Argument

A Second Vote on Brexit Won’t Enhance Democracy. It Will Undermine It.

The elitist proponents of a “people’s vote” don’t care about the popular will. They only care about getting the outcome they want.

Demonstrators wave a British flag with European Union stars and European Union flags as they take part in a march calling for a People's Vote on the final Brexit deal, in central London on Oct. 20.
Demonstrators wave a British flag with European Union stars and European Union flags as they take part in a march calling for a People's Vote on the final Brexit deal, in central London on Oct. 20. (NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images)

The casual observer abroad could be forgiven for thinking that Britain is turning against Brexit. Last weekend, almost 700,000 people descended on London as part of the so-called People’s Vote march, demanding a second referendum on European Union membership to save Britain from what they regard as the “political chaos” the first vote has unleashed.

The Brexit negotiations have reached an impasse. Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May is at loggerheads with Brussels—and with much of her own party—over the issue of the Irish border, as well as post-Brexit customs arrangements and regulations. Whether or not a withdrawal agreement can be signed before the agreed mid-November deadline is an open question. Without it, talks about any future trade agreement with the EU cannot commence. And even so, May’s so-called Chequers proposal for trade, which makes major concessions to the EU, has already been rejected by Brussels, not to mention most Brexiteers in Parliament.

“No one voted for this mess,” has been the refrain of prominent media Remainers in response to this chaos. A second referendum, they insist, is the only democratic way out of the corner May seems to have boxed us into.

But this is just cheap, insincere spin from the forces in British politics who have been trying to stop Brexit ever since the people voted for it. Any real democrat—Leaver, Remainer, or neither—shouldn’t let them get away with wrapping their campaign against democracy in the banner of democracy. 

The People’s Vote campaign is not some grassroots organization that sprung up from a public dissatisfied with Brexit. It formed out of the official Remain campaign, with the same elite organizers, spokespeople, and media supporters at its core. These people advocated Remain at the last referendum, were (in some cases) physically sickened by the result, and have been doing everything in their power to stop it ever since.

Just look at the people pushing for it. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, has previously called on May to unilaterally reverse Brexit. In the wake of the Brexit vote, David Lammy, a prominent Labour member of Parliament and People’s Vote booster, called on his colleagues to “stop this madness through a vote in Parliament”—to use the power vested in them by their constituents to overturn the will of the majority. Patience Wheatcroft, a Tory member of the unelected House of Lords, also wants a people’s vote. But she hasn’t always. Immediately after the referendum, she called on the Lords to block Brexit in the upper house because, unlike MPs, they have “no constituents to fear.”

Of course, it is possible to separate the arguments for a second Brexit referendum from the intentions of the politicians currently making them. But even on their own terms, the so-called democratic arguments for a second referendum just don’t stack up. In fact, examining them closely reveals how cynical they are. So let’s deal with a few of them in turn.

The first is that this isn’t a second referendum but rather a first referendum on the deal. London’s Labour Party mayor, Sadiq Khan, suggested as much in an op-ed when he came out in support of the People’s Vote campaign a few weeks ago, arguing that “the people must get a final say. This means a public vote on any deal or a vote on a no-deal.”

But he rather betrayed his hand when he said Remain would have to be an option on the ballot paper. A first referendum on the deal implies that departure is a given and that a second ballot would just be about deciding the destination—realistically, this would mean either approving the government’s deal or leaving without one.

Any referendum with Remain on the ballot is a rerun of the first one, and no one calling for a second referendum would countenance anything different. At its recent conference, the Labour Party’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, was met with applause when he announced that Labour would back a second referendum under certain circumstances and that “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.”

To most Brexiteers, May’s soft Brexit Chequers proposal, which would keep the U.K. bound to EU rules without any say over them, is a betrayal of what they voted for. If the government fails to implement Brexit, a true referendum on the deal—between Chequers and no deal—might seem a more democratic way out of the impasse. But the British people would still be made to vote again—in this case between Brexit and Remain by another name—before Brexit itself was implemented. Besides, the point is academic. The wording for any second referendum would have to be agreed by Parliament, and at the time of the referendum nearly 75 percent of MPs backed Remain.

Another common argument for a second referendum is that democracy didn’t end on June 23, 2016, and that the people are allowed to change their minds. This rather undercuts the claim that this is just about the deal.

The first snag here is that the people haven’t necessarily changed their minds. Britain’s top pollster, John Curtice, points out that even though voters, including Leavers, are becoming more pessimistic about the government’s handling of Brexit, levels of support for leaving the EU have remained largely unchanged. Those who supported Brexit seem “inclined to blame the actors in the Brexit process for their perceived failure to be delivering what voters want rather than draw the conclusion that the act of leaving is misguided,” Curtice argued.

More fundamentally, there is nothing democratic about rerunning a vote before it has been implemented. Asking the people to vote on Brexit again now would be the equivalent of rerunning an election, in which one party won a clear majority, before allowing the victors to form a government. 

The claim that new facts have arisen since Brexit, in terms of the costs and technical hurdles of leaving, ignores the fact that any sharp change of political direction will always produce roadblocks and unforeseen circumstances. Something as radical as Brexit is, inevitably, a leap in the dark. The fact is, a majority of the British voting public took that leap and, as Curtice’s analysis suggests, are still happy they did.

Which leads us to another favorite soundbite among second referendum advocates, flung at Brexit supporters at every opportunity: “If you trust the people so much, why not have them vote again?” Leaving aside the point that Brexit hasn’t been implemented yet, a second referendum would inevitably demoralize Leave voters. And the people pushing for it know this.

Before the 2016 referendum, a government leaflet, sent to every British home, stated: “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.” The people were entrusted with a huge choice, and they took it very seriously. Leavers would have no reason to take a second vote seriously. In rerunning the Brexit vote, the political class would have made it perfectly clear that they’ll only be content with what they regard as the right answer.

For all the political chaos it has unleashed, the referendum was a genuinely positive democratic moment. It mobilized people who hadn’t voted for years, decades, or ever before. For the first time in a long time, many people felt that their vote actually counted. And many of them voted Leave. If the referendum result is rejected and rerun, it would destroy people’s faith in democracy for a generation.

The first vote breathed new life into democratic politics in Britain; a second would only snuff it out.

Tom Slater is the deputy editor of Spiked magazine. @Tom_Slater_

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