It is a fundamental principle of all democratic activity that losers – as well as winners – accept the results of choices made. (Unless you are Donald Trump, who, as you will remember, said he would accept the result of the 2016 US presidential election on one condition: that he won.)
In my view, the principle applies to referendums as well as to elections, which is why – among many other reasons – I remain unpersuaded that Remainers are right to push for a second Brexit referendum.
Here are three more reasons:
1. There is no clear evidence that the second referendum (strictly speaking, the third if you include the one held in 1975) will produce a different result. The opinion polls (yes, I know their track record is not exactly without blemish) suggest that very few people have actually changed their minds since 2016. Some people who didn’t vote last time round now say they would vote Remain if given another chance. Whether they do or not is, of course, highly uncertain.
2. The risks of deepening the divisions already exposed by the last referendum are substantial. If you think ‘everyone’ would now vote to stay in the EU if given the chance, it’s probably because you are a ‘confidently multi-cultural’ university-educated city-dweller. If, on the other hand, you believe that EU membership has turned the UK into a dumping ground for immigrants (even if very few of them live where you do), you probably live in a post-industrial town where you feel forgotten and ignored, jobs are scarce and poverty levels are higher than the national average.
3. Even if there were to be another referendum – and if it were to produce a pro-Remain majority – what do you think would happen next? The people who voted Leave would be incandescent; support for ultra-nationalist and anti-elite political movements would rise dramatically; and – of course – there would be an immediate campaign for yet another referendum. As Robert Shrimsley put it in the FT the other day: ‘If the previous campaign was ugly and divisive, imagine the next: a full assault on every institution of political stability with added venom for foreigners. From there a descent into pure populism is a small step and the next group of leaders will be less loveable than Nigel Farage.’
The former British ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, put it even more starkly in a recent lecture (it’s well worth reading in full, by the way). ‘The fact that the European question has helped turn our political debate both somewhat, indeed sometimes seriously, mad and increasingly polarised and toxic should, I think, worry us all. It’s hard, in my view, to think of anything that would toxify it more than a further referendum.’
So what should we Remainers do? First, I think, much as we regret it, we must accept that Britain will leave the EU. Our duly elected representatives, members of the House of Commons, voted to hold a referendum, and the government committed itself to abiding by the result. (‘This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.’)
Yes, I know that strictly speaking, the referendum was ‘advisory’, but the words quoted above come from an official government document. To go back on them now would not be a good look in an era when populism is already on the march.
But Remainers do have other options. Brexit does not have to mean Jacob Rees Mogg’s Brexit. I would much prefer to see soft Brexiteers in all the main parties form a united front, put together a reasoned case for a Norway-type post-exit relationship and then vote down whatever Theresa May’s ramshackle Cabinet might at the eleventh hour be able to agree to recommend to parliament.
Bring down the government? Force an election? Yes, if that’s what it takes. Hit the pause button on Article 50 and go back to square one. When push comes to shove, I’d rather see Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell conduct the Brexit negotiations than any of the current bunch. (You’ll have noticed that there’s a name missing from my list of Labour names. I hope I don’t need to spell out why.)
If ever there was a cause that merited the risk of party splits, surely Brexit is such a cause. But a softish, Norwayish Brexit would not be the end of the world. And although the principle of unrestricted immigration from the EU would remain in place, I’m pretty sure the EU would be prepared to allow the UK to invoke the ‘emergency brake’ clauses (articles 112 and 113 of the European Economic Area Treaty permit immigration restrictions to be imposed if ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties’ might otherwise result).
Like it or not – and I don’t – a majority of those who voted on 23 June 2016 voted for the UK to leave the EU. Yes, the campaign was a disgrace; yes, the Leave campaign broke the law; yes, there’s good reason to suppose that President Putin was up to his old tricks. But democracy means nothing if it does not mean accepting results you don’t agree with.
Much better, I think, to work for a better Brexit – a People’s Brexit, even – than to try to turn back the clock. What happened on referendum day in 2016 was a revolution – and life after a revolution can never be the same as it was before.
So I won’t be on the ‘People’s Vote’ march tomorrow – because we’ve already had the People’s Vote. We lost.