Let the people decide. That was the case for this referendum, writes Sunder Katwala. So, today, an important choice about Britain’s future will be in the hands of its citizens. We, the people, will decide if we wish to leave the European Union, or whether we prefer to give our consent to Britain remaining within it.
Forty-six million of us have the opportunity to make this historic decision.
The good news is that most of us look likely to take on that responsibility by casting a ballot. Turnout is anticipated to be at similar levels to a General Election, or maybe even a little higher, which is appropriate when the consequences of the choice we make will last much longer than one Parliament. The decision we make today will shape British politics, even as Prime Ministers come and go, in the years and decades ahead.
Some have argued that the referendum is a mistake – because it risks undermining Parliamentary democracy. But the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for the referendum, after a General Election in which most people backed parties who had pledged to hold one.
Others have worried that the issue of Britain’s EU membership is too important to be decided by a possibly capricious public vote. It is an argument which depends on the premises that the voting public is unable to judge what is in their own vital interests. After forty years in which the EU has changed significantly, most people wanted the chance to decide whether it remains in our interests to remain in it or not. Referendums remain relatively rare in Britain – but they can be the best way to decide big ‘rules of the game’ issues, about the foundations of our democratic political system.
More quietly, some Eurosceptics have worried about whether pushing for a referendum could prove bad tactics, if it were lost. But that is a risk that had to be taken to try to win this democratic argument – and it is right that those Eurosceptics should get to make that case, and to seek the public’s support on it, rather than to focus on a series of provisional and transitional reforms within a club that they really want to leave.
The referendum has been divisive. Being part of a democracy does divide us because referendums put to each of us, as citizens, the responsibility to make an important judgement about the best future for our country, and to take decisions which will have important consequences for our families, our economy and our society.
Voters on different sides of this referendum do sometimes have different priorities. For some, sovereignty is the key to the referendum, with more control and confidence in decisions that we can make by ourselves. Others see cooperation in the EU as increasing our influence, with more chance to control the forces shaping the world if we act together with other EU countries. It is clear that those whose top priority is to reduce the scale and pace of immigration from within Europe will, logically, vote Leave; while those whose primary concern in the referendum is to guarantee full participation in Europe’s single market will mostly vote Remain.
Yet a great many voters have asked themselves similar questions before coming down on different sides with their answer: which choice best resonates with my sense of the values that I want Britain to stand for? How will this choice affect my family and the area that I live in? Perhaps most important of all, would Remain or Leave ultimately give the next generation stronger opportunities in life? These have been sharply contested arguments and nobody can give voters firm facts about an unpredictable future. So many people have disagreed – with husbands and wives, parents, children and grandchildren coming to different judgements about the right course of action while caring about many of the same things.
The campaigns have been more negative than positive – but pointing out the dangers and risks of an uncertain future, how the EU might evolve if we remain in it, or what would happen if we left, is a legitimate part of the debate. It would, however, have been good if those few voices offering an optimistic vision of our future, outside the EU or within it, had been a little louder and more numerous.
We should also be clear about what is on the ballot paper today – and what isn’t.
The question of whether EU membership is compatible with British democracy will be decided by this vote – an exercise in popular democratic sovereignty.
The result will tell us how the public weigh up the overall balance of benefits and costs of EU membership and whether we feel we get enough out of it for what we pay in. Since being in the EU does significantly constrain what its members can do on some key issues, it is important to find out whether there is democratic consent for staying in.
People will make an important decision about immigration – whether we will remain part of free movement by choosing to stay within the EU, or whether we will choose to leave, so that post-Brexit Britain could take a different approach to immigration from Europe.
Nobody will be able to say that the public have never had their say on the very issues that people are often said to never get a say about.
The question on the ballot paper asks us to decide whether being in the European Union remains a vehicle by which we can pursue our interests and our values – or whether we would pursue them better by taking a new course now.
We should never, however, confuse democratic disagreement with a culture war.
That is not a vote about whether we are going to live in 2016 or 1975. A decision to leave will see us decide how we go on to change our future approaches in economics and trade, immigration and foreign policy. It will not reverse the social, economic and demographic changes of the last four decades.
It is not a vote about who counts as British – or as English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. Whether we Remain or Leave, we will continue to be a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society and democracy – and one where people who come to join our society are welcomed to be citizens.
This is not a vote about whether we are going to engage in the world or not – but a choice about how we balance our priorities when we do so. A Leave vote is certainly a decision to make our political relations with other EU countries more distant – but we would continue to cooperate with our neighbours and allies in NATO.
This is not a vote about whether we are European or not – though the choice we make will doubtless affect how we see ourselves, and how others in Europe and the world see us, but it is not a vote about whether we are European or not.. Many of the ways in which British society has become more European – changes to our food and our football, for example – will not be affected by the result. Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola will still be preparing their teams for the Champions League. If we Leave today, there will still be cappuccinos tomorrow.
Britain’s international commitments to protect refugees – which date back decades before we joined the EEC – are not on the ballot paper either. The issue of Europe’s refugee crisis has been part of the campaign, including on its most polarising poster, yet the official campaigns and main voices on both sides have been clear about their support of the principle of refugee protection, and Britain’s long traditions of offering sanctuary to those who need it.
We will find out by the early hours what decision we have made together.
However you vote today, at least twelve or perhaps fifteen million of your fellow citizens will have voted on the other side.
Once the majority verdict is in, some people will be thrilled and elated, or deeply relieved.
By definition, most will be content with the choice that we have collectively made.
But a large minority will be deeply disappointed by the outcome – and sometimes fearful for the future. They will have to accept the result; but with a vote on that scale, their views will merit respect and should surely form part of the debate over what happens next.
The pattern of the local results will illuminate the social divisions in our society. Digging into how people have voted by class, by age, by education and by place reveal how people feel about power, status and opportunity in British society today.
The academics and the media commentators will pick over how far the vote in England differed from that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; how London and the home counties saw the issues differently; why university towns were among the strongest areas for Remain and some of the most deprived areas were more likely to vote Leave; and that older voters were easier to persuade of the case for Leave while younger voters have been more likely to vote Remain.
But don’t forget that we have cast those votes as individual citizens, making our choices too. Always remember too that the demographic sooth-saying is about the balance of votes that have been cast. When we talk about places voting for Remain or Leave, we will mean that they are leaning that way 60-40, or often 55-45, while others are 50-50. In liberal Oxford, Cambridge and Islington, and across pro-European Scotland, over a third of the votes are likely to be for Leave; while Lincolnshire, Grimsby and Thurrock will see a strong minority of voters who believe it is safer to vote to stay.
The truth is that there will be Leave and Remain voters in pretty much every single street in Britain. It would be unusual to have to knock on more than three or four doors before you find voters on both sides of the referendum. Perhaps only Gibraltar and the most Catholic areas of Northern Ireland would break that role.
Everywhere you go today – on your bus and train to work, at the school gate, in the supermarket queue, among colleagues – you will meet both Remain and Leave voters.
Let the people decide. We will make one big decision about our country’s future – though we will continue to grapple, together, with many of the issues in this campaign as we act on the referendum decision that we make.
So please vote today. And, especially on a day when we cast one of the most important votes in our lives, let us all remember that we have more in common than that which divides us.