Some thoughts on the arguments for and against another Referendum.
The Irish Referendum on abortion rights prompted some highly specious arguments from Brexiters: if it is hailed as a triumph of direct democracy, why do remainers not say the same of the EU Referendum? The numerous differences between the two cases, including the nature of the question asked and of the process followed, have been cogently dissected by Professor Brigid Laffan writing in The Guardian. Of these, perhaps the most important is that in the EU Referendum, no one could know what they were voting for rather than what they were voting against.
This is mainly because the Leave campaign resolutely refused to identify a preferred future relationship for which people could vote, thereby scooping together the votes of people who wanted, or who believed there would follow, wildly different outcomes (especially as regards single market membership). It is also because many issues that have since risen to prominence were either largely ignored (e.g. the Irish border) or not even mentioned (e.g. Galileo). As Matt Kelly has forcefully argued in a recent GQ article, no one really understood the consequences of Brexit: it is just too big and complex. And, thirdly, it is because, in any case, the final outcome is not just something to be specified by the British electorate but to be agreed with the EU.
All of this – and a great deal more – has always made the ‘will of the people’ line a spurious one. This, of course, is dismissed by most Brexiters on the grounds that it is an elitist claim that voters ‘made a mistake’, thus patronizingly assuming that they were incapable of making informed decisions and/or that they were hapless dupes of the Leave campaign. But that argument fails on two grounds.
First, despite the constant attempts by Brexiters to decouple the vote from the consequences of the vote the two cannot be separated. There may have been some voters for whom leaving the EU in any form at all was all that mattered, but for many, and presumably most, that was not so. So it is not necessary to claim that anyone ‘made a mistake’: people cannot be said to have correctly or mistakenly voted for something if they could not know what it was. That they could not is undeniable, given that it took the Government seven months to define, even in outline, what Brexit meant, and on most details the Cabinet still doesn’t agree.
Second, why, in any case, is it considered impossible that ‘the people’ made a mistake? Imagine dropping the definite article. Does anyone think, in terms of general life experience, that ‘people’, as individuals, never make mistakes? If not, why should we think that collectivity of ‘the people’ never does so? And if it is not impossible, in principle, for them to make a mistake, why should it be unthinkable that, in this particular case, they have done so?
For these reasons, a further vote on whether or not to proceed with Brexit, now that far more of the consequences are known, would, in principle, be perfectly reasonable. After all, on much more trivial decisions about, say, entering into a utilities contract it is routine to allow people a ‘cooling off period’ to re-assess those decisions before finalising them. Why not on this far more momentous one?
It can hardly be argued that a further vote would undermine a democratic decision: how could voting do that, rather than confirm or disconfirm that decision? To argue otherwise would actually be to say that something could be what people want even if they don’t want it, a nonsensical proposition. And if the claim is that in a future vote people will have been swayed by the continuing dastardly efforts of Project Fear, why, that is precisely to make the ‘elitist’ argument that people are dupes who don’t know what they are doing which the Brexiters regard as anathema.
Nor does it cut much ice to argue that a further vote prior to actually leaving in March 2019 is impossible because the full future terms will not be known by that point. If that is given as a reason, it applies even more strongly to the 2016 Referendum, when far less was known about the possible contours of the future terms. If a vote now would be invalid without knowing the full terms, the vote then was all the more so. It is true that it would be far better to know the full future terms before voting. But that has been precluded by the government’s actions in starting the Article 50 process without ascertaining the public’s view on what exit terms they wanted to government to, at least, pursue on their behalf.
It bears saying that there are some flawed arguments made for a further vote. Comparisons with General Elections are not reasonable. Referendums are in their nature different, being used to settle major constitutional questions for the long-term, and are understood as such, rather than being regular polls on policy. Nor, for all its legal validity, does the argument that the Referendum was advisory have much traction: legal truths and political realities are not always the same, the present case being an example. Yet, on the other hand, to argue for a further vote is not to keep asking until we get the ‘right answer’. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the original vote only gave one part of the answer – or only asked one part of the question.
Equally, we should all be honest about why remainers are presently keen on another Referendum and Brexiters opposed. It is because both believe, on the basis of recent opinion polls, the vote would probably be to stay in the EU after all. That is quite likely – but I don’t believe it is by any means guaranteed once another campaign got underway. The reality is that it is too close to call either way with any confidence. It would be a high stakes double or quits for both sides. Remainers might wish to reflect on that. And Brexiters, too, since if they won a second time that would pretty much be the nail in the coffin for EU membership. Some people would, undoubtedly, begin to campaign to seek re-admission, but such a result could not be anything other than the death knell for the Remain campaign per se. There would be no 'Neverendum': it would be over.
Without such a vote and such an outcome, Brexiters will need to resign themselves to the fact that they will forever be blamed for every consequence of Brexit, and will forever be seen as having obtained their victory by fraudulent means and dishonest claims. I suspect that the true believers amongst Brexiters take that seriously, and were never comfortable with the more egregious lies of the Leave campaign (the £350M, Turkey is joining the EU etc.) and might actually welcome the chance to win again, but this time ‘fair and square’. Brexiters might also wish to reflect on the possibility that a parliamentary vote may, conceivably, still put an end to Brexit. Would they, then, discount the case for a further Referendum?
None of this is to say that a further Referendum would be straightforward, either in terms of process or of timing. There would be huge practical complexities, not least over the question to be asked and the franchise. But I do not think that these objections are over-riding: if there was a political will there would likely be a way, and I assume that the most likely scenario for another Referendum would be a major parliamentary crisis that would sweep away at least some of the political obstacles.
The more important objection is that it would leave a legacy of bitterness and betrayal, whatever the outcome, especially if, as seems highly likely, that outcome were again to be very close. But we all need to face up to the hard fact that the same is true however events now unfold. It arises as an inevitable consequence of the way the Referendum was set up, of the way the campaign was conducted and, perhaps more than anything else, of the way that the Government took such a narrow vote and interpreted it in so extreme a way, a way so contemptuous of the 48% who voted to stay in (and, for that matter, may of the 52% who voted to leave). If that hadn’t happened, many remainers would have been unreconciled to Brexit but would not, I believe, still be so implacably and intransigently opposed to it.
For that matter, anger, bitterness and betrayal are quite as much in evidence amongst Brexiters, despite having won. On all sides, for various reasons – many of them in contradiction with each other – there is a sense that things are going badly wrong with Brexit and that the country is more divided as a result. We need, as a country, to have the political maturity to admit that we have got ourselves into a very serious mess, and to devise a way out of it. Perhaps the most discreditable response to the present situation - a response most shamefully evident amongst many politicians and even government ministers, possibly including the Prime Minister herself - comes from those who shrug and say ‘we’re doing something crazy, but we’re stuck with it’. In politics, there are always choices.
With bitterness and anger now hard-baked into British politics, a further campaign would undoubtedly unleash still more of it. It would be a horrible experience to go through. But it can’t be emphasised strongly enough that we face a situation in which there are no good options left any more. That certainly includes the peculiar ‘we’re leaving but nothing will change’ fantasy that the government have adopted. And time is running out – fast. So, arguably (and there are arguments on both sides), given that the whole process was set in train by a Referendum, a further one would be the least-worst way of bringing some kind of resolution to it, at least compared with a parliamentary vote. Perhaps, in fact, the only way of resolving things that would be seen as having any legitimacy.
At the very least, a further Referendum cannot be dismissed on the basis that it flouts the will of the people (and, indeed, we’d all be much better off if this silly, passive-aggressive, semi-fascistic phrase was expunged from the political lexicon). Nor should it be advocated or dismissed simply on the basis of whether or not people think ‘their side’ will win: it should be done on the basis of its merits as a way of resolving the increasingly divisive, chaotic and frankly untenable situation that Britain finds itself in. And, to be no doubt more optimistic than is warranted, it might just be that second time around we would be able to learn something from how Ireland conducted its Referendum.🔷
(This piece was originally published on The Brexit Blog.)