The British public still have no idea what they voted for with Brexit – it’s not elitist to admit it

Inviting a largely uninformed public to make a judgement on something as unfathomably complex as EU membership was akin to asking a six-year-old to perform brain surgery – with a crayon

Otto English
Tuesday 22 January 2019 14:39 GMT
David Cameron on Brexit: 'I don't regret calling the referendum'

In the run up to the 2016 EU referendum I campaigned for Stronger IN on the streets of South London. I’d never canvassed before and it was a disquieting experience. As I trudged through Lewisham handing out flyers, it became horribly apparent that most of those who I stopped to talk to didn’t understand what the hell was going on.

Some asked me to explain it. Others told me they were “voting for Boris”. One guy took my arm and informed me that “chaos is good so I’m voting for chaos”. One of my children’s teachers – who I bumped into by the station – asked me which way she should vote. When I told her I was backing Remain, she stared at me blankly and asked if that was “in or out?”

But it was the older woman who engaged me in the market on a busy Saturday afternoon that really made me realise that our cause was doomed: “I don’t want to join the EU.” She told me. I started to explain that we were already in the EU, the referendum was about leaving it or remaining and when I took out my phone to prove my point she stopped me in my tracks and repeated very deliberately: “No. I’m sorry I’ve made my mind up. I don’t care about that. I’m voting against.” And that was the end of that.

The uncomfortable truth is that whether you voted Remain or Leave in June 2016 you probably voted emotionally. Very few people understood it. Inviting a largely uninformed public to make a judgement on something as unfathomably complex as our membership of the EU was akin to asking a six-year-old to perform delicate brain surgery – with a crayon.

And it's not just Brexit. Most people simply do not fathom politics. Most have no understanding of concepts like pooled sovereignty, or how net migration works, or what first past the post is, or how our unwritten constitution functions. Many, frankly, don’t even care. Why should they?

In a parliamentary democracy we elect politicians to make important decisions on our behalf. That’s how the system has functioned for decades and also why the British have traditionally astutely avoided referendums – which reduce perplexingly multifaceted matters to a binary choice. Thatcher famously called referendums the tools of “demagogues and dictators” – but they are more than that. They are a dangerous capitulation of responsibility by the executive to an electorate less equipped to make judgements than they.

Forget the “people’s will” – all evidence demonstrates that the “people’s ignorance” is staggering. Around half of adults don’t know who their MP is while just 11 per cent can name one of their MEPs. A survey carried out in the run up to the 2015 general election revealed that 69 per cent of Britons confessed to having “no interest in politics” while a staggering 59 per cent couldn’t even name the then-prime minister, David Cameron.

And yet we are told daily that the “people understood what they were voting for”. That sacred result – delivered by the hallowed 52 per cent one day in June 2016 – now dictates the course of this nation’s destiny. The British public might be cheerfully ignorant of the mechanisms of politics but put them in a polling station and they are apparently transformed into a master race of all knowing super beings who can do no wrong – and whose will must be delivered at all costs.

Do most British people really understand the backstop? Of course not. What WTO rules mean? No. Who genuinely comprehends the difference between the Norwegian or Canadian models? What percentage of the British population has sat down to read Theresa May’s deal, or even the abstract? I certainly haven’t – have you?

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Say any of this, dare to imply that the majority simply don’t get any of it whatsoever and you are accused of being an elitist who thinks that the people are stupid. That is why nobody in public life dares to say it. The people aren’t stupid. Far from it. They have better things to do than acquaint themselves with the intricacies of the Maastricht treaty. But their obliviousness is being abused.

The awful truth is that while most people don’t understand what the hell is going on, that lack of knowledge is being used against them by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Farage and friends in the furtherance of their own nebulous cause.

It’s time for a little more honesty. Let’s be frank. Nobody understands what the hell is going on.

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