Just as ignorance of the law is no defence in a criminal trial, ignorance of the consequences is no defence in a referendumby Peter Kellner / August 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
According to Philip Hammond, those who voted for Brexit in last year’s referendum “did not vote to make themselves poorer.” Neither, for that matter, did they vote to reinstate a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, or for cancer patients to wait longer to be treated, or for various other drawbacks that have come to light in recent weeks.
In a way, Hammond, and the others, are right. Most Brexit voters do not want these things to happen. But by the same token, most heavy drinkers do not vote to have a hangover; most smokers don’t vote to get lung cancer; and, to indulge in anniversary-itis, most of the paparazzi who chased Diana through the streets of Paris 20 years ago this week did not want her to die in a car crash.
The point is that actions have consequences. Intentions matter, but they do not tell the whole story. If people do something intending good-outcome A to happen, but bad-outcome B happens instead, do they bear responsibility for things going wrong? It depends on whether the result can reasonably be said to flow from their behaviour. Thus the drinker, the smoker and the paparazzi bear at least some of the blame for the consequences of their actions. To that extent, they did “vote” for the hangover, lung cancer and Diana’s death, even though they did not intend for these things to happen.
The same applies to last year’s referendum. The way things are going, unless parliament forces the government to change course, we may well end up with a version of Brexit that gives us a weaker economy, trouble in Ireland and more people dying from cancer. Voters would be right to be appalled, but wrong to be surprised. There were plenty of warnings of the dangers.
True, there was also much misinformation—most notoriously the ludicrous claim that Brexit would boost spending on the NHS by £350 million a week. However, it is wrong to say that voters were blameless victims of the campaign, because few of them had the time, inclination or expertise to analyse the various issues, claims and counter-claims. We live in a representative democracy. We vote for politicians to deliberate and decide policies on our behalf. They are supposed to take…