Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The problem with a second referendum

My last post upset a few people who are campaigning to reverse Brexit, because I was so pessimistic about the chances of a second referendum before we leave in early 2019. They mistook my pessimism for defeatism. I would never suggest that those fighting for a second referendum, or an end to Brexit by any other means, should give up, just because the outlook looks bleak. You can never be certain about how things will turn out.

The path to a second referendum is clearly laid out by Andrew Adonis in this Remainiacs Podcast. Two things have to happen. First Corbyn needs to start arguing for a second referendum, which Adonis thinks he will do in the summer or autumn. I think this is conceivable, although far from certain. I would merely note that Remainers who declare that Corbyn will never do so because he is a Brexiter at heart are not only wrong, but are therefore by implication far more pessimistic about Brexit than I am, because this first stage is a necessary condition if a second referendum is going to happen.

The second thing that has to happen is that a majority of MPs write in the need to hold a second referendum as an amendment to the Brexit bill, a bill which thanks to rebel Conservative MPs is now a requirement. Yet there is a world of difference between demanding a proper bill before leaving, and demanding a second referendum. The Brexiters will ensure the government throws everything into preventing a second referendum, including perhaps its own survival. As I said in that earlier post, I cannot see it happening in the current environment, and this is the source of my short term pessimism.

One of the reasons I am so pessimistic is related to an earlier post, where I talked about how anti-democratic the concept of the transition period is. I could imagine at least some Conservative MPs arguing for a second referendum when the exact nature of the final deal is known. The first referendum was a decision to put an offer in for a new house: now the surveys and council searches are in we can take a final decision.

But, because of the transition period, what the final deal will be remains unclear, at least to most of the media and the public. The transition allows the Brexiters to continue to live in a fantasy land, where the final deal keeps all the advantages of being in the EU without any of the costs. I have argued, as have others, that the first stage agreement restricts the scope for what the final deal could look like, but this is denied by the government who are still busy eating cake. There is no reason for this to change in the next year, because the focus will be on the government’s futile attempts to avoid transition on EU terms. In this sense a second referendum will be just like the first: the realists will argue as hard as they can for reality, but reality will either not get a look in with the right wing press, or be balanced against fantasy by the broadcast media.

To threaten to bring down their government by voting for a second referendum, rebel Conservative MPs need a cast iron moral case. Alas because of transition they cannot argue that the second referendum will be a vote on the final deal, because the Brexiters can still claim the final deal will be all things to all men and women.


  1. Basically, this is the beginning of the end of the EU as we know it. Or rather the end of the beginning (growth) phase of the EU.

  2. There seems to be a race between two crunch points.

    The Redwoods want to negotiate trade deals separately from the EU, while those who want a meaningful vote need to have one before the UK has left the EU with no way back to its original membership.

  3. Even if there is a second referendum, I don't think the issues can be resolved. In particular the issue of free movement. With no stop to that, Brexit will win. On the other hand the EU will not budge on free movement - and so it shouldn't.

    We are paying big for some quixotic decisions Britain made when the EU expanded. Why on earth were there not transition controls?

  4. No no no. Stop it. Just don't go down this road. There is nothing good down here.

    David Cameron was quite explicit that Parliament would implement whatever the decision was. Over 17 million owed to leave on that basis. It was a majority, and now Parliament has to deliver.

    The peace and stability that this country enjoys springs from the collective ownership of the democratic principles and practices of the country. Once one group awards itself the right to hijack democracy for its own ends that collective trust is broken. A second referendum is clearly a device for preventing the delivery of a promise that was made by parliament, and as such undermines faith in democracy. Once that faith is broken you have well and truly opened Pandora's box. All bets are off. Don't come crying to me if you end up in a dark and dangerous place. Undo this referendum and you are one demagogue away from some serious strife.

  5. The main issue here is that for a larger number of "Leave" voters exit is their most important issue and transcends domestic politics and party loyalty (because it is an unbearable national humiliation), while for most "Remain" voters it is not the most important issue, because for most "Remain" voters exit is a big loss, but a bearable big loss. If "Remain" voters cared as strongly as "Leave" voters then the Liberals and the SNP would have had a large surge of votes in 2017.

    That's why Labour has to be pro-exit: by being pro-exit it has not lost many if any of their 64% of "Remain" voters, while it has acquired 2-3 million "Leave" voters. if labour switched to pro-remain they would surely lose many if not most of their "Leave" voters and likely gain very few ""Remain" voters.

    I think too that the best we can hope is for Labour to campaign at some point for soft-exit, which they have carefully left as an option by talking of wanting "all the benefits of the single market and customs unions" and rejecting membership of the single market by the weasely but politically convenient argument that it is a concept and not an organization with members.

  6. I like you better when you don't talk about Brexit and don't insist on its reversal, which is useless and would be wrong also from a political economy point of view. It would just strenghten the idea that the European integration project is highly un-democratic and elite-based.

  7. Dvid Lidington the UK's "deputy prime minister" suggests on the front page of the Daily Telegraph (20 Jan 2018) that we may rejoin a reformed EU in ten or twenty years time.

    Cynics might suggest that this is a way of weakening the will of Remainers: "Oh well, if there's a chance that we will re-join, then we'll go along with Brexit, now that there's chance that it will only be temporary."

    Incidentally what will a "reformed" EU look like? I remember when the Conservatives spent many years passing a lot of laws "reforming" trade unions. From that I was able to work out that "reform" and "weaken" are synonyms.

  8. I am not sure that the transition period will disguise the essential nature of Brexit. Both because of the need to avoid a real border in Ireland and the need to keep supply chains working properly for goods, even if we do not get full single market access for services, I suspect Brexit is gong to mean accepting most of the rules of the single market without formally being part of it. In other words the transition period will tend to stretch out indefinitely in reality of not formally.

    For Theresa May and her followers this is all right because it will enable her to survive for a full term. For the Tory right this is the best they can get after the failure to eliminate Parliamentary opposition at the election. Their aim will be to carry on campaigning about EU regulation with their hand strengthened by the fact that that we will play no part in shaping it. They can then press for what they really want (best described as an economic war in my opinion) perhaps with a more palatable US President to help sell it.

    In that case a a referendum on the terms(checking if the Brexit promises have been kept) becomes a way of avoiding a ludicrous existence for the country as a sort of beggar hanging about the entrance to the EU and being thrown scraps from time to time. I can see some Tory MPs supporting that referendum check even at the cost of their seats since that would be so unpalatable.

    One further point - the need for another Bill has only been won because the Scots were in Parliament
    . In that sense the No vote in 2014 has proved valuable for both Scotland and the rest of the UK. At least we still have a chance of thwarting the right.

  9. Whilst we ponder on irrelevant issues about the EU, the Tories are busy dismantling the state. Secondly no-one knows what the Tories are negotiating, I don't believe they even care what the out come will be so long as they remain in office, where they will negotiate, or shall I say adopt a TTIP type agreement with Trump that enables American Corporations to mop up what is left of this country.

    Should pro EU types jump up and down saying that's all the more reason to stay in Europe, then just look at the economic chaos over there, which will eventually hit the buffers and leave us in a neat situation similar to Greece, when with a sensible withdrawal,that is if the Neo-Liberal politicians in Europe will allow it, we could rebuild our economy without the aid of Europe or the US.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.