that we would not respect democracy if we failed to leave. Both arguments are obviously false, yet they so often go unchallenged in the media.
The 2016 referendum was narrowly won by the Leave side. It does not matter how many people voted in that referendum, the margin of victory was narrow. What many Leavers would like you to believe is that this referendum requires the UK to leave the EU in some way or another. This is false. The referendum did not say that we must Leave the EU whatever the circumstances and whatever the cost or whatever leaving meant. None of those words were on the ballot paper, and they were not implicit either.
Just suppose the 2016 vote had led to the recession predicted by the Treasury. No recovery from this recession was on the horizon. Suppose too that Trump had not become POTUS, and Clinton said she had no interest in doing a trade deal with the UK anytime soon. Polls overwhelmingly suggest that Scotland would seek independence if we left the EU. Polls showed support for leaving the EU had dropped to less than 30%, and so on and so on. Are we really saying that despite all this, we still had to leave the EU because of a 52% majority in an advisory referendum. The realism of this example is irrelevant if you want to defend the idea that the referendum was like some kind of contract that had to be followed come what may. You certainly have no right to call it democratic, or the will of the people
The question was whether to Leave or Remain. As a result, not surprisingly people voted on the basis of what they thought Leave or Remain meant. So to see what people voted for, you need to look at what was discussed. In particular, the Leave vote will have been influenced by what the Leave side said. And almost without exception, no one on the Leave side mentioned Leaving without any deal at all. (Of course some Brexiters are now pretending they talked about it all the time - lying is second nature for these people.)
Normally when someone says that a government has a mandate for a policy, it is because that policy was in the manifesto presented at the election. The Leave side did not have a manifesto, and that was a fatal flaw in Cameron’s referendum. In the absence of a manifesto we have to base any assessment of what any mandate was on what the Leave side said Brexit would entail. And almost without exception the Leave side said it would involve a trade deal with the EU of some sort.
It is true that the Remain side talked about No Deal as an extreme case in the list of possible forms of leaving the EU. But when looking at mandates, we look at what the winning side said, not the losing side. The Leave side spent a great deal of time ridiculing Remain predictions as Project Fear, and that included ridiculing the idea that we would not get a deal with the EU. Some on the Leave side said it would be the easiest deal in history.
The reason why No Deal is the only Brexit option left standing is that militant Brexiters have done everything they can to get us there. They voted down alternative options their government proposed. It is militant Brexiters, not a majority of the public, that think No Deal is the only true form of Brexit. When Brexiters claim that voters were really voting for No Deal they should be laughed at, but instead our supine media lets it pass.
What about the idea that we have to leave with No Deal because otherwise democracy (the 2016 vote) will be betrayed. This is a favourite claim by Farage. The people who have in fact betrayed Brexit are Farage himself and fellow Brexiters. They have turned a vote for a Brexit involving a deal with the EU into something quite different.
Such a claim only gets mileage because, thanks to the Brexiters, parliament failed to agree on a deal. But such an outcome was implicit in the 2016 result. Because the referendum did not specify what type of Brexit should be attempted, we have no a priori reason to believe that any particular option would command a majority. Indeed with such a close victory the presumption must be otherwise, and the polls show this to be the case. Parliament’s failure to agree a deal simply reflects the fact that there is no majority for any particular deal.
The idea that we must go through with Brexit even though there is no majority for any form of Brexit is nonsensical. It is an illusion created by a flawed advisory referendum narrowly won which politicians foolishly said at the time that they would implement. Luckily no politicians is bound by the foolish promises that other politicians made.
Again a hypothetical example shows this point. Suppose a similar referendum had been held on the proposition to increase spending on the NHS by raising taxes, and it had been narrowly won. However polls also suggested that when you asked about specific taxes (should we increase NHS spending by raising income taxes etc) there was no majority to raise any specific tax. Should the country nevertheless go ahead and raise spending and choose some arbitrary tax just because of the original referendum result? It makes no sense to enact something that a majority object to on the basis of a flawed referendum.
So why do Brexiters get away with still talking about the will of the people when a majority clearly favours Remaining to any form of Brexit? Not because we cannot rely on opinion polls - Leavers will not allow any further vote to confirm the opinion polls! That in itself is a crystal clear indication that Brexit is undemocratic. Some even say that a further vote on a specific Brexit deal is undemocratic. In what topsy turvy world is a public vote to confirm a previous public vote undemocratic.
It is a world where Brexiters have control of most of the media, and where Brexiters and some of the people who voted for Brexit are desperate for some democratic justification for what has become an assault on pluralist democracy and evidence based policy. If you repeat something often enough you are in danger of believing it yourself. Once Tory politicians said at every opportunity that the previous Labour government was profligate, and because it went unchallenged people believed it even though it was obviously false. (Just look at the numbers.) Equally if no one contradicts you when you say we must leave with no deal because of a narrow referendum win where no one on the winning side talked about leaving with no deal, you can convince yourself to enact the biggest act of self-harm in modern UK history on an unwilling majority.