Toby Young and Jolyon Maugham debate one of the most important questions in politics todayby Jolyon Maugham, Toby Young / September 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Yes, says Jolyon Maugham
Democracy is a living thing. Power comes from the people and exists for the people. The decision to “Leave” is what the people wanted—then. But what if the people change their minds? What if we see in the opinion polls sustained support to “Remain” above 60 per cent? Who is to say the people must be ignored? That although they must be heard then, they must be ignored now? And where does the power to say any of this come from?
Delivering last year’s referendum could betray the people. In a YouGov survey last year, only 11 per cent of “Leave” voters said they believed Brexit would make them worse off. They believed what they were told by the “Leave” campaign—that the warnings were “Project Fear.” What happens to our democracy if those voters come to believe that they were lied to? They will feel betrayed, and they will rightly be angry.
Interpreting the referendum result is a political act. We voted to leave the European Union. But the ballot paper didn’t say whether that meant leaving the single market or the customs union; whether our net contribution should go to the NHS or to wealthy farmers; whether we should cut immigration whatever the economic cost. These post-referendum choices are matters of political judgment. At the general election, the government asked for a mandate and did not get one. There is a democratic deficit. How, without a referendum, will we fill it?
Politicians lie. But if they lie in a general election campaign there is accountability—we can punish them next time around. Not so with a referendum. When you treat as sacrosanct a result secured by lies you encourage liars. Neither side’s conduct was admirable, but it is the winners you hold accountable. Democracy cannot function without that. In a referendum, accountability can only be delivered by listening, before it is too late, to the people. And asking, “Now that you have seen all the evidence of what Brexit means, is this a thing you still want?”