The statistics of the "will of the people"

I know I keep saying that I’ll stick to the science and avoid political blog posts but such are the times that I am being drawn back again to write something on recent Brexit events. I will try and put personal opinion aside and just stick to the maths.

I have heard a lot recently about the result of the referendum being the “will of the people”. The Conservative MP Tim Loughton last night on BBC’s “Have I Got News For You” went as far as to say that “17.4 million people voted to leave the EU and that’s what we will give them.”

The 17.4 million was not factually incorrect but, of course, it’s all part of the political game to select the numbers that support your case and then ignore the rest.  So let’s just put the result of the referendum into context.

Votes cast for remain were 16,141,241 and those for leave were 17,410,742. The difference between them was 3.78%.

If you take the view that one vote is enough, then the government do have a mandate to leave the EU (legal arguments on the validity of referendums aside). Statistically however, the best that can really be said is that the country is split right down the middle on the issue.

Even before the result, I was very much against the referendum which has now led to a vociferous split in the country. Given the divisions, at the very least our elected leaders should try to be a little less political and a little more rational in the way they proceed from here and recognise that the “will of the people” is not quite as black and white as they seem to make out. Perhaps if they did so and considered the actual numbers a little more carefully, we might avoid some of the angry outbursts we have seen recently.

Let me use an analogy. Imagine if a new drug was being tested and the clinical trials managed to recruit thirty three and a half million volunteers who were dived up into those receiving the drug and those receiving a placebo.  When the results were in, it was found that just 3.8% of the volunteers taking the drug reported feeling better compared to those on the placebo. Do you think the company could take that drug to market? I can tell you that the scientists will be clear that the effect of the drug was no different to the placebo.