Has the bar for Brexit been set too low?

If turnout in the EU referendum is low, we could see a small minority of voters force a massive change on a population that is perfectly happy with the way things are.


A low turnout would favour the Leave campaign

During the run up to the Scottish referendum I wrote that I was uncomfortable with the idea that huge change could be forced by a small majority on a low turnout. It seemed to me something such as leaving the UK should be a path actively chosen by something close to a majority of eligible voters regardless of turnout.

This was the kind of system used in the Scottish referendum of 1979, when the bar was set at 40% so 40% of the total electorate had to vote Yes. That didn't happen. 51.4% of those who voted, voted Yes, but the turnout was only 64%. That meant that only 32.9% of the registered electorate had voted Yes. So the answer to the referendum was an effective "No".

This mattered, in that it attempted to take account of those who are obviously happy with the status quo but don't vote (if they weren't, they would vote) but didn't set the bar so high as to make it impossible.

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However it wasn't the system we used in the last Scottish referendum (if 50% plus one of those who voted had voted out they would have forced everyone out regardless of turnout). And it isn't the one we are using for the EU referendum.

It didn't, thank goodness, turn out to be an issue for Scotland turnout was high and the unionists won by a very comfortable majority. However there has to be concern that it will turn out to be an issue this time round: turnout could well be low (people appear to be both bored with and confused by the EU) and the polls show the result to be entirely up in the air.

However, one thing does seem clear a low turnout is likely to favour the leave campaign (more leave voters than remain voters say they are "certain" to vote).

So here's the worry: what if 51.4% of those who vote, vote to leave? But what if at the same time turnout is only 64% so that, just as in the 1979 referendum, only 32.9% of eligible voters have voted to leave? We'd have had the same results, but a different outcome (to change rather than not to change). That's something that I can't imagine Remain supporters would accept. They would say, quite rightly, that 32.9% doesn't give a proper mandate for this kind of upheaval.

Regular readers will know that I'm planning to vote to leave. They will also know that I think the idea that Brexit will lead to instant economic disaster to be nonsense and that I think a small majority in favour of leave will probably not result in Brexit (but in a genuine renegotiation with the EU).

But here's one more thing I think I think: we may well have set the referendum bar for Brexit too low.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.