Britain Must Refuse to Honor the Results of the Brexit Referendum

by Benjamin Studebaker

In a shockingly stupid decision, the British public have voted 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. In the short term this means an economic disruption that will blight people’s lives. In the long term this means that unless it is permitted to remain in the European Economic Area, Britain will no longer have EU regulations to protect its workers, consumers, and environment. Even if it stays in the EEA (and the EU has every reason to refuse to permit it to do so to deter other countries from leaving the EU), it will no longer be able to play a part in solving collective action problems like tax avoidance and climate change, and its non-involvement will undermine the solutions proposed by others in Europe. Brexit will also aid and abet other Euroskeptic movements throughout Europe and dump gasoline on the right nationalist fire that grips so much of the world today. Many people in Britain and elsewhere throughout the world will be harmed, some now, some later, many irretrievably so. No political outcome can be legitimate if it permanently and irretrievably harms so many people with no substantive advantages. For these reasons the next British government must refuse to invoke Article 50. Parliament is sovereign, and its sovereignty cannot be abrogated by a referendum. This is a controversial view–refusing to honor the referendum would make a lot of people very angry. But the long term harms of Brexit to Britain’s young people are too great for any government to morally justify invoking Article 50, irrespective of public opinion.

There is nothing about a referendum that makes it a good or fair procedure for making a decision like this. Brexit is a permanent decision that will mar the lives of Britain’s young people, and the people who have supported it are primarily geriatrics who will not live long enough to see a great deal of horrible fallout. We know this because the polls consistently showed remain easily prevailing with voters under age 50, even in polls where leave prevailed:

Britain’s young people have been consistently neglected by the government because referendums discriminate against young people. This is because young people are deeply concerned by two kinds of problems which older voters are free to ignore:

  1. Problems tied to their youth–young people may still have student debt, they may not yet entered the housing market, they may not yet have stable careers, they may not yet have children that have completed school. Old people have already paid what little student debt they may have had, they are typically already homeowners who have stable careers or have retired, and their children have completed school. This means old people don’t have to care nearly as much about many issues that are deeply important to young people.
  2. Problems of the far future–young people are going to live a long time, so they have to be deeply concerned by long term problems like climate change and the rise of inequalities of wealth and opportunity which slowly blight the lives of large numbers of people. Because older people are going to die much sooner, they have much weaker incentives to care about the long term.

In referendums, turnout tends to be much higher among older voters than among the young, and many older voters don’t take the problems of youth seriously. Many people like to blame young people for this, scolding them for failing to vote, but the fact remains that when we have referendums the interests of young people get ignored, and when governments decide to make long term decisions by referendum they are deliberately making them in a way that weakens the political of the influence of millions of people who have the greatest stake in the outcome.

Similar factors enable governments all over the western world to win elections by promising to prioritize the interests of pensioners over the interests of students and young workers. We have seen the result–economic conditions are grim for young people throughout the western world. Young people are stuck renting or living at home with their parents:

Those who go to university are burdened with student debt and often cannot find good jobs that fit their skill levels when they leave:

Those who do not go to university are being left behind by economies and national governments that are indifferent to them and their interests. Real wages in the UK have fallen far too much since the 2008 crisis:

This is why it is categorically wrong for any British government to inflict more harm on the lives of Britain’s young people by invoking Article 50, and it’s why the young people of Britain need to mobilize on an unprecedented scale to obstruct the government from carrying this out. This means direct action–strikes, sit-ins, mass demonstrations, and other forms of nonviolent civil resistance. David Cameron has announced that he will step down in October and that Article 50 will be invoked by the next Conservative government. This gives the young people of Britain more than 3 months to exhaust every tool in the kit.

This is the only way we can be sure to keep Britain in the European Economic Area, the only way we can defend EU human rights legislation and worker, consumer, and environmental protections from a Brexiteer government, the only way we can keep the UK involved with collective European solutions to the problems of tax avoidance and climate change, the only way we can protect the British people from a race to the bottom on wages, taxes, and regulations, and the only way we can be sure to prevent Scotland from breaking away. We need more direct action than we’ve seen in our lifetimes, far more than we saw in response to the tuition fees hike, and we need every older person who recognizes the threat Brexit poses to help in whatever ways they can. The government must be pressured to throw the results of the referendum out. Young people have tried defending their interests at the ballot box, now we must defend our interests in the streets.

Should we fail, the European Union has every incentive to inflict the maximum amount of suffering on Britain to deter other countries from leaving. I don’t want to find out what that looks like, I don’t want to see Europeans ripping each other apart. We have to stop this while we still can.