‘Accepting’ the Results: the Brexit Debate and Freedom of Expression

Brexit is still very much a hot topic in the UK, on both sides, and it provokes some very fiery rhetoric. I suspect this will carry on long after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Recently, I was presented with a question: “When are the Remainers going to accept the result?”

This is a question that infuriates me to no end. Allow me to explain:

What’s this about ‘accepting’ the result? It’s not something that needs accepting or rejecting. The country voted to leave, and, unless I’m very much mistaken, we’re leaving (and what a mess we’re making of it as well). Whether the remainers stop complaining or not will make no difference to that.

At the same time, to get to the root of why this question keeps popping up, I think it’s important to consider why we had that referendum in the first place. Because, of course, the UK had a vote in 1975, where the pro-EEC vote won by a landslide. Now, it’s not entirely comparable, I’ll concede, but a lot of the same arguments were made, on both sides (aside from immigration, which was barely mentioned).

And did the brexiteers ‘accept’ the referendum result then? No, they stuck to their beliefs, and made the argument again and again, for about 41 years (!) until they got their way. And rightly so – that’s what democracy is about! Losing the vote does not mean you are no longer entitled to make the argument.


The Referendum Revisited: The Importance of Free Speech
Now, let’s fast-forward to 2016. It is true that the remainers lost the vote, by a 4pt margin. That does not mean, however, that they will all magically become brexiteers overnight, and it certainly does not mean that they are no longer allowed to continue making the argument. Freedom of Speech and Expression (Article 10, ECHR) is enshrined in UK law – indeed, it is the reason the brexiteers were able to push for a referendum in the first place.
My concern is that this discourse about ‘accepting’ the result is actually about suppressing freedom of speech (by silencing criticism and opposition). This concern is not unfounded.
Here are some examples of leading brexiteers taking full advantage of freedom of expression when it suited their minority interests, then conveniently forgetting about it the second they were in the majority.
In a 2012 speech on the European Union, David Davis, the UK’s former Brexit Secretary, said: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”
Of course, he was talking against the EU, in favour of leaving, but there’s no reason that this same logic cannot be applied to Remain. I don’t see Davis leaping to the defence of remainers, however.
During the referendum, Nigel Farage actually said that “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way.”

Of course, he was expecting the Remain camp to win, but there’s no reason that this same logic cannot be applied here as well. I don’t see Farage leaping to the defence of remainers, however.


The Forgotten Art of Debate

My point is (and you’ll have to forgive me the ramble) that the argument isn’t even so much about Leave/Remain anymore. It’s about the right to freedom of expression.
I don’t think that an awful lot of remainers would be kicking up so much of a vitriolic fuss if they weren’t constantly under attack by people calling on them to ‘accept the results’. I mean, consider Gina Miller, the solicitor who took to the supreme court to challenge the government over their use of the Royal Prerogative. Her case wasn’t about impeding Brexit but about parliamentary sovereignty, yet because it looked vaguely aligned to Remain (or rather anti-government), the knee-jerk reaction was to try and silence her, branding her and those judges ‘enemies of the people’.
Attacking remainers for voting for a minority interest while ignoring the inherent hypocrisy in such a statement doesn’t look very democratic, but rather like Brexiteers are in support of a ‘dictatorship-lite’, which I know is nonsense – I have friends who voted for Brexit, for perfectly sane reasons.

It must be said, though, that there are failings on both sides – there are plenty of angry remainers who say and do stupid, ill-informed things, like caricature all Brexiteers as backward racists.

If we’re really interested in bridging the gap, the first step in that would be to let people talk about these issues calmly and fairly, without branding Leavers as ignorant racists, or calling Remainers undemocratic elitists.

In short, the first step in solving this issue is to just be nice to each other. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

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