Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party MEP, surprised many on January 11 when he said he might be in favour of a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership. “I agree with Nigel,” tweeted Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat leader, in response, as the comments were met with support by those in favour of the UK remaining within the EU.
The Conversation asked four political experts, who are following the Brexit process closely, on the case for or against holding a second referendum.
The case for a second referendum
Andy Price, head of politics, Sheffield Hallam University
Regardless of whether you voted Leave or Remain, the 18 months since the referendum have shown what a challenge Brexit is to deliver, and some of the long-term impacts the UK’s departure from the EU will have. This is why the simple, one-off question put to the electorate in the June 2016 referendum was never going to be the final word on this.
This was never a binary choice of in or out of the European project, as shown by ongoing discussions around membership of the single market and the customs union.
What really should have appeared on the ballot in 2016 was a series of questions: do you want to leave the EU as a whole? Would you like to stay in the single market and the customs union? Do you value freedom of movement, integrated financial systems, the reduction of barriers to trade?
Of course, it was unlikely (but not impossible) that such a long list of questions could be put to the electorate, not least because it would have been a confusing turn off for voters. But this why a second referendum is now required.
It’s essential because we only started to ask the questions above after June 2016. Not only did we not know the answers to such questions at the time of the original referendum, but the vast majority of people couldn’t have fully understood the questions.
Put simply, the June 2016 referendum started a meaningful national debate about EU membership for the first time in at least a generation. This debate should have happened many years ago, but it is happening now. And only once this debate is over, once we have heard everything we need to hear about what EU membership means, should the electorate then decide whether they support it or not.
For those that worry that the divisions that have emerged since June 2016 will only be prolonged by a second referendum, I would say this: handled sensibly and sensitively, avoiding all of the mistakes made first time around, the next referendum could be based on analyses that are checked and double checked, on a meaningful engagement of experts and practitioners from all sectors of society, and carried out with the explicit acknowledgement that this is the final vote on this matter. Indeed, this might well be the only way to overcome in EU Ref #2 the emotional divides caused by EU Ref #1.
Ben Williams, tutor in politics and political theory, University of Salford
The primary argument in favour of holding a second referendum is that there have been further significant political developments and changes since the original vote in favour of Brexit. These have included various shifts within the UK economy, the nature of the final likely “divorce” settlement with the EU, and ongoing movements in public opinion. It is ultimately a core element of any liberal democracy that voters have the right to change their mind or review key political decisions if circumstances appear to have changed.
An argument often cited by opponents of Brexit is that the vote of June 2016 indicated a somewhat narrow desire for “departure” from the EU, but it did not endorse what the final “destination” would be. For example, whether the UK would remain within the single market.
With a rather hazy destination in the pipeline, Remainers argue that this would justify a revision of the referendum decision. In addition to this distinction between departure and destination, opponents of Brexit have bolstered their argument by casting doubt on the contentious claim of Brexiters that they would reallocate £350m of funding a week from the EU to the NHS.
On this basis, there is a strong argument to make that the voters deserve a further say on any final deal agreed with Brussels.
Nigel Farage’s somewhat surprising intervention in calling for a second referendum comes from a different angle. He is apparently calling for a further vote to settle the issue for “a generation”, and to silence persistent critics of Brexit such as Tony Blair, Andrew Adonis and Nick Clegg. There is some consistency in his position; before the referendum result he said he would continue to campaign against a narrow Remain vote.
While this represents a gamble from a winning position, Farage is said to believe that a further referendum would produce an even more decisive vote for Leave by motivating Brexiteers who feel that “establishment” politicians are ignoring their democratic wishes by obstructing Brexit.
The case against
Philip Cunliffe, senior lecturer in international conflict, University of Kent
As cross-party calls grow for a second referendum on Brexit, it is important not to underestimate the gravity of the situation. A second referendum would be a disaster of the first order for democracy.
Instead of giving Britain the possibility of transcending the division between Leavers and Remainers in the form of a democratic and representative Brexit, a second referendum would recapitulate these divisions, and it will be more bitter a second time round. It would forestall the restoration of parliamentary democracy that has been opened up by Brexit, substituting direct for representative democracy, with all the dangers of elite manipulation that come with it.
A second referendum would erode the very basis of democracy by suggesting that rule by the majority is an insufficient condition for democratic legitimacy, undermining all political decisions for the foreseeable future. It would cast a pall over political life in the UK, undermining national political institutions and delegitimising the very basis of democracy itself as a mode of collective decision making. It would breed public resentment as well as fostering protest politics and extremism.
But “democracies are entitled to change their mind” comes the retort. It is a deeply disingenuous claim, made as it most often is by diehard Remainers. If they are so genuinely keen on keeping choices open, it is legitimate to ask whether these Remainers – or indeed recent converts to the cause of a second referendum such as Nigel Farage – would be willing to countenance a third referendum, to verify the outcome of the second? Why not a fourth referendum, to verify the third? Of course they wouldn’t.
Were we to vote to rejoin the EU after a second referendum, we can rest assured that those Remainers within the elite would move rapidly to ensure that this second choice was locked in through mechanisms that restrict democratic and popular will – mechanisms that the EU excels in building.
Brexit hasn’t happened yet. A second referendum would not be changing a decision that has been implemented but subverting one that has not been enacted. Worse than democracy by plebiscite, it would be dressing up deliberation-by-plebiscite in the guise of democratic decision-making. However people voted over Brexit, a second referendum must be forcefully resisted by all those who care about the future of democracy.
Dion Curry, lecturer in public policy, Swansea University
There were numerous credible objections raised against the first Brexit referendum – that people were not given full (or even partial) information about what their vote meant; that complicated issues were boiled down to a simple yes or no answer. These concerns remain for a second referendum, which is currently as problematic as the first one.
The people decided. Now, it’s about coming up with a result that is best for all, which requires expert negotiation and high-level political decision-making. This is not an elitist argument. Rather, it is asking for politicians to do what they were hired to do: to represent the interests of all their constituents. Very few have spoken up for the 48% who voted Remain in the referendum.
Nobody knows what kind of Brexit people actually voted for, and a second referendum doesn’t answer that. Instead, it just provides a thin veneer for politicians to continue to do what they planned all along (I’m calling you out, David Davis, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson), except giving them the perceived legitimacy to claim they are speaking “for the people”.
Our answer, as voters, must be to call politicians to account (as happened to a certain extent in the 2017 elections), to vote them out if they don’t represent us in a meaningful, well-informed way, to contact them if we disagree, and to present our own well-informed arguments to counter their occasional ignorance.
Apart from the yes/no referendum, few politicians have actually asked for the opinion of the builders, the shopkeepers, the accountants, the factory workers, the consultants, the miners, the bankers, or the unemployed who voted for or against Brexit. Maybe there needs to be more listening and less dictating about what Brexit actually means. And maybe another one-off binary question is not enough.
An argument against a referendum is not an argument against democracy. It’s an argument for a meaningful dialogue between the people and their politicians, rather than the box-ticking exercise that a second referendum would be.