What does “the will of the people” even mean anymore?

“The democratic will of the British people was not determined for the rest of time on the 23rd of June 2016.”

Old proverb

The argument consistently hauled out by Theresa May and other Brexiteers at the simple mention of a People’s Vote is that it would be a betrayal of “the will of the people.”

<insert eye roll>

Since the referendum, nothing’s changed in the context of Brexit. What has changed however is the rhetoric surrounding the debate. In spring 2016, leading Brexiteers promised a glorious future for Britain outside the EU: £350m extra a week for the NHS (that was a big one), freedom of trade, complete sovereignty, border controls, etc. Even though it was evidently a pack of lies you don’t hear much of that talk anymore, what with Airbus threatening to up sticks and leave the UK, Sony relocating its European HQ from London to Amsterdam, and even Brexiteer James Dyson moving to Singapore. The economic argument for Brexit and much of the foundation upon which the principle once ‘mightily’ stood becomes shakier by the day. No, the only case for Brexit now is to deliver on “the will of the people,” comparable to one bracing to puncture their own eyeballs with a sharp pencil for no reason other than to keep a promise.

Look I’m not one to try and subvert the outcome of the referendum by insisting that the whole thing was “only advisory,” or that the 52% that voted to leave is only really 37% of the electorate. The referendum was not marketed as “only advisory” at the time, and we have rules for referendums, In fact, they’re enshrined in an act of parliament, namely the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. 50% +1 of those who turned out was enough to win. That’s how it works.

On its face (ignoring the fact that the Leave campaign cheated), the Brexiteers are right, it’s the Remainers – ‘the establishment’ – who are frustrating the process. But they were elected too, in an election which by ‘the rules’ also reflected “the will of the people”, despite the terrible voting system which I continue to complain about regularly. The common Downing Street line trotted out in this case (because there’s an answer for everything) is that more than 80% of votes were cast for parties promising to honour the referendum result in their manifestos (namely the Conservatives, Labour and UKIP). But I call foul on this one aswell; Theresa May knows full well about the necessity for tactical voting under First Past The Post. Remainers, for the most part, were forced to hedge their bets with Labour rather than an outwardly pro-EU party like the Lib Dems. The election seems to have complicated matters more than it has provided “strong and stable” leadership for the country.

Even if the case could be made that the referendum result qualified as a ‘purer expression of democratic choice’ than the election, problems still abound. Even the most dogged Brexit exponents fail to accept the sad reality of politics, one that I too have yet to fully accept: not all issues are black and white. Not every person who voted for Brexit would have voted for it for the same reasons, with the same perceived or desired outcomes. “We knew what we were voting for” – often spouted by disgruntled audience members on Question Time – just doesn’t hold up anymore. It’s hard to argue that May’s deal, or indeed no deal – the only versions of Brexit on offer at the moment – truly represents the will of the people. The government’s version of Brexit is one it has come up with on its own, behind closed doors. It’s been the Tories and the cabinet who have done most of the decision-making concerning what Brexit actually means – a topic I’m writing about in an essay on elite theory, which says it all really.

The solution to this impasse/deadlock/clusterfuck proposed by a cross-party coalition of MPs is to put the decision back to the people, now in possession of all the facts: a solution which could perhaps provide some clarity. Polls consistently show a lead for remain: an indication that people may have changed their minds? A second referendum seems a sound course of action until you consider the ramifications of such a vote. The 2016 referendum created gaping divisions in the UK; wounds that to this day remain unhealed. The country is in a state of turmoil: politically, culturally, socially. David Davis (arch-Brexiteer) once said, “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” The question the UK needs to ask itself is whether or not it’s worth the pain.