A lot of people on both sides are angry about the referendum result. It’s understandable, the vote was roughly 50:50 but has still been taken by some people as a strong mandate for giving one 50% what some of them might want and for completely ignoring the interests of the other 50%. This would be absolutely unacceptable no matter which way it had gone.
Statements such as “If the price of the relationship with the single market is free movement of people, it’s a price I’m not willing to pay” made by Liam Fox (who thankfully is now out of the running to be the next prime minister) are the perfect example of this. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that 100% of the people who voted to leave the EU did so only because they wanted to end free movement and that 100% of the people who voted to remain did so because they wanted to keep free movement (which isn’t terribly likely as only 41% of people thought that controlling immigration was in the top 3 most important issues for the country as a whole after the last general election).
Why would this justify ending free movement? To answer, we need to look at why each side wants what they want and what exactly democracy is supposed to achieve.
First, let’s take the simplest possible answer.
Democracy means that everyone has to abide by the rules that the majority want to live by.
This is the view taken by many people and seems to be the motivation behind the rise of “we won now you have to do what we say” sentiment that you’ll find floating around the internet (look on twitter or reddit if you want to find examples, I’m not going to link to any). The problem with this approach to democracy is that it’s a terrible deal for anyone who doesn’t happen to be in the majority group. This has correctly been referred to as “the tyranny of the majority”. It’s difficult to see what advantages this offers over any other form of government, unless you do happen to be part of the majority. The problem is that this entails that if 51% of the population voted for the murder of the other 49% then this decision would be legitimate! The 49% would have no reason to accept the legitimacy of this decision, although the 51% might be quite pleased (don’t make the mistake here of assuming that anyone with a simple approach to democracy actually advocates mass murder or that voting to leave the EU is of the same magnitude as voting for mass murder).
Now, let’s take an alternative answer.
Democracy means that everyone’s interests should be taken into account in political decisions.
Suddenly, 51% are unable to legitimately vote for the mass murder of the 49%, simply because murder doesn’t take into account the interests of the victim. This is a much more appealing version of democracy because it doesn’t collapse into the tyranny of the majority (my preferred model of democracy is deliberative democracy which is a subject for another post). Although there may be exceptions, if we go one step further than simple majority rule and look at why each side advocates a different policy, then there will usually be some set of policies which ends up being acceptable for everyone.
So, back to the assumption that all leave voters voted the way that they did in order to end free movement. One reason that people are opposed to free movement is due to the downward pressure on wages that can be caused by an increase in the supply of labour and the potential for increased strain on public services. On the other hand, people are in favour of free movement because immigration is an overall benefit to the economy and because they hold that freedom itself is valuable. One compromise would be to keep freedom of movement but to use the increased tax income to invest in communities with high levels of immigration and increase support for people who are being effected by reduced wages. In order to reduce pressure on public services it may be preferable to limit access to, for example, benefits for new immigrants, or in the case of the EU/EEA work towards a system where the country of origin is responsible for any benefits claimed by their citizens. These policies, or something like them, would address the concerns of both sides. Those who are against free movement would no longer have to worry so much about wage reduction (which is minimal) and those who are in favour would not have to worry about losing so much freedom or a reduction in overall economic growth.
A roughly 50:50 vote isn’t a strong mandate for taking away the rights of one side or the other, rather it’s a mandate for listening to the genuine concerns of both sides. This would be true no matter which side had won in the referendum.