If you only glanced at a recent YouGov survey, you might think that a large majority of the UK is in agreement about Brexit. The electorate may have divided pretty evenly in the referendum, but now the 45% of “hard leavers” are joined by 23% who “voted to remain but still think the government has a duty to bring the UK out of the EU”.
One reading of this poll is that the country is now uniting behind Brexit. As YouGov headlined its report: “Forget 52%. The rise of the ‘re-leavers’ mean the pro-Brexit electorate is 68%.”
But to conclude that the country is uniting would be shallow, and for prime minister Theresa May, at least, dangerous.
Most people now accept Brexit, but that doesn’t mean they believe in it. Re-leavers are addressing a genuine philosophical problem: should you change your beliefs when you find yourself in the minority?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote:
When a law is proposed in the people’s assembly, what is asked of them is not precisely whether they approve or reject, but whether or not it conforms to the general will that is theirs. Each man [sic], in giving his vote, states his opinion on this matter, and the declaration of the general will is drawn from the counting of votes. When, therefore, the opinion contrary to mine prevails, this proves merely that I was in error, and that what I took to be the general will was not so.
Put to one side the fact that Rousseau thought citizens should reflect in solitude on what was best for the country and that they should not discuss their views before voting.
Rousseau’s point was that the result, when it came, revealed the true will of the people. If you find yourself in the minority, it means you were wrong. Brexit, one might conclude, was the correct choice. The 48% were simply in error.
A different view is associated with the liberal tradition. Being in the minority says nothing about “right” and “wrong”. It announces simply that you lost. Nothing more, nothing less.
This is an important distinction. If being in the minority means you were wrong, then presumably you wouldn’t be crazy to change your mind. After all, if we assume that everybody is equal in their ability to judge these questions, then the majority is more likely to be right.
But if being in the minority simply means that you lost, then perhaps it’s important that you don’t change your mind, that you don’t stop arguing the issue, and that you don’t stop using all the constitutional means at your disposal to press your case. It is vital to keep alive the arguments that lost the day because in a democracy you always get to fight another one.
Keeping alive those arguments is often difficult. There is always pressure on those who lost to admit they were wrong, to pretend they’ve changed their minds, or at least to shut up. The famous phrase “tyranny of the majority” was never just about protecting minority rights; it was about recognising the force of majority opinion.
To suggest that the UK is uniting around Brexit, then, is a danger to democracy itself. That danger comes from pressure on the losers to actually change their minds. Worryingly, this now seems to be May’s position. As she said in a campaign speech near Middlesborough:
You can only deliver Brexit if you believe in Brexit.
“I’m not a ‘re-leaver’”, she seemed to be saying. “I’m now a true believer, and you should be too.”
The other danger is to May. If she thinks the country is really uniting around Brexit, then she could do worse than talk to the street musician interviewed by the Financial Times a few weeks ago: “I don’t think the referendum will be overturned. People seem to think of it as "the people’s vote” and to overturn it would in some way be seen to be undemocratic. People who voted Remain are powerless at the moment.“
He’s right. Those who voted to stay in the EU lost and are, at the moment, powerless. However, politics can change pretty quickly. Support for going ahead with Brexit is broad but shallow. If the economy starts getting worse, the true believers may march on undaunted, eyes fixed firmly on the horizon, but the re-leavers may find their doubts coming back to the surface.
The more salient number in the survey might turn out to be the true believers, who say they will stick with Brexit whatever the consequences: and that’s only 45%.