Above all, there is the realization that the clock that has been ticking since March 2017 is now at one minute to midnight. If Brexit is to be averted by means of referendum it is pretty much now or never. The complexities of what any such referendum would involve in terms of Britain’s politics and constitution have been well-explained this week by the Constitution Unit of University College London. Meanwhile, Agata Gostynska-Jacubowska and Beth Oppenheim of the Centre for European Reform, also this week, have explained why it shouldn’t be assumed that the EU would welcome such a vote.
But even if all the practical and political obstacles could be overcome, just as there are growing calls for another referendum so too are there growing arguments being made against it as a matter of principle. Some of these are reprehensible if not downright disreputable. I mean, in particular, the claim that it could provoke violence from disgruntled Brexiters. That is wholly absurd. No one would have any defensible reason whatsoever to resort to violence simply because they were being asked to vote. They would have a perfectly clear and easy route to express their views: by voting leave again.
Less malign, but no less flawed, is the claim that since the referendum mobilised many, perhaps 3 or 4 million, people who do not habitually vote to do so it will in some way disenfranchise or disillusion them from ever voting again. I’m not sure if there is any evidence that those voters have now got the habit – for example, did they turn out for the 2017 General Election? – but in any case they are in no way disenfranchised by having the chance to vote in another referendum. More importantly, there’s no good reason to place a particular premium on the (supposed) feelings of those voters any more than any other group.
Nor can it be enough simply to state, as Theresa May does, that a second referendum is ‘not in the national interest’. That’s an elastic term anyway – as seen by the way that she invoked both to justify not holding an election after she became PM and to justify it when, in 2017, she decided to do so. It’s a particularly vapid argument when May has never given any reasons why Brexit itself is in the national interest, on any meaning of the term.
The serious case against another referendum
However, other arguments are both reasonable and serious. Robert Shrimsley, writing in the FT (£) this week, makes several of them including, correctly, that were such a vote to be to remain things would not simply revert to the status quo ante, with national unity restored at a stroke. That is an important corrective to those who think that the 2016 vote might just be consigned to history as a momentary hiccup or spasm or, indeed, that the vote caused rather than revealed and exacerbated national disunity.
But what he gives as his “fundamental” argument is much more contentious. He says it would be damaging to democracy if the remain side narrowly got their way: where would the former 52% go, especially after what would undoubtedly have been a vicious and divisive campaign? Populism and xenophobia would have a field day.
The problem with this, first and foremost, is that it seems logically impossible to argue that a democratic vote can, as a matter of principle, be undermining of democracy. In any case, it is a mistake to think of ‘the 52%’ as a homogenous group, caring deeply about EU membership and in sway to populist politics, any more than the 48% are homogenous. Or for that matter that for either group EU membership is something they care deeply about – it certainly wasn’t a burning issue for many people until the referendum. Moreover, proceeding with Brexit may well not assuage the anger of the 52% if and when they come to see its full consequences: who then will want to tell them that a second vote had been set aside as an impossibility in deference to their sensibilities?
Equally, Shrimsley’s central argument neglect the flip side issue of how divisive going ahead with Brexit – especially in a relatively hard form – will be, and what it means for the 48%, who have been treated with such contempt by the ‘winner takes all’ way that the narrow vote to leave has been interpreted. That itself is hugely divisive, especially in its treatment of the majorities amongst various groups – the young, those who work, the Scottish, the Northern Irish – who voted remain, and will linger with many political and cultural consequences, not all of them foreseeable, for many decades.
In short, anger, division and distrust have already been implanted into Britain by the 2016 vote and so whilst it is true that another referendum won’t solve that, it doesn’t follow that not having another referendum will do so. Better to approach the whole issue not in those terms, but in the more simple and practical ones of whether the majority of voters (still) want to leave the EU.
A different set of arguments were made this week by one of the most influential analysts of Brexit David Allen Green, also of the FT but writing on his own Jack of Kent blog. His core claim is that the only way to rid the UK of the 2016 referendum mandate is to discharge it and leave the EU. At that point, it will have no further purchase, Brexiters should cease to refer to it and erstwhile remainers should work towards a “close association agreement”. His elegant argument is that this, once and for all, will take the 2016 vote out of the equation and – although he doesn’t use these words – the country can move on from it into a post-Brexit politics free of the toxic ‘will of the people’ cul-de-sac.
The difficulty with this is two-fold. First, I think it is highly unlikely that Brexiters will drop the idea that the Referendum result mandates their preferred form of Brexit, or that they will cease to get traction from it amongst their supporters. The form Brexit takes will, of course, still be very much under negotiation post-March 2019 because the future terms will only have been agreed in outline, probably vague outline. Thus post-Brexit politics will be as toxified by the legacy of the 2016 vote as the present politics.
Second, and rather obviously, a close association agreement is not what all (or even most?) remainers want. In the post-Brexit scenario there may still be all to play for from the point of view of the Brexiters (i.e. various different Brexit formats) whereas for those remainers, the one thing they want will be off the table for, presumably, decades. This, really, is the last chance they have.
If the majority want to leave, they’ll vote to leave again
Thus I don’t think that there is a good case, in principle*, against another referendum. The case for, by contrast, is rather strong. Without rehearsing it all again (for which see my post of last June) it includes the fact that many things were not, and could not have been, known at the time of the 2016 vote, and that many things have changed since then not just in the UK and the EU but in terms of Trump’s presidency, growing Russian aggression; and the persistent and growing questions about the funding and conduct of the referendum.
And even if none of this were true, or none of it is regarded as important, the fundamental point is that if people still want to leave then they will be free to vote to leave. It can’t make sense to enact a policy as the ‘will of the people’ and yet say that it would be wrong to ask the people again. It might be regarded as unnecessary, or a waste of time, or irritating, or insulting, or, indeed, divisive. But it can’t, in democratic terms, be wrong to hold a democratic vote.
That is not to assume that the result of a second vote would be to remain in the EU. The opinion polls do not show a decisive lead for remain and would be likely to narrow during another campaign, in which the very fact of there being another referendum would be mobilised as an ‘establishment’ ruse. Indeed, just as Brexiter MPs have now discovered the advantages of the Parliamentary ‘meaningful vote’ to which they were originally adamantly opposed, regarding it as a remainer trick, so too are there advantages to them in another referendum. Without it they will for years face accusations about how the original vote was won and bear the blame for its consequences. With it, were they to win, they could kill the remain cause stone cold dead.
None of which is to say that another referendum has anything much to commend it. It’s probably the worst option available – except for all the others.