Brexit: victory of democracy or fact-free politics?

Tuesday 22 November, 19.30 - 21.00 , Flemish-Dutch House deBuren, Leopoldstraat 6, 1000 Brussels Battle of Ideas Europe

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The UK’s decision to leave the EU threw the British political establishment into chaos. For some, Brexit represented the British demos’ demand for national sovereignty and an escape from the aloof technocracy of the European Union. For others, it was a victory for right-wing demagoguery and anti-immigrant sentiment whipped up among ill-informed voters. An overwhelming number of economists, bankers, business leaders, academics and politicians from both left and right had lined up to warn of the dangers of Brexit. How could the majority of British voters have ignored such a weight of expert opinion?

In the run-up to the referendum, the then justice secretary and pro-Brexit campaigner Michael Gove’s said the British people had ‘had enough of experts’. His statement was widely ridiculed as promoting anti-intellectualism. Many believe voters were duped by Brexit campaigners and tabloid newspapers, and that the general public could not possibly be expected to grasp the complexity of the arguments and what was at stake. It has been claimed that we have entered an era of ‘post-truth politics’, where facts no longer matter so much as emotionalist appeals to peoples’ fears and prejudices. The pro-Brexit UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage was condemned for conjuring up nightmare scenarios about uncontrolled immigration, while the official Leave campaign was criticised for making wild claims about how much money could be redirected to the UK’s National Health Service if Britain left the EU. The belief that the public had been fooled resulted in widespread calls to either rerun the referendum or have parliament ignore the result entirely. Over four million people signed a petition to demand the referendum be restaged with a margin of 20% required for Brexit to happen. 

But were the British people really tricked? Polls since the referendum have consistently shown that the largest issue among Brexit voters was not immigration or the economy but ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’, a concern that none of the experts seemed to address. Further, many have begun to worry about the very idea of seeking to overturn the referendum result. After all, if one accepts that the public does not have the capacity to make important political decisions, is that not an implicit rejection of democracy? Is the vision of the public as an easily-led rabble, unable to weigh up arguments, inherently patronising and elitist? Or, should we defer the most important decisions to experts who know what they are doing?