Will Bott on whether it is still possible to ask such a question as “Is this even a good idea?”.
First published in October 2019.
I have oscillated between two positions. The first is that legitimacy questions regarding Brexit are essentially epiphenomenal. Nobody really is that invested in particular interpretations of what constitutes a ‘mandate’, democratic legitimacy, etc. They are just afterthoughts. They are just part of the moral vocabulary that we think is most powerful and most readily at hand for justifying what we want to happen anyway.
This interpretation suggests that Remain shouldn’t bother with trying to persuade people that a second referendum is legitimate. Just try and shift fundamental views on Brexit, and the rest will follow. Once it is obvious enough people think Brexit is a terrible idea, old ideas will be replaced by new ones quickly (‘aren’t we allowed to change our minds?’ etc).
The second position, put forcefully by Paul Evans (though not in support of a second referendum), is that the belief in the legitimacy of the process is substantial and important. We can’t usefully engage with the question of whether Brexit is desirable at the moment because a large chunk of the people we need to convince think that it isn’t a legitimate question anymore – we had the vote, we need to implement it. Until we address the legitimacy question, there is no point trying to convince people that Brexit is a bad idea, and it’s harder to do so anyway.
I don’t think these two positions are completely irreconcilable (different people can think differently, perhaps it depends who you are trying to convince), but I increasingly think that the legitimacy issue does matter.
Take a look at polls. Hypothetical second referendum votes suggest a decent Remain majority. Polls on what we should do next are ambiguous, but much less favourable to Remain. A ComRes poll released two days ago has 54% of respondents (excluding ‘don’t knows’) preferring an outcome that involves leaving the European Union in some form. Other polls show this result roughly inverted once the question is framed in terms of how respondents would vote in a hypothetical second referendum. And the perceived legitimacy of the referendum does seem to have a life of its own.
It is how current policy is justified, it sets the terms on which political battles are fought and what questions are asked (read more on this here).
What is more, there is this horrible aura of inevitability of the whole thing, as if Brexit is some natural event that can only be responded to, that its architects are not even responsible for, that people only have to ‘get done’.
As if the question “Is this even a good idea?” wasn’t something that could be asked anymore. I don’t know if there is any time left to do much about this. Things like the march on Saturday may help. But I think it is important that this is addressed.🔷
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