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The Case for a Fresh Vote on Brexit

January 22, 2019

It has become urgent to work out whether it would be justified, from a democratic point of view, to hold another referendum relating to Brexit.

 

Those who oppose the idea of holding any further referenda on Brexit often claim that holding another vote would be undemocratic. They also often claim that holding another referendum on the matter would be an insult to voters, particularly Leave voters, and that Leave voters in particular would, in the event of a further vote, feel “betrayed” by the politicians who instigated that second vote. This feeling of betrayal may undermine democracy and the already fragile trust between politicians and the electorate. Ergo, such critics conclude, it would be wrong to hold any further referendums on Brexit.

 

There are many bad arguments in favour of having another referendum. Many of the ideas and arguments in favour of having another referendum are either openly or covertly anti-democratic. While I shall not be defending democracy here, I am going to assume that if holding another referendum on Brexit would be undemocratic, we should not hold another referendum. But while there are many bad and undemocratic arguments for another referendum, I will try to show that democrats, whether Leavers or Remainers, should be more open-minded about having another referendum on Brexit. In fact, I now believe that having another referendum is the most justified choice, from a democratic point of view.

 

Those in favour of another referendum damage their own position by asking for a “People’s Vote”. Is the suggestion supposed to be that the first referendum wasn’t a “People’s Vote”? It was just as much a vote by the people as another referendum would be. It is also a mistake to consider a potential further referendum a mere re-run of the previous one. I suggest that it starts to make much more sense to hold a further vote if we get clear that the next referendum should not be a mere re-run, but rather a new vote on a distinct set of issues and circumstances.

 

The problem with the idea of having an exact re-run of the 2016 referendum is that doing this would probably be undemocratic, for the following reason. Yes, it is true that voters now have more information about Brexit than they did in 2016. But this is not a sufficient reason to re-run the vote, or indeed any democratic vote. Voters have more information about the Party they have just elected to government 6 months after a General Election, but it would be undemocratic to have another General Election at that point simply because the public now had more information. The idea of re-running a General Election because the public now has more information would, one suspects, be a simple partisan manoevre, motivated by the idea of getting rid of the incumbent government. Such a manoevre does not seem to me democratically justifiable.

 

Another bad excuse for holding another Referendum is the idea that voters were not sufficiently well-informed before the 2016 vote. Even if it is true that voters were not sufficiently well-informed (and I take no stance on that issue here), that is a problem that cannot be addressed post hoc. In a democracy, it is of course vital for voters to be well-informed, but we must ensure, so far as possible, that voters get good information before the crucial votes – i.e. before it is too late. I have never heard anybody argue that General Elections should be repeated because voters were not sufficiently well-informed before the vote. We would usually instead think: well, too bad if the public were badly-informed! Now we have to put up with the outcome of the vote! I do not see why we should not think the same about the 2016 referendum result.

 

The problem, then, with simply re-running the 2016 referendum is that there is no clear, democratically justified reason for doing so. But this does not preclude having a further referendum of a different sort.

 

What, then, IS the case in favour of a fresh vote? My idea is that a new vote would NOT simply be a re-run, because it would address a different question. The Government has tried to implement the wishes expressed in the 2016 referendum, but its attempt has been blocked by the House of Commons. We have reached an impasse, since the Government cannot find approval for a Deal Brexit, yet still wants to avoid a No Deal Brexit. It is also unclear exactly why the House of Commons rejected the Government’s deal. Some MPs had concerns about the Irish backstop, while others believed that the Deal did not promise a close enough relationship with the EU. Basically, we have a big mess.

 

There are two ways we can try to deal with this impasse. The first is to let the politicians handle it. However, I for one have little faith that they will be able to actually escape from this impasse. There is currently no Parliamentary majority in favour of any Deal or No Deal. Furthermore, the DUP and the right wing of the Conservative Party have clearly indicated that they will only agree to a Deal if the Irish backstop is scrapped (see e.g. Dominic Raab’s interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday 20th Jan). Yet the EU appear very unlikely to agree to any deal which does not involve an Irish backstop (see e.g. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/12/10/eu-insists-will-not-renegotiate-deal-guy-verhofstadt-mocks-theresa/)

 

If there is no further public vote, there are two possibilities. One is that we crash out with a No Deal Brexit, and one is that politicians manage to scrape together and pass some sort of Deal just in time. These possibilities would lead to radically different futures, and so from a democratic point of view there is good reason to let voters have a choice about which option they actually want politicians to pursue. Yes, this Government has been elected to represent the voters who elected it – but let’s be honest, the Government have little idea of how voters actually want them to deal with the present impasse. Hence the best solution from a democratic point of view seems to me not to simply let the politicians get on with it, only for them to guess what the public wants and scrape a decision through at the last minute, which may not reflect the public’s priorities. Rather, we should have another vote, which is not simply a re-run of the 2016 vote, but instead asks: how should the government proceed from the present point of impasse?

 

One advantage of holding a vote, and holding it quickly, would be that it will give the Government a clear sense of direction and thereby resolve a lot of uncertainty. If we do end up leaving with No Deal, at least we will have been forewarned a little. Or, if the public voted for a Deal Brexit, Theresa May would have a very strong mandate to negotiate a compromise, and she would likely find it much easier to get approval for a Deal from the House of Commons, with MPs knowing that the public wanted a Deal of some sort.

 

I hence believe there is a very strong case, from a democratic point of view, for having a further vote. The real question is whether or not a Remain option should be on the ballot paper.

 

I think there is a good democratic case for answering “yes”. In a democratic system, the people’s vote is binding, but with one crucial caveat: the decision of one public vote can be overturned by a subsequent vote. Hence, plainly, the decision at the latest General Election overrules the decision at the previous ones, just as the 2016 referendum decision overturned the 1975 choice to sign up the UK to the EEC.

 

Of course, as I mentioned above, we must reject proposals to simply re-run votes for no good reason, since this is undemocratic. However, as I argued above, in the present situation there is good reason to hold another vote about Brexit. This is that the Government’s attempts to deliver Brexit have stalled, and it is unclear which option they should pursue next – so why not let voters tell them?

 

That being so, I see no reason why a Remain option should be left off the ballot paper on the potential next referendum which I am proposing. If a majority of voters now back Remain, then the “will of the people” has changed, and present voters have a right to overturn the decision of the 2016 referendum if they so choose. Moreover, there is a general democratic principle in favour of giving the electorate the widest possible choice. There is no legal barrier to the UK remaining in the EU (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/04/britain-legally-cancel-brexit-eu-parliament-court-remain), so strategically speaking this is one of the ways the government could proceed from the present impasse – although it would only be democratic to pursue this option if this decision was approved by voters, since otherwise it would be violating the 2016 referendum result.

 

I turn, then, to the practicalities of the further referendum I am proposing. The question would address how the government should proceed in the Brexit negotiations. There would be three options: Remain, pursue a Deal with the EU, and No Deal. To be fair to Leave voters, Remain would require 50% of the vote or more to win – it would be unfair if Leave options attracted more votes but the victory was given to Remain. Of course, specific wordings would have to be worked out by the appropriate authorities, but I maintain there is a genuine conceptual distinction between asking voters “Do you want the UK to remain in the EU?” and “How should the government respond to the impasse resulting from the Government’s Brexit Deal being rejected by the House of Commons?”, and it is basically the latter question which the public should be answering.

 

To sum up, then, there should definitely be a further vote on Brexit, to help clear up the present impasse. The more difficult question is whether Remain should be on the ballot paper in this further vote, but I argued that there are two democratic reasons in favour of including it: i) IF a majority now supports Remain, it would be a shame, from a democratic point of view, if the government did not proceed according to the wishes of this majority; ii) in a democracy the people should be given the maximum possible choice.

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