The Leave campaign – just like Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency – was based on a false prospectus. To respect the referendum result means to accept this as normal, writes Simon Wren-Lewis (Oxford University). It is not. Those who voted for a fall in immigration and more money for the NHS will not get them. That is why it is right to limit the damage the referendum vote does, and reverse it whenever that opportunity arises.
Take the people who voted Leave because they believed there would be more money for the NHS if the UK didn’t have to contribute to the EU. People, and there were plenty of them, who believed the £350 million a week figure. Should we respect their vote by leaving the EU, which would mean considerably less money available for the NHS?
And how about those who voted Leave because they believed less immigration from the EU would mean they had better access to public services. They can hardly be blamed for voting that way, because plenty of politicians from the Prime Minister downwards have told them that immigration is to blame for pressure on public services. In reality reducing immigration would almost surely reduce the money available for public services. So how are we respecting their wishes by leaving the EU?
And those who voted Leave because they were worried about being ‘swamped’. Not because it was happening to them right now, but because they have read that it is going to happen. When Turkey joins the EU. Or with all those refugees. Because they read countless articles that scare them. The only difference between this example and others is that this is explicit in talking about ‘the Muslim problem’. Do we honestly think that leaving the EU but continuing with free movement is going to assuage their fears?
It is an awkward truth that what many people wanted when the voted Leave is either simply impossible, or cannot happen without making everyone significantly poorer year after year. It is this reality that keeps the government in a fantasy world. Almost no one who voted to Leave is going to be happy with the result of government decisions. Those who wanted better access to public services will not get it. Those who wanted more sovereignty will find their sovereignty sold off cheap in a desperate attempt to get new trade deals. Those who wanted less immigration will also find their wishes largely frustrated because the UK cannot afford to reduce immigration.
The parallels with the US are clear. The Republicans, after spending years denouncing Obamacare, found they could not produce anything better. Those promoting Leave also did so without any thought to how it might actually happen, and therefore they have nowhere to go when confronted with reality. As a result, the government invents a magical customs union so that Liam Fox can have something to do. I have never known a UK government look so pathetic.
This is why the lies told by the Leave side are so critical. People tell me this is not important because most elections involve politicians lying. I’m afraid this is exactly equivalent to saying that Trump is just another politician who lies. It should be obvious that Trump and today’s Republican party are something new and dangerous: people who tell blatant lies all the time about crucial issues and construct an alternative reality with the help of media outlets like Fox News. In exactly the same way, those in charge of Brexit live in their own imaginary world supported by the pro-Leave press. It is this imaginary world that they got 52% of the electorate to vote for.
That alone is enough to completely discredit the referendum as an exercise in democracy. But there is more. The debate we should have had during the referendum was about the costs and benefits of immigration, This never happened because the person leading the Remain campaign had spent so much of his political life stoking up fears about immigration. It is hardly surprising that so many people voted to end free movement when both campaigns were united about immigration being a problem and way too high. The referendum campaign was like a boxing match where one side tied one of his hands behind his back and the other side brought knives
Respecting the referendum result means passing all this off as just normal. It is not normal. It is no more normal than Republicans taking health insurance away from millions. It is like an election held by an authoritarian state that runs a xenophobic campaign and controls much of the means of information. In that case we would say that this authoritarian state respected democracy in only the most superficial sense, and the same was true for the EU referendum.
We cannot say that we should respect the right of people to make mistakes when the information they were given was so untruthful. The people voted for Trump and it is right to struggle to limit the damage and overturn that result after four years. Those who struggle against Trump are not disrespecting democracy but fighting to preserve it. In the same way it is right to limit the damage the referendum vote does and reverse it whenever that opportunity arises.
I understand those who say that in today’s political environment anything other than another referendum is politically impossible. I understand why it benefits the opposition to sit on the fence and triangulate. (Although what is the point of Labour hedging bets on keeping in the customs union? It makes their Brexit strategy look much more like confused and conflicted than strategic triangulation.) But please do not tell me that by being politically expedient in this way you are keeping the moral high ground. (It is very easy to tell the difference between political expediency and political conviction. Imagine the very unlikely event that parliament votes to end Brexit. Would you join demonstrations outside parliament calling this an affront to democracy, or would you breath a huge sigh of relief?) There is nothing noble in defending an exercise in democracy that was as deeply flawed as the EU referendum. It is no accident that the only major overseas leader that supports Brexit is Donald Trump, and that those pushing Brexit hailed his victory. Brexit is our Trump, and the sooner both disappear the better the world will be.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared at Mainly Macro.