Almost a year ago, I ached my way up the hill towards my local polling station after a particularly gruesome jog. It was early in the morning, and the little brick cabin which housed the polling station was quite quiet – effecting an awkward atmosphere, as I claimed my ballot paper from four overseers, sat expectantly behind a table in a tribunal-esque configuration. From entry to exit, the whole process took no less than sixty seconds. I placed the most bold, pro-European ‘X’ my pen could muster, returned my paper, and strode back out into the glare of the rising sun, accompanied by that subtle satisfaction that cheers “yeah, democracy!”.
I perched on a wall parallel to the cabin while my post-run lungs continued to grasp the air, and wondered just how engaged the British public would be in this pivotal vote. Sure, the level of rhetoric, propaganda and political mud-slinging had been intense – ratcheted up in the final days and hours of the Leave-Remain campaigns. Yet, in the time that I sat, only a few balloters were absorbed into the cabin, many more strode on, continuing up the street’s incline. Like much of the Remain camp, I was disheartened by the sub-par mobilising capacity of the pro-European cohort – the desperate scene of the local polling station only sharpened this anxiety. So again, like many, I took to Facebook to undertake a role as amateur community organiser, and penned a long, pithy status update – not unlike this post in rambling verbosity. In my status, I attempted to implore the people of South Wales not to feel dislocated from national politics, to be rational and above all, to vote.
As it turns out, the EU referendum was one of the most participatory elections of our time. A whopping 72% of the eligible electorate voted – far surpassing the 66% of the 2015 general election. Whichever side of the Remain-Leave binary personal allegiances were staked, this turn-out must be the ultimate victory – a truly reflective account of the collective will of the British people.
But, with the people poised to go to the polls once more this June, is participation enough?
Of course, Brexit must and will happen. It’s a democratic decision, a settled question. Nonetheless, it’s important to unpack the implications of Leave campaigning: a Brexit vote, though decisive, does not vindicate campaigners from accusations of perpetuating hollow, nationalist sentiment, false narratives and outright non-truths. Such allegations are commonly levied against populist movements – which are often rendered as rhetorically charged, with little grounding in concrete facts or the weight of expert opinion. The infamous Brexit battle bus, in which the mane of Boris Johnson traversed the length and breadth of the nation, while proclaiming £350 million a week for the NHS, is the oft-cited illustration. Unwatchable, awkward interviews with Leave standard bearers post-Brexit followed, reasserting the essence of the Leave campaign as an exercise in misdirection.
In a Sky-Channel 4 hybrid leadership debate last Thursday, Theresa may – a Remain campaigner, sought to fight rhetoric with rhetoric. The idealism of Johnson’s millions, the naivety of David Davis’s prediction of a settlement under which the UK will attain the “exact same benefits”, post-membership, were on Thursday substituted by May’s ambiguous notion of ‘the best possible deal’. When confronted with an audience question regarding whether a Conservative Leave campaign flyer, emblazoned with the £350 million funding commitment, was a simple lie, the Prime Minister merely reiterated the importance of the ‘best possible deal’ – the defining criteria of which continues to be held in complete obscurity.
It remains to be seen whether the Conservatives – the most tangible face of Brexit politics, are able to recover from a significant undermining of legitimacy as a consequence of the dubious dabbling of some of its most seminal actors in misdirection. But, as the latest YouGov poll positions Labour voting intention at 39% – the highest since July 2014, the prospect of a Tory super-majority slims. Theresa the Remainer has been left to account for the blabbing of Boris and the deceit of Davis, at a time in which the Conservatives are facing pervasive questions of legitimacy. Such questions, and the refusal of the Prime Minister to interact with her public and engage in head-to-head debate, do little to convey an image of strength and stability.