A second referendum might move the country on from division to acceptance over Brexit
The second referendum idea provokes strong reactions. Rage from those who say it denies the will of the people. Dread from those who can’t face yet another national vote.
But though it’s a vexing prospect that won’t immediately heal division, it’s the best route to restore Britain’s fragile democracy. Cabinet Minister Rory Stewart warns of a ‘civil war’ in the event of a second referendum. The civil war is happening whether he knows it or not. The question is how to move the country on. Unity over the Brexit debate may be unrealistic, but acceptance from both sides over whether Britain leaves the EU might be attainable in the event of another vote.
While a referendum on the EU deal can justly be labelled a second referendum, it can’t be described as a ‘re-run’. It’s not the case of the Establishment telling the average voter they got it wrong first time and now need to change their minds.
The fundamental difference is the capacity for a more informed decision about a decision that will impact Britain for decades. A second referendum would be less grounded in hypotheticals. There’d be less of a hearing for promises on big red buses. We simply know a lot more than we did in June 2016 about what Brexit would look like. It won’t be £350 million a week for the NHS. We won’t be leaving a bloc that Turkey is about to join.
Brexiteers may pretend the last two and a half years haven’t happened. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said in 2017 an EU trade deal would be the “easiest in History”. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis said on Friday a new trade deal could be struck in three months. But claims that could be gotten away with in the 2016 campaign face the brunt of reality. Actually, ‘Global Britain’ isn’t so easy to achieve. Taking back full control of everything isn’t viable in a globalised world and a liberal democracy entwined in Europe for decades. We can now see the leading Brexiteers, who had some measure of influence over the process and have come up wanting, have lost their credibility as serious politicians. That Brexiteers still have the audacity to make up claims about the ease of Brexit should provoke both anger and pity. Their delusions are being found out.
Given how important this decision is, and the mismatch between what people voted for in 2016 and what Brexit is in reality, the 2016 referendum vote isn’t enough to command widespread acceptance. A second referendum wouldn’t lead to endless referendums. There is a finality to it: the June 2016 referendum initiated the process of Brexit. Another referendum would check whether or not we accept the terms. If we took this referendum re-run criticism to its logical conclusion, it would render the 2016 vote invalid, for it ignored the verdict of the 1975 referendum.
What we do know less about is what a no deal Brexit looks like. But if a Brexiteer claims there is a mandate for a no deal Brexit then they can be dismissed as someone whose priority is realising their fantasy whatever the impact, rather than someone who has a measured concern on the future of Britain. The worst are full of passionate intensity.
Sections of the left have arguments against a second referendum which one suspects is a smokescreen for their concern that it would deny a chance for Jeremy Corbyn to obtain power. “You’ve got to understand the causes of Brexit” is the sympathetic refrain. But it’s unclear how making the country poorer, or people realising the promises of the Leave campaign aren’t going to happen, will restore faith in democracy. The far right tend to do quite well during economic down turns, where there is rage against the failings of the current system.
Or there’s the view that that the “demons” of the far right would be “unleashed” by a second vote. This concern is secondary to the priority of allowing further debate, even if this opens up some nasty discourse. You cater to the far right by acceding to their wishes and not taking them on. The impact of leaving the EU far outweighs the impact of any government: the left who call for a general election are, like sections of the right, caring more for their narrow agenda than the country.
Critics of a second referendum on the right position themselves as defenders of “democracy” and the “will of the people”. They either don’t care or perhaps just don’t know that democracy is a contested concept. Electorates can change their mind. The vote to leave the EU may well have received the most votes in British electoral history. But it was an exercise whose numbers must be balanced out by the integrity of the process: mistruths and possible illegality of the part of the Leave campaign. Rather than being upholders of democracy, the right is likely worried that the people whose voice they harness to support their argument may well be changing their minds.
A second vote is not an attempt to overturn democracy. It was possibly a strategic blunder from the People’s Vote campaign to take such a pro-Remain stance. Perhaps better would have been to call it a Final Vote. Because this is what a second referendum could be. Contrary to the dominant narrative, it might actually heal division. Remainers are far more likely to be reconciled to Brexit after a second vote that did go Leave’s way again.
There is a temptation to just get on with Brexit. A stoical British attitude of head down. Keep calm and carry on. It offends the British sense of fair play to have another referendum. But the current electorate are upholders of the country to be passed onto future generations. A sacrifice of continuing the process for the sake of protecting democracy in the long term is the responsible thing to do. Even if people never agree on the Brexit argument, a second referendum can unite people around the legitimacy and fairness of the outcome.