Friday, 19 October 2018

Why a second referendum is not the answer to Brexit

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.


Adrian Baskerville said...

As Chris Grey stated, in his excellent blog, a further referendum is the worst possible option, except for all the others.

The Tories have created the problem, and in principle, Parliament should resolve it. The EEA option was always the obvious course to follow, but for various reasons, most of which were ill conceived objections, it lacks sufficient parliamentary support, and that ship has already sailed. If it were clear that Parliament could or would steer a course which prevents ultra Brexiteers from achieving their goal of a no deal, leading to a race to the bottom on deregulation, shrinking the State, and profiting the few at the expense of the many, some of us would not be marching tomorrow. But instead, we see an impending impasse in Parliament, a hopelessly incompetent government, a barely electable opposition, an impending cliff edge exit, and no way out. The Brexit divisions between people will be slow to heal, whatever happens. Theresa May could have helped the healing process by seeing off the ultras at the outset, and thanking Nick Timothy for his advice, but rejecting his red lines, which are the reason we are where we are now. Leaving the EU but remaining in Efta and the EEA would have been a sensible compromise, but it’s not on the table. The withdrawal deal is primarily about withdrawal and not future trading, so any deal ahead of 29 March is likely to be unsatisfactory, and won’t cover services, which represent 80% of our economy. Besides, a no deal is looking increasingly likely. At the very least, the public could be asked to choose between no deal and remain. And the ultras should be required to make a clear and detailed statement about how, and in what particulars, a no deal Brexit is in the public good, and how citizens will benefit.

And so we march, tomorrow,

Anonymous said...

An interesting read as always.

Given your comments "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", then (whatever way you voted) should you just accept that these things happened and just carry on? Or do you just accept that democracy is now open to abuse and that's ok...?

Anonymous said...

I respect people’s right to protest but I agree with you that it’s madness to demand another vote simply because you don’t like the result. You can’t held a referendum on the same issue every two years. I voted leave and I haven’t changed my mind. I will vote leave again even if it means I’ll be poorer. There’re values other than economic values such as your right to decide who you invite to your castle. I am not against migration but I am against uncontrolled migration. If you think it’s ok for people from the EU to come and go as they wish, why don’t we open our borders to the other 150+ countries in the world in the same way? It’s all about making sure that it’s a sustainable thing to do.

Gerry said...

A massive anti-Remain backlash seems very unlikely to me. The Brexit camp are not known for the activism - in fact they are the "moaners". There would be hooliganism, but that happens all the time anyway.

Anonymous said...


You’ve made some good points there, but I totally disagree with your conclusions on this rare occasion

Do you think Carl Lewis should acknowledge defeat by Ben Johnson ? (there’s that name again)

People are objecting partly because the process was invalid, leading to a result that very likely doesn’t represent people’s honest & informed opinions. It was not democracy by any definition (and bypasses the long-established representative parliamentary democracy we know & love)

It’s not a win-lose issue. I’ve not read about a single “Remain” voter moaning they’ve lost, but numerous “Leave” voters boasting they’ve won. In fact, we all lose, as stated by just about every former senior politician, CBI leaders, small business leaders, all leading scientists, all middle-ground newspapers & nearly all experts in just about everything

It’s not like the battles between Wilson & Heath, where the popular notion was that “both sides are the same really”. This is a matter of the future of the UK, which will certainly break into 3 or 4 pieces if we fall into the “no deal” option

Democracy requires the voters to be informed, else it’s meaningless. We’re still not properly informed, but at least we’ve a vague idea what the plan is, after 2 years, with less misinformation & disinformation

A second (third?) referendum will certainly be different: 1) People are better informed, 2) More younger people will be motivated to vote, 3) There are more younger Remain voters & fewer older Leave voters (some have rolled off the end of the register, so to speak), 4) We’re now aware of the Russia factor, 5) We’re now more aware of what drives the Leave politicians (Boris, Gove, JRM, Leadsome, Fox, etc), 6) Maybe, just maybe, some people have realised that Brexit doesn’t mean we can deport brown people

As for the consequences of a 2nd Referendum resulting in “Remain”? If the Leave voters cannot cope with the vote of the people, they’re simply hypocrites. Yes, there might be some unpleasantness, but do we, as British citizens, just cave in to threats of violence by nationalists ? I think History tells us otherwise. Anyway, we have the police & if necessary the army to maintain democratic law & order

Cameron has a lot to answer for


Matt said...

Please retract this article, in light of your newly acquired German citizenship, it cannot stand. This article disparages the democratic fight against the oncoming disaster of Brexit, it calls for a 'soft' Brexit inside the EEA, but that is not available. We must oppose Brexit wholesale and wholeheartedly, but you cannot tell us not to when you an escape route of German citizenship and we do not.