For the record – and lest we forget – here are two letters I wrote in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
To the Alton Herald, (copied to Damian Hinds, MP)
3 July 2016
This week’s front page report (EU Vote sparks turmoil) quotes Damian Hinds saying “The people have spoken” and UKIP member Peter Baillie saying “those who rail against the result of the referendum are railing against democracy itself”. I write to say, hopefully without ‘railing’, why it is vitally important that both of these statements are challenged.
To start with, the result was close to 50:50 and concealed overwhelming majorities for Remain in some geographical areas, some age groups and some sections of society. Calling it ‘the will of the people’ is, to say the least, disingenuous.
More fundamentally, the first requirement for democracy, namely a well-informed electorate, was lamentably lacking in this vote. The Remain campaign has been criticised for negativity and exaggeration of dangers, but what it said was broadly accurate and in line with informed opinion both here and abroad. What’s more, early indications are tending to bear out the gloomy predictions.
In complete contrast, the Leave camp told lies, deliberately incited hatred and xenophobia, allowed its media to give an exclusively partisan account of the issues, and shamelessly urged voters to discount the wisdom of ‘experts’. None of this should be tolerated in any democratic vote, let alone a vote of such extraordinary national and international importance. But, while we have no laws against such abuses, if there is any possibility that these tactics swung enough votes to produce the shock result, as common sense suggests may well have been the case, then it would be irresponsible not to question its legitimacy.
A second reason why it is so important to challenge the ‘will of the people’ trope is exemplified by the UKIP leader Nigel Farage. His loutish behaviour in the European Parliament after the vote brought deep shame on our country and on the flag which he so officiously sucker-cupped to his desk, just at the time when we most needed to be mending bridges and making friends. He spoke in his ghastly way because he felt empowered by ‘the will of the people’, in the same way that the xenophobic haters who have amplified their rhetoric since the vote have also felt newly legitimised. I want no part of this, for me, for any of my friends, or for my country. Our friends abroad are incredulous and think we have taken leave of our senses – I want no part of that shame either.
One of my friends told me that he rotates through despair, anger and shame, and that as the days go by it only gets worse. But we have to look forward with hope. As the lies and promises unravel, as people begin to discover too late what the vote was really about, and as it transpires that none of the Brexiters had any plan for what to do if they succeeded, and that some of them didn’t even want to succeed, it is absolutely necessary that we question the validity and the democratic credentials of this wretched vote. That is the message we should be sending to our MP Damian Hinds.
James Willis (Dr)
This letter was given prominence in the following issue :
and I received numerous messages of heartfelt agreement, gratitude and appreciation over the course of the next two weeks or so.
Damian Hinds had also replied to the copy I had emailed to him, very quickly as you will see below. I eventually replied to him as follows – in a thread which had offered my wife’s and my support and admiration to him as our MP following the murder of MP Jo Cox, and after congratulating him on a well deserved ministerial appointment
19 July 2016
But I have also been choosing the right moment, and the right words, to respond to your reply to the advance copy I sent you of my letter which appeared in the Alton Herald two weeks ago. Your reply came very quickly and was similar to replies you made to other people who contacted you at the same time. You said:
“The referendum campaign was rightly fought and debated with passion on both sides […] No one could credibly suggest that the key arguments, including the risks, were not set out […] the result came about on a straight question by universal adult suffrage, and with a high turnout […] It is now up to everyone in politics and public life to accept the result…”
Now, my letter gave clear reasons why none of this is true and I have had a completely unprecedented number of messages and contacts from people, in Alton, in other parts of Britain, and abroad, thanking me for saying exactly what they were feeling. The most recent email came this morning.
I cannot improve on the wording of that original letter and I will append it below in case you didn’t have time to read it carefully, but here is the part which does indeed ‘credibly suggest’ the opposite of what you asserted in your reply:
“[…] the first requirement for democracy, namely a well-informed electorate, was lamentably lacking in this vote. The Remain campaign has been criticised for negativity and exaggeration of dangers, but what it said was broadly accurate and in line with informed opinion both here and abroad.
In complete contrast, the Leave camp told lies, deliberately incited hatred and xenophobia, allowed its media to give an exclusively partisan account of the issues, and shamelessly urged voters to discount the wisdom of ‘experts’.
None of this should be tolerated in any democratic vote, let alone a vote of such extraordinary national and international importance. But, while we have no laws against such abuses, if there is any possibility that these tactics swung enough votes to produce the shock result, as common sense suggests may well have been the case, then it would be irresponsible not to question its legitimacy.”
You will remember John Major’s eloquent protest prior to the vote against the way the electorate were being misinformed. Many others have said the same thing, but Will Hutton put it particularly clearly in last Sundays Observer.
“The country was lied to by the hard right and its allies on a scale not witnessed in our history. To argue that the result at one moment in time represents Britain’s last word on the matter is a travesty of democracy, especially as the consequences unfold.”
Professor A C Grayling has written to all MPs to make it clear that the final responsibility for doing what is right for Britain rests with them and you will be aware that many other eminent voices are saying the same thing.
This week’s Prospect magazine’s cover message is ‘Brexit – Not a done deal’.
Eminent barrister Geoffrey Robertson has said that a second referendum is not necessary to overturn the result and that parliament could just vote it down:
“Our democracy does not allow, much less require, decision-making by referendum. Democracy has never meant the tyranny of the simple majority, much less the tyranny of the mob.”
Even Nigel Farage, whose appalling and deeply shaming behaviour in the European Parliament (also mentioned in my letter) has yet to be condemned by ministers, and who I would never quote approvingly in any other context, told the Daily Mirror he would fight for a second referendum on Britain in Europe if the remain campaign won by a narrow margin. He said a small defeat for his leave camp would be “unfinished business” and predicted pressure would grow for a re-run of the 23 June ballot. “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.”
I will express myself less carefully to you than I did in my published letter: Observing the campaign and knowing what we now know about the reasons people actually voted, there is not the slightest doubt that the 3.5% overall majority was indeed swung by these and other factors. If you and other colleagues now feel trapped by the foolish terms of the referendum David Cameron proposed and which MPs agreed to (to the extent that a majority of a single vote would have decided this historic issue irrevocably!!) into working towards what you know to be against the national interest – our exit from Europe – then please at least say so. For I will deny to my dying breath that this was the voice of my country. For you to go on saying that it was, i.e. “The people have spoken”, simply compounds the insult and the shame.
I’m afraid the responsibility for what happens now rests with Parliament. You cannot abdicate that heavy responsibility onto this referendum result, which history, and the world, is certain to regard as having been deeply flawed.
Damian Hinds has made no response to this email (30 September 2016). An American friend, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton as it happens (an ‘expert’, indeed) said “There’s nothing he can say.”