Blyth Valley is a former mining area in England’s northeast. Labour has carried it in every election since the constituency was created in 1950. The Tories won it Thursday night — narrowly, to be sure, by fewer than a thousand votes. Nonetheless. This was, I was told by Keith Humphreys, a Stanford psychiatry professor who has done quite a bit of policy work in the United Kingdom, a political earthquake “akin to the GOP winning the NYU School of Humanities.” And it was repeated throughout the night as Conservatives stormed constituency after constituency, including more old Labour redoubts that the party had held since before World War II.
But even if Americans have little intuitive grasp of the subtleties of British politics, we can understand the most important effect: Britain is headed for Brexit, and fast.
Ever since the Brexit referendum in 2016, there have been two main arguments against going forward with Brexit. The first is that Brexit would have horrifying economic consequences, which is quite possibly true, but largely beside the point. The British people voted for it, and surely the British people have a right to lower economic growth, if they want it. I mean, 48 percent of them didn’t, of course, but the same complaint could be lodged against nearly any modern election; there’s almost always a sizable minority that bitterly opposes whatever the majority wants. If that’s grounds for ignoring the 2016 referendum, then it’s grounds for arguing that no government should ever do anything except periodically meet to declare National Puppies Are Cute Day.
Perhaps perceiving the troubling implications of this argument, most people ended up taking a related, but different tack: Voters were misled and confused, and we have an obligation to find out whether voters changed their minds before we do something irrevocable.
This, too, has a certain plausibility. Elections can be influenced by all sorts of ephemera, from weather to flu epidemics. And the Brexit referendum, in particular, was affected by some rather wild overpromising about the benefits, and underweighting of the costs, on the part of the Brexiteers. The past three years have given the lie to claims that Brexit would be simple, or yield a lot of savings that could be used to fund the National Health Service; it seems quite possible that some voters have changed their minds. And shouldn’t today’s voters count at least as much — more, really — than the voters of three years ago?
But at some point, you have to stop wandering around like the chap in the Verizon Wireless commercial, saying “What about now?” In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron was returned to office with a historic majority after promising to call a Brexit referendum. In 2016, Britons voted to leave. And since then, voters have had two chances to chuck the Tories out of office — as they presumably would have, if they were really secretly keen to undo Brexit. After all, over that same time period, Conservatives have gone through two new prime ministers, each more pro-Brexit than the last.
There is, of course, the problem of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, whose unreconstructed radicalism and amiable attitude toward anti-Semites have made him a most unattractive candidate for prime minister. It seems fairly clear that if Labour had a more normal leader, Labour would already be in power. But then, one wouldn’t call Johnson a precisely normal Tory leader either, and his party has presided over the most ludicrously incompetent British Parliament in living memory. So it’s hard to argue that this is simply a Labour own-goal, especially since Labour is suffering hardest in areas that voted “Leave.”
Elections are never perfect summations of the collective will of every citizen. Britain joined the E.U. based on a similarly imperfect vote, and if they’d decided to stay, the same people who dismissed the 2016 referendum would have been solemnly intoning “The people have spoken.” The thing is, they’d have been right, too.
While elections can’t render the popular will with perfect accuracy, they deliver something even more vital: democratic legitimacy. And whatever catastrophe you think the voters have chosen cannot be nearly as disastrous as the long-run effects of telling those voters that elections only have consequences when your side wins. This election has given Boris Johnson not only the right, and the power, but also the obligation to do as he promised voters and “Get on with it."