If you speak to people from the UK who, during the EU Referendum, voted to leave, it won’t take long to hear the phrase “we knew what we were voting for.”
It’s become a standard defence for the often-heard remarks by opponents which either level an accusation based on a stereotype of less well-educated members of the electorate voting mostly to leave; or point out that there were many different forms which Brexit could ultimately take – none of which could be specifically voted for during the overly-simplistic referendum.
Whilst it would be patronising to claim that anyone didn’t know why they voted a particular way, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that no one truly knew what they were voting on – something which is emphasised more and more as the deadlock between Members of Parliament continues.
During the referendum campaigning, the focus was only on a small number of issues, such as laws, immigration and finance. Arguments which supported leaving were centred around a narrative portraying the EU as an undemocratic organisation with the power to impose laws on the UK that Parliament didn’t want, and which took huge amounts of money to spend on its own activities that could otherwise be allocated to the UK’s public service budget.
Where examples were presented of benefits that Britain would lose access to, it was often argued that Britain’s importance to the rest of Europe would ensure that it would be possible to negotiate access to the benefits which the UK Government wished to retain. End freedom of movement into the country, but keep hold of access for British businesses to the European Single Market, for example.
The problem, as became clear very quickly, is that what was “sold” to voters was not deliverable, and a deal aimed at satisfying both British negotiators and European leaders has been generally considered unacceptable to either those who voted leave, or those who voted to remain.
Put simply, almost no one voted for the kind of Brexit as set out in either version of the Withdrawal Agreement.
But as time has gone on, the hardline “brexiters” have shifted stance towards fighting for a no-deal exit, and to splitting from the European Union without any sort of transitional arrangement. Despite almost never being considered as a possible outcome, many voters have followed suit in adopting that view, and again claiming that they knew what was being voted on.
Except it’s fair to assume that only the tiniest percentage of the population are suitably equipped with enough knowledge to be able to appreciate the consequences of many people’s current preference of leaving without a deal.
Having been a member of the EU for over 40 years, there are so many aspects of daily life which have, to various degrees, been impacted by the EU. From the more obvious links such as trade, the ease of travel throughout the continent, and the introduction of laws governing the rights of consumers or workers, to a contribution to funding on regional projects or the ongoing subsidies for famers.
Even as someone who voted to remain, based on recognising the huge number of ways in which many areas of the UK have benefited from being part of the EU, I still regularly discover lesser-known ways in which European funding is having a positive effect on day-to-day life – with recent examples including the Erasmus scheme for students, something that the company I work for has benefited from, and even the EU milk subsidies for primary school children which I became aware of on some recent visits to local schools.
It’s impossible to appreciate just how much untangling would be needed if leaving with no deal, nor the scale of work required to fill gaps that would exist either functionally or financially if there was an absence of an orderly exit.
To genuinely have known exactly what one’s vote would lead to would be to have an awareness of every scrap of detail relating to the relationship between the EU and UK; to know about the milk subsidy for primary school children, for example, and to know whether it would be scrapped after Brexit or replaced by an alternative scheme funded by Westminster.
Given that most people were led to believe that the process of leaving would be straightforward, few would have expected the past three years to take the course that they have. And over that time, the many hours and days spent arguing and debating the eventual path for the UK have only emphasised the complexities involved.
That is why it’s so easy to make a case supporting the idea that the overwhelming majority of people couldn’t possibly have known what their vote would lead to – beyond the simple fact of whether or not the UK would remain a member state of the European Union.
It’s also why politicians who are still basing their arguments on catchy soundbites rather than consideration for the level of detail involved are not representing the country or their constituents in an honest way.
And it’s why the majority of MPs were right to slow down a process which Boris Johnson was keen to rush through the House of Commons simply to stick to his exit date promise.
Leave-voters will inevitably have viewed the extra delay as another attempt to stop Brexit from taking place, though it would be wrong to direct criticism towards MPs for simply requesting an appropriate amount of time to scrutinise – and possibly amend – a new bill which was published only 72 hours before the Government wanted it to be passed.
Despite three years ago expressing my desire for my nation to remain part of the EU, it’s clear that there’s no realistic possibility of the process being aborted, and that sooner rather than later, there’ll be a consensus reached which will see the referendum result delivered.
When that moment arrives, it’s almost certain that no one will be honestly able to say that all of the details within the terms on which UK leaves are exactly, or even close to, those which they would have wanted or expected when participating in the 2016 referendum.
And although there are sure to be celebrations among those who voted to leave, and that many won’t be overly concerned with the detail as long as Brexit is delivered, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being able to look at all aspects of Britain’s departure and say: “Yes, this is exactly what I voted for in 2016.”