A second referendum is not the way out of this mess

If there is a second referendum, there is no good reason to suppose that it will deliver the result that remainers hope for.  I’m basing that view not on opinion polls, but on some old-fashioned political science.  There is no such thing as ‘the will of the people’.  What there is, instead, is a mish-mash of different opinions.  Some people voted ‘leave’ because they were unhappy with the EU; some because they were opposed to immigration; some because they were against capitalism; some because they wanted to return to the 1950s; some because they wanted to give the government a kicking.  Some people voted remain because they like the EU; some because of self-interest; some to avoid disruption; some because of their judgment about the economy; and so on.  Lies or fear may have played a part, on either side, but that’s not decisive; nor is the fact that some people will feel empowered to vote leave, or that other people will strain themselves to get a different result this time.  The more complex an issue is, the more likely it becomes that people with different motivations and preferences will cancel each other out, and the closer the result moves to what you’d expect from a random distribution – a 50-50 split.

Once we start from that position, the result is statistically likely to be decided by a relatively small group of people with a strong, settled opinion, if there is no equivalent group on the other side to oppose them.  The source of this argument is L Penrose, The elementary statistics of majority voting, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 1946.    Bartholomew and Bassett wrote, in Let’s look at the figures, that  “2,000 resolute voters in a population of just over one million can almost always get their way.”   (p 125)  And that’s what happened in 2016.   (There might well have been an equivalent group on the other side – Britons in Europe – but they were largely barred from taking part.)     It’s not the polls that count; it’s the mechanism by which the issue is to be decided.  And without very strong reasons to the contrary, we should expect the same mechanisms and the same process to produce the same result.

2 comments

  1. Ian Davidson

    I broadly agree with your argument but I am unclear what this means for our current view of “democracy”. On both Brexit (which I don’t support) and Scottish indy (which I have supported all my adult life) we seem to be getting “less rational” and more akin to “identity politics”. You only have to look at the online comments which appear after newspaper articles to see how hopelessly divided and unwilling to listen some people are. Some of the comments made by “indy supporters” make me cringe – give us a vote now even if the opinion polls suggest it would be a loser! Presumably we have representative democracy via MSPs and MPs because they are better able to take a balanced view (e.g. most MPS would oppose capital punishment but there might be general public support if the vote took place after a terrorist atrocity etc?). A general election may be more appropriate but the polls seem to suggest that we would end up with a “hung” parliament? The prevailing orthodoxies which prevailed post WW2 don’t seem to work anymore in our society but those who want to “throw out the baby” don’t have sensible alternative plans – just leave the EU and we will make the best of it approach. I observe, I comment but I don’t really know what we should do as I agree, the “will of the people” is a myth just as “general support for the monarchy” is as much a media-generated myth as it may be reality. “I don’t know” – not something you often hear in politics, media or even joe public social media these days! I can only put forward “my view”. I constantly remind myself that there are 7.5 billion people on this planet and each one of them thinks that they have the “right” answer!

  2. Ian Davidson

    Agreed. Perhaps we need a new type of politics but I don’t have a magic prescription. Likewise, I am a life-long supporter of Scottish independence (recognising that being “independent” from the UK is not a fixed concept). We had a referendum in 2014 which the No campaign won by a narrow majority. (of course we had a referendum on devolution in 1978 but that was pre-determined to fail due to the need for an overall majority of the electorate!). Many people are passionate about having an indy-ref 2. However, apart from the constitutional obstacles to this, there is no guarantee of the result as the electorate are roughly 50/50 and the outcome could end up being determined by a narrow majority which is not an ideal basis for major constitutional change. I think the problem is quite fundamental; we are used to “winners” and “losers” in our politics with little scope for compromise and negotiation, recognising the limitations and variations of human behaviour? Westminster has traditionally been run on a majority takes all basis; at Holyrood whilst the current SNP government is really a minority government it still behaves as if it had an overall majority “a right to govern”. Politicians like to deal in certainties rather than the reality of moral and policy ambiguities? There are few examples of effective and genuine communication in our politics and perhaps in our society generally; too many !!!! and not enough ???? “I don’t know” is too wimpish but perhaps closer to reality than “oh, yes, definitely!”?

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