The changing will of the people

Nothing could be simpler than changing your Will. You simply alter it to take account of a new situation, including your new grandchildren perhaps, and it’s done. Nobody objects that you have betrayed your first Will by making another, and if they did, you would think it mighty strange.

Not so with the will of the people. The decision of 2016, corrupted and flawed though it certainly was, must stand forever, or for at least 20 years in Nigel Farage’s opinion. Why should that be? After all, it was only supposed to be an advisory result to be considered by parliament. Primarily because David Cameron promised that whatever the people decided, the government would carry out. And that promise rapidly attained the force of a biblical commandment, to be implemented come hell or high water. 

A second Brexit referendum will not be sanctioned “under any circumstances” insists Theresa May, because the 2016 decision was sacrosanct: any deviance is betrayal. 

Underlying this apparently high minded devotion to democracy one senses a certain punitive element, like the strict parent who says “I told you once, and I’m not telling you again”. Across the channel, the translation is more like “The Brits have made their bed, and now they must lie on it”.

Similar situations can occur in medicine where people make advance directives about what should happen to them in the future, should their mental capacity become diminished. These directives can sometimes cause tensions between original intentions and later practical realities, which may not have been foreseen.

Another example relates to the Jazz musician Duke Ellington. The Duke would get so carried away by his love of music that after a gig finished he would stay at the piano and keep playing all night. This was a problem when he had to perform the next day, so he gave a member of his band the job of forcing him off the piano. The man with this job, however, faced a dilemma. After the gig, Ellington would try to override his previous instructions. But before the gig he instructed the man to take no notice of such attempts. So which Duke, exactly, was the man answerable to?

Polls now show a reversal of the 2016 referendum result, with 52% favouring remain, mainly because more young voters have come on board. The question is who has priority, the earlier British public or the later British public? As with Duke Ellington there is no ready answer, but it looks as though the earlier public has the stronger hand. 

Despite the protests of 700,000 people, the government and parliamentarians are not easily shifted; campaigners for a people’s vote face an uphill struggle. Only if MPs can be convinced that it is in their self interest to support the vote, are many of them likely to do so. Meantime to outside observers Britain is well and truly stuck.  Few in Europe are betting on a second vote, if they think about us at all. The rest of the world is moving on as times change and evolve, while here in Britain the clocks have stopped in 2016, and we are locked in an eternal replay of Groundhog Day.

* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.

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  • The real question for the party is how to persuade people in the U.K. that it would be better to be members of the EU than not.
    This is what the focus should be on.
    I do not see this being given the priority it needs.

  • OnceALibDem 25th Oct '18 - 3:58pm

    “Nobody objects that you have betrayed your first Will by making another, and if they did, you would think it mighty strange.”

    You perhaps need to consult the law reports before making such sweeping statements. Among other cases it is probable that Harold Shipman would never have been caught had someone done just that.

  • Peter Watson 25th Oct '18 - 6:46pm

    “Why should that be?”
    If I were a Brexiter I would say “Because the Government told us so!”. In the leaflet paid for by taxpayers that was timed to come out just before campaign funding rules came into force, the Government described it as a “A once in a generation decision” and stated that “The Government will implement what you decide.”

    “Polls now show a reversal of the 2016 referendum result”
    Polls showed the same reversal of the result before the referendum result. I made money from my only ever bet (some small compensation for the result!) by figuring that the very tight polling masked shy Brexiters who balked when asked in effect “Will you vote to remain in the EU or are you an ignorant racist?”. I suspect that many of those who would still vote for Brexit are no more likely to be open about it now.

    I completely agree with Tom Harney above when he writes that the focus should be on “how to persuade people in the U.K. that it would be better to be members of the EU than not” and I also “do not see this being given the priority it needs.”

    The thing that strikes me most about the ongoing Brexit debate is how appalling both sides have been throughout. The most confident, vocal and senior English political figures of the Remain campaign (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, even Farron to an extent), seem to have left the battlefield and skulked off after getting us into this pickle. And from both sides of the Brexit debate and from all parts of the political spectrum (except possibly the SNP) we seem to have politicians who didn’t expect to be in this position and don’t know what to do about it!

  • Peter Watson
    Weirdly, I was polled twice before the referendum. I think the problem is that polls are not nuanced and ask leading questions because they have become more of a campaign tool than a gauge of opinion. I look at who is doing the polling for what organisation, then take a pinch of salt. The other point is they tend gloss over how many people tell them to go away because they are not interested in taking part. It’s not so much shy voters that play a part as simply ones are not interested in answering a questionnaire. Think of pollsters as being a bit like those sturdy workers employed to sign people up to charities and you can see where the problem lies. Most people ignore them and those that don’t will nod along until the bit where they have to sign up. I’m pretty certain they mostly report back saying how positive the response as been to the charity using their service.

  • In defence of polls on the impartiality the opinion poll companies have quite a lot riding on getting it right. Political polls are a very small part of their work but is useful to prove that they are accurate pollsters to their more lucrative commercial company clients.

    Clearly some polls paid for by lobby groups etc. do tend to ask questions in a certain
    order and in different ways but that is different. (Even that is somewhat controlled for by the rules of the British Polling Council).

    The average of the last 12 polls before the referendum worked out by election etc. (which adjusted phone polls for leave and online polls for remain) gave Remain a lead of 1.2%. But this is a sample – probably of around 12,000 people of 50 million plus. So I don’t know the exact statistical maths but you would expect with that lead in a poll that Remain would lose I guess about 35%-40% of the time. Just as if you had 17.4 million yellow socks and 16.1 million blue socks – you wouldn’t expect to pull out exactly 52% yellow and 48% blue every time. you pulled out 12,000.

    Equally if Remain has a small but significantly lead in the polls the odds are that it would win a referendum most of the time. Of course the campaign may change that. And interestingly – something that I hadn’t quite realised was that Leave had quite decent leads up to 16th June (when Jo Cox was sadly killed) and Remain pulled it back (at least in the polls!) in the last week.

  • William Fowler 26th Oct '18 - 8:31am

    You need to get much closer to 60/40 for remain, only do that if EU offers a much better deal and the only Brexit is on WTO rules, so wait and see.

  • Alex Macfie 26th Oct '18 - 7:09pm

    Peter Watson: “in the leaflet paid for by taxpayers … the Government … stated that “The Government will implement what you decide.””
    But this was a political promise, not reflected in the legislation that provided for the referendum. It therefore has no legal significance. It certainly cannot be binding on anyone not in government. Suppose (speaking hypothetically) a new government were to stop or pause the Brexit process, and some well-financed pro-Brexit lobby group were to sue the government over this because of the promise made by the previous Cameron government in the leaflet you mention. The judge would laugh the plantiffs out of Court.
    The idea that any government promise should be binding on any future government, or anyone outside government, should be absolutely terrifying to any democrat.

  • The idea that any government promise should be binding on any future government, or anyone outside government, should be absolutely terrifying to any democrat.

    Yes, and the fact that so many of the leading Brexiteers are trying to ensure that future government(s) have their hands tied over their negotiations with the EU, would seem to indicate that they (the leading Brexiteers) are not democrats and given the lack of outcry from their supporters, neither are they.

  • Pieter-Paul Barker 27th Oct '18 - 7:25pm

    There is a table of polls asking if EU ref was held again how would you vote, here:

    There is a lot of variation between polling companies but some very large leads for staying in the EU. If you go back to more than a year ago, Leave was in the lead. What’s also interesting is that the table shows don’t know which we are often not shown in newspaper reports. The number of don’t knows appears to be steadily increasing.

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