The economist Professor Simon Wren-Lewis argues today that Brexit is an “entirely Tory failure” for which Labour has no responsibility. He adopts the same argument as that employed by the polemicist Mr Owen Jones that because Labour has never at any stage had sufficient votes to make a difference to whether, say, article 50 was triggered or not, its votes one way or the other did not matter. Labour could not have removed the government in power, and so is not responsible for what has occurred. (Precisely the same argument has been employed by those who have defended the UK’s participation in the second Gulf War: the United States would have gone ahead anyway regardless of the UK’s position).
Let us assume, arguendo that this is true. Let it be assumed that it would have made no difference whether, from the outset, Labour had campaigned against triggering article 50, had strenuously argued for freedom of movement and remaining in the single market, had campaigned vigorously for a people’s vote, or were now arguing to revoke article 50. Does that make this “an entirely Tory failure”?
Causation, Contribution, and Responsibility
To cause something is to make a difference. Lawyers are familiar with this as the “but for” test for factual causation. “But for X, Y would not have happened.”
To contribute to something is to be one factor which, in combination with other things, was sufficient to cause an outcome.
All causes contribute, but not all contributions cause.
Some necessary conditions make very small contributions to eventual outcomes because so many other things also have to have happened. This is captured in the proverb
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The moral question is whether responsibility is determined by causation or contribution? Is it digital (if you cause you’re responsible) or analogue (you’re responsible to the degree you contributed)?
Voting is helpful both in enabling us to see the difference between contribution and causation, and in helping us to understand which matters for purposes of responsibility.
Say there is a first past the post election where there are two candidates. Candidate 1 receives 100,000 votes. Candidate 2 5,000. Candidate 1 is duly elected.
What, in terms of votes, caused the victory?
We could say that 5,001 votes caused his election (as without that number he would not have been elected). This does not refer to any of the actual votes, but to the number sufficient to win.
Or we could say that 95,000 votes caused his election, as if we took that number away he would no longer have been elected. This refers to any set of 95,000 actual votes cast.
No individual vote caused the election of candidate 1. Each contributed.
If, say, the victorious candidate turns out to be a disaster, who is responsible for his election? Can each individual voter who cast a vote in favour argue “I am not responsible as my vote made no difference.” If they could no voter is responsible, as no individual vote made a difference.
The correct position is that each voter is responsible according to their degree of contribution. Children are right when they object to voting that it rarely “makes a difference” but that doesn’t matter for responsibility. Everyone who failed to vote against the successful candidate also made a contribution, even though they too may have made no difference (say only 50 people who could have didn’t vote).
Say the successful candidate had won by a single vote. Also assume that some of the votes were cast in blocks of varying sizes, so that Boss A controlled 100 votes, and Boss B 500 votes. As the result was carried by a single vote, does that mean that Boss A and Boss B were equally responsible? The correct position is no, Boss B made five times the contribution to the outcome that Boss A made, and is proportionately more responsible. The person who cast a single vote in such circumstances may have made a difference to the outcome, but only made a very small contribution, and so has a correspondingly small share of the responsibility.
Labour and Brexit
The answer to the counterfactual question of what would have happened if Labour had opposed Brexit more strenuously is unknowable. Its contribution has however been substantial. Labour MPs overwhelmingly backed the Brexit referendum, they voted under a three line whip to trigger article 50, and have failed to support a second referendum. Labour has made a substantial contribution to Brexit, and as a result shares a large part of the responsibility. Uncomfortably for its supporters, if you have lent your support to one of the party’s responsible, you too have contributed, and are also responsible.
That does not mean that Labour is solely or even largely responsible. The contribution of the government in power has, of course, been greater still. If Theresa May had been hit by a bus in 2016 Brexit would still have happened, but that does not mean that her contribution to it has not been very great. What the relevant degrees of contribution are is, however, incapable of proof, as, unlike with the simple example of voting, we have no method of measurement.