There’s a certain, reasonable narrative of the Brexit vote which sees it as a democratic victory – even if you disagree with the outcome, it does represent the will of the British people.
As I wrote yesterday, there are also plenty of good reasons to find this popular vote a democratic failure, but today I want to focus on a different piece of the issue: whose voice matters?
72.2% of UK’s registered voters cast a ballot in last week’s referendum, with 17,410,742 (51.9%) going to Leave and 16,141,241 (48.1%) favoring Remain. While this is a rather narrow victory, the result ostensibly embodies the collective will of the British people.
This story is complicated, however, when you look at the breakdown of the results. Voters 18-24 voted overwhelmingly (73%) for Remain while voters over 65 largely voted (60%) Leave. All age groups under 44 favored Remain, while those over 45 voted Leave.
Citizens under the age of 18 weren’t allow to cast a ballot at all.
So while the vote may represent the will of (some) people, younger voters, who will likely bear the brunt of the fallout from the decision, had their will overturned and may not have even been allowed to vote.
Furthermore, there is the broader question of exactly which people ought to have input into this kind of decision.
I would consider democratic systems to be those in which the people most affected by an issue play a role in shaping the response to that issue.
That role may be mediated by elected officials or other mechanisms of indirect democracy, but ultimately, the democratic spirit is one which gives weight to the voices of those whose interests and rights are most at stake.
A 2015 report from the UK Office for National Statistics found that nearly 3 million (2,938,000) people living in the UK are non-British EU nationals – about 5% of the UK population and 7% of the workforce. These residents have suddenly found their legal status in jeopardy – as their EU citizenship may no longer be sufficient.
Another 2,406,000 UK residents hold neither British nor EU citizenship.
Of these nearly 6 million residents without British citizenship, those who are migrants from Commonwealth countries – essentially former British territories – were allowed to vote. This includes the UK’s large population of Indian (793,000), Pakistanis (523,000), and Irish (383,000) nationals; but notably excludes the UK’s 790,000 Polish residents and 301,000 German residents not to mention many others from non-Commonwealth countries.
So those people who are now facing threats to “go home” and slurs of “no more Polish vermin” were not allowed to vote. They had no say.
Of the 1.2 million UK-born people living in other EU countries – who may also face residency issues if they lose their EU citizenship – only those who have lived abroad for less than 15 years were eligible to vote.
And none of this is to mention the broader population of 443 million other EU citizens whose economic and political infrastructure is deeply at risk following the vote, nor the millions of other people around the world who are feeling the expansive repercussions from this vote.
Around 33 million people cast a vote; 17 million expressed the “will of the people;” and yet so many, many more who had no vote and voice will suffer the lasting impacts of this historic election.
The “voice of the people,” indeed – but only if “the people” are British nationalists.