Is it undemocratic to oppose Brexit?

It seems that anyone who dares suggest that Brexit might not be a good idea is immediately shouted down as “undemocratic”, and “opposing the will of the people”, as if that should be enough to just end any argument there and then.

Unlike many Remainers, I don’t think parliament could realistically just cancel Brexit because the impact is likely to be bad. Much as I think the referendum should never have been held, and much as I wish the result had gone the other way, it was held, and it did return a Leave victory. Ignoring the result of a direct vote would be setting a terrible precedent.

What if Labour were to win the next general election, but the Tories turned round and said “We know you voted for a Labour government, but we think a Jeremy Corbyn administration would be a disaster for this country, so we’re just going to keep on governing instead”? Or if Scotland voted Yes in a second independence referendum but the UK government responded “We’ve looked into the likely impact of independence and it’s going to be so catastrophic for Scotland that we can’t let you do it”?

However. Having said all that, I still think Brexit can (and should) be opposed democratically. The Leave side are not exactly acting like paragons of democracy themselves: firstly, they’re refusing to allow for the fact that people might change their minds as the impact of Brexit becomes clearer; and secondly, they’re trying to use their referendum win as a mandate for all kinds of things that weren’t mentioned on the ballot paper, and in some cases were barely even mentioned at all during the campaign.

Imagine that by the time we actually come to the point of leaving the EU, things have got so bad that 65% of the public now want to stay. Why would it be somehow more democratic to listen to what 52% of people wanted three years ago than to what 65% want today? OK, so maybe the swing won’t be quite that pronounced, but I can easily imagine a few percent of people thinking “Well, I liked the idea of that extra money for the NHS, but I didn’t think leaving was going to devastate our economy and risk an end to peace in Northern Ireland. I wish I’d voted Remain” – and a few percent is all it would take to mean that Brexit is no longer “the will of the people”. There’s a fairly good chance it’s even already happened.

Brexiters tend to react with fury if anyone suggests that Leave voters didn’t know what they were voting for. Of course people knew what they were voting for, they fume, they’re not stupid. But we’re now 18 months on from the referendum and several months into the negotiations, and unless I’ve missed something pretty major, we STILL don’t have a clue what Brexit is going to look like. It could literally be anything from shutting ourselves off completely and becoming a dysfunctional third world country to a Norway-type deal that’s so similar to EU membership that most people won’t even notice the difference. It seems utterly preposterous to claim that people knew what a Leave vote meant back in early 2016 when we still don’t have answers to some of the most basic, fundamental questions even now.

And then there’s the question of mandates. Yes, the government (unfortunately) have a mandate to take us out of the EU, but that was the ONLY question asked on the ballot paper. They don’t have a mandate for a hard Brexit, whatever they might try to claim, because the referendum never asked us whether we wanted a hard Brexit, it only asked whether we wanted to leave the EU, and a soft Brexit would still be leaving the EU. And they certainly don’t have a mandate to bypass parliament, make new laws and trade deals in secret, and slash our employment rights and food safety standards.

Once again, pointing this out seems to make the Brexiters very angry. Of course people voted for a hard Brexit, they reply. People voted to end free movement and make our own laws, and we can’t do that if we’re still in the single market.

Well I’m sorry, but no, people did not vote for that. People voted to leave the EU and that’s all. If you wanted a mandate for leaving the single market as well, you should have lobbied to have that included on the ballot paper. Furthermore, various prominent Leave politicians are on record before the vote as saying that there was no plan to leave the single market, even that it would be insane to contemplate leaving the single market. Therefore, it is highly likely that many Leave voters thought they were voting for a Norway-type deal rather than a hard separation, and even if it was only 4% of them, that means there was no majority in the referendum for leaving the single market. (Though of course we don’t know that because the referendum didn’t ask that question, which is exactly my point).

And as for claiming “it’s obvious” that people voted to end free movement… no, I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to get angry when Remainers lump all Leave voters together and claim they all voted Leave because they’re xenophobic or ignorant, you can’t then lump all Leave voters together yourself and claim that they all want exactly the same thing you do. Either Leave voters are one big homogenous Borg-like blob who are incapable of individual thought, or they’re not. You don’t get to claim they are only when it suits your argument.

In summary: the government have a mandate to take us out of the EU, and I don’t think that can be overturned without another referendum, or maybe a general election where the winning party explicitly stands on the platform of reversing Brexit. But they don’t have a mandate for anything beyond that, and certainly not for the sort of hard right coup that senior Tories and parts of the press seem to want. It’s absolutely democratic to oppose that, indeed it would be profoundly undemocratic to let them get away with it.

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