The Remainers’ role is to act as the loyal opposition

Losing a referendum does not deprive those British voters of their citizenship
© Getty

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

What should now be the role of those who supported Remain in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU? Some insist only those who voted Leave are entitled to interpret the meaning of the result. Some suggest Remainers have no right to criticise the government’s approach. Some insist a referendum on the outcome of the forthcoming negotiations would be undemocratic, not just politically unwise.

All this is nonsense. Remainers have the same right to campaign for what they believe as Leavers did to campaign to overturn the result of the 1975 referendum. Democracy is not “one person, one vote, once”. Now that the UK has made referendums part of the constitution of the country, this applies as much to them as it does to general elections.

Do we believe the last parliamentary election obliged everybody to accept whatever the government chose to do, without opposition? Do we believe this victory entitled the Conservative party to hold power forever? “Of course not” is the answer to both questions. Remainers are entitled to express views on the government’s approach to implementing the referendum result. They have the right to argue that the public might make a different choice if asked whether they prefer staying in the EU to the deal on offer. To argue for such a referendum is not undemocratic, still less treasonous. It is just uncomfortable for the Leavers.

Michael Gove, among the most effective politicians on the Leave side, believes he is entitled to tell the government what the referendum means. He argued in The Times this month that “Brexiteers don’t want a brick wall at our borders”. But, he insisted, Leave voters agreed with his campaign that the UK should “take back control of the money we send the EU, take back control of our laws by ending the supremacy of European judges, and take back control of our borders so we could have an immigration policy based on skills rather than geography”.

With respect, Mr Gove cannot know why people voted as they did. All we know is that 51.9 per cent of voters voted to leave the EU in this referendum. This leaves immigration policy — and, for that matter, the terms of future relations with the EU, apart from membership itself — open. He is entitled to have his view of how to implement the result. But so are Remainers. Indeed, the idea that the views of 48.1 per cent of voters count for nothing at all is absurd.

The government is now engaged in the contentious business of deciding what its mandate means. It feels morally and politically obliged to take the UK out of the EU. But what exactly this means embraces a wide range of possibilities. It does not mean the government must close the door on migration, as Mr Gove notes. But it also does not rule out membership of the European Economic Area or the customs union as either transitional or permanent post-Brexit arrangements. Everybody is entitled to have a view on all these judgments, including those who thought (and think) that leaving the EU was unwise. Losing a referendum did not deprive them of their citizenship.

Some may argue that their economic concerns have been discredited by the fact that the UK economy is thought to have expanded by 0.5 per cent in the third quarter. Yet it is too soon to be sure the short-term impact on the economy will not be substantial, particularly since only the services sector grew. Furthermore, the depreciation of sterling seems sure to reduce real incomes substantially. Most important, nothing has yet happened on Brexit apart from the referendum, the emergence of a new prime minister and a timetable. Brexit remains a future event. The debate over what form it takes remains decidedly live.

“Democracy,” said the American satirist, HL Mencken, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”. But it does not have to be that way. Remainers are entitled to point out that leaving the EU is consistent with retaining preferential access to EU markets. They may also argue against falling into an ultra-hard Brexit in 2019, with loss of all the UK’s preferential access to EU markets overnight. Moreover, if such a Brexit became the imminent outcome of the negotiations, they may argue for a referendum that offers a choice be­tween this option and staying in the EU.

Naturally, they might fail in all these endeavours. Democracy does not guarantee success — just the right to a voice and (where relevant) a vote. The British understand that it is possible to be loyal and in opposition. That is where Remainers find themselves. So be it.

martin.wolf@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.