Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday, 16 December 2018

How Leavers can believe that a People’s Vote is anti-democratic

How many times have you heard Brexiters, or Theresa May, argue that to hold a second referendum is impossible because people have already had a vote. The people have decided and the government is carrying out their instructions. To hold another referendum would break that contract between the people and government, and would as a result destroy the people’s faith in democracy. And so on. Some even say flatly that it is anti-democratic.

When people put forward similar arguments I have found that a good question to ask is this. Suppose that the polls showed 99% of people thought Brexit was now a mistake: would you still insist that we should not hold another referendum, and go ahead with Brexit? Replying of course not allows you to repeat the question with a smaller percentage. The moment they say that isn’t a big enough percentage, you can simply ask why 52% was good enough to hold a referendum but some higher percentage is not enough to justify asking the question again.

For this reason most have argued with me that even if 99% of people didn’t want Brexit today, it should still go ahead because of the 2016 vote. This is the logic behind the view put forward by most of those who would deny another vote, because their argument is never qualified by referring to current public opinion. A vote has been taken, a decision has been made, and now parliament has to enact that decision to retain faith in democracy. Thus a second referendum, in their eyes, can be anti-democratic.

If you, like me, think it cannot be right to not have a second referendum if 99% of people, or even 56%, no longer want Brexit, you are of course right. The problem with their argument is that the people in 2016 cannot bind the people in 2019. In most cases they will be the same people, but those same people have a right - a democratic right - to change their mind. This right is absolute, in the sense that people are not required to justify why they have changed their mind.

At this point the argument usually turns to comparisons to general elections. Once a government is elected, it cannot be thrown out just because the public starts disliking the government (as they used to do, regularly, 2 or so years after being elected). Just as in a general election people vote for a government to last 5 years, so a referendum result on a particular issue must last unchallenged for a certain number of years.

Except, of course, general elections do not necessarily last five years. MPs can decide on a general election if a certain majority want it (as perhaps we may be about to find out). In exactly the same way, MPs can legitimately decide to hold a second referendum. There seems to be a view that because the 2016 referendum was around 40 years after the previous one, that is some kind of rule, but one observation does not make a rule.

Equally it does not matter in the slightest that David Cameron in his wisdom said the 2016 referendum was for a generation. Just as a vote in 2016 cannot bind people 3 years later, the words of David Cameron certainly should not bind MPs 3 years later. We know that an awful lot of what was said in that referendum was a complete lie.

Cameron has a great deal to answer for in this matter. Not just holding the referendum itself, or saying things like the result would hold for a generation, but also allowing a form of words which left the Leave side completely free to propose whatever type of post-Brexit arrangements took their fancy. It was an open invitation to the Leave side to make up tall stories about the arrangements they could negotiate with the EU, and the Leave side accepted the invitation gleefully. In many respects the need for a second referendum on the negotiated deal was inevitable given the open-ended Leave option in the first.

To argue, as some do, that nothing much has changed in more than two years is laughable. We now know many things that were not clear in 2016. Turkey is not about to join the EU. The OBR have said that Brexit will mean less money for public services, and the government has accepted that projection. (So less, not more, money for the NHS etc.) Doing a deal with the EU is not the easiest in history: it took 2 years just to get a withdrawal agreement. That agreement requires the UK to effectively stay in the Customs Union because of the Good Friday agreement: hardly discussed in the referendum, and then dismissed as Project Fear. And so on and on.

So it makes sense to hold a referendum on the withdrawal agreement for those reasons alone. Those arguments are helped by the polls, which for about a year have shown a majority to Remain and a widening gap of late. (Again I have been told the polls conflict and are neck and neck, and in characteristic Leave style this is just false. As this mapping over time of 100 polls show, Remain has been consistently ahead of Leave for over a year, and the gap has been steadily widening. This is despite neither of the two main parties championing Remain.) I have been told that polls are unreliable, which is why we have actual votes and why MPs feel they need a referendum on the withdrawal agreement rather than revoking it themselves. 

Just as MPs can choose to hold a general election at any time they want, they can hold a referendum at any time they want. People have a democratic right to change their mind. This right is absolute, but it becomes obvious why there should be this right when you have a referendum based on fantasies that look nothing like the reality that has emerged. There is a different argument about a second referendum: not that it is anti-democratic but that it would be dangerous or unfortunate. That will have to wait until another post.

You cannot blame people for arguing that the 2016 referendum result must be enacted and cannot be rescinded, because they are being told this by newspapers and politicians all the time. Which is a very irresponsible thing for newspapers and politicians to do, because it embeds within a minority that were once a majority a view that parliamentary democracy has somehow cheated them of something that was rightfully theirs. If we do get another referendum, those same politicians and newspapers are sure to play to this idea of being cheated that they have themselves fostered. This is why it is important for everyone else to keep saying that a basic part of democracy is allowing people to change their minds.   

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