I’ve been thinking a lot about the supposed damage to democracy in the event of a second Brexit referendum. I do understand the implications of essentially ignoring one referendum result in favor of another. I sympathize with many (both Remain voters and Leave voters) who argue that referendums soon become meaningless if we hold them until we get the result we want. But that’s not how I see a second referendum in this case.
The whole point of a second referendum in 2019 would be to make absolutely sure of the narrow result from three years earlier with full knowledge that the new result could go either way. If the new result is in favor of leaving the EU, then regardless of the negative consequences I believe this would have for the UK it would at least confirm that the desire to leave the EU is indeed “the will of the people” (as we are repeatedly told) rather than a fluke result, a flash in the pan that resulted from a recent wave of populism and nationalism that has engulfed both Britain and America. Remainers like myself would have no choice but to surrender ourselves to the inevitable, and a key source of the division that is tearing Britain apart would be nullified.
If, on the other hand, the result of a second referendum is to remain in the EU – which I believe almost everyone suspects would be the case – this would be a different result from the 2016 referendum. Why? Because we have learned so much about Brexit in nearly three years that we didn’t know before. We have seen jobs decimated and entire companies flee the UK. We have seen the pound falter and our economy lurch ominously toward recession. We have had time to ponder exactly what Brexit will mean for our country – especially how devastating a “no deal” Brexit would be.
One thing we have all learned since the 2016 referendum is that Brexit is a hugely complicated issue – more complicated than we all imagined. It is so complicated that despite having two years to work on a deal that could pass through Parliament, the UK government has spectacularly failed to form an agreement with the EU that is satisfactory.
Arguably, the question of Brexit is so complicated that it should never have been put to a public vote to begin with, but here we are. It is as though we are patients in a hospital who have been asked to vote on the procedure of someone’s brain surgery, and having failed to reach a workable consensus in a binary, over-simplified poll we are all now lumped with the task of trying to untangle the mess and confusion as the clock ticks down. So fine – let’s do that! Let’s vote again, but this time with the benefit of hindsight and with far more wisdom on the matter than we had in 2016.
Everyone recognizes the phenomenon of “buyer’s remorse.” I recently purchased a new phone from Samsung from one of their stores in London, and there was a process involved in doing this. It began with me telling the sales assistant “I would like this phone.” Then I was taken downstairs to a fancy customer service area where the finance proposal was explained to me and I was asked to read and sign various documents. At any point during that process I could have said, “Actually this is not what I had in mind. I don’t feel comfortable. If you don’t mind, I would rather leave this for now.” Despite her expected frustration given my initial enthusiasm, the sales assistant would have had no choice but to let me walk from the store. She certainly couldn’t have forced me to sign the contract based purely on what I’d said initially to her about wanting to buy the phone.
If there is this much flexibility over buying an electronic device, why is there not similar room for maneuver over something as drastic as realigning our country’s constitution and severing our deeply-entwined relationship with Europe? Why is the UK electorate not allowed to have buyer’s remorse?
Those who argue that a second referendum would weaken democracy are inadvertently, and with the very best of intentions, espousing something that is the exact opposite of democracy – a state of affairs where an electorate is held to a decision that cannot be revoked even if the electorate wants to revoke it! As others have said, you cannot weaken democracy with more democracy.
If the likes of Theresa May are so certain that they are carrying out “the will of the people,” they should be confident that a second referendum would affirm this “will.” It seems to me they are not remotely confident. They know deep down – I believe – that the will of the people has changed on Brexit. If I am wrong, the government wins and has an indisputable mandate to press forward with the withdrawal process. If I am right, a disaster will have been averted and we can all get on with tackling the real issues that have brought about this mess to begin with, most notably the crippling inequality in our country and the growing chasm between the rich and poor. A second referendum would therefore be a win-win. So for heaven’s sake, let’s vote.