Let me start by outlining my own political position. I am a centre right, life long Tory voter, who voted to remain in the Brexit referendum. Why did I vote to remain? Because it was the best of a bad choice. I have never been a huge fan of the EU, but I believed on balance that it was better we remain in as the benefits on the whole outweighs the negatives. From within we could at least try and change the rules and make it work for us (as we have done for years), rather than being out and unable to change the rules but being affected by them nonetheless. With us out, those rules would more likely drift away from Anglo Saxon free markets as the balancing act that has held France’s protectionism in check would be lost. In short, I thought it better to be in the tent pissing out than to be out the tent being pissed on.
I am however, no Remoaner. Once the referendum result was in, I took the view that I should get behind the Brexit negotiations as we should now pull together to get the best out of the position we found ourselves in.
This said, for about 18months now I have been in favour of a second referendum for two reasons. The noises around, and issues with, the draft Brexit deal that have been emanating from Brussels, Number 10 and Parliament for the past couple of years made it inevitable that the deal would please no one and there just wouldn’t be a majority for it.
Secondly, a 52:48 majority for leave, never made the case that the British people wanted an extreme parting of the way – either via a Hard Brexit or other means. Just as the loss of the Conservative Party’s majority at the 2017 election did not mean that actually they wanted a softer Brexit; they lost their majority because of that disastrous policy the Dementia Tax. The reality is voters voted leave for many different reason, with differing views of what leave meant and should look like.
Voters were asked if they wanted to leave, not how. ‘How’ is the question that we are now dealing with. It’s the question that we have been dealing with since the result of the referendum was announced, and a question that there is no clear mandate from the people for one way or another. I don’t care what you say, there just isn’t!
A second referendum is clearly not the preferred choice of some, but I am yet to hear a decent argument as to why we shouldn’t have one. Reversing Brexit is not a reason for many of us wanting a second referendum at this point. Now that the draft Brexit deal is finalised and presented, the arguments for and against a second referendum shift, and clarity on the subject is possible – clarity that only a two tier referendum could deliver.
So what am I proposing by a two tier referendum? A two-tier question almost along a preferential voting system. Voters would initially be asked if, now armed with more knowledge of the realities, they wanted to leave the EU or remain. The second question would then be: if the UK is to leave the EU should it do so on the terms of the draft Brexit deal or in a hard Brexit. If the country were to vote to stay then the second part of the referendum would be unneeded, but should leave win again – as is likely –, then the second question’s result would give the path ahead.
This would mean both remainers and leavers would have had a say on, and thus have ownership of, the result, bringing all together. It also eliminates the flaws of a binary question leaving open questions and a three-way question dividing the vote and giving no clear answer. I am not pretending that this is perfect, but it is the best compromise, and one that does give a definite result. I would also argue that, just as the last referendum set no voting thresholds to be met, nor should this one.
‘No one likes the draft Brexit agreement and it must be changed, there is no way we can have it, it’s so bad.’
I am no fan of the deal. There are a number of good bits I can get behind and pro Brexit voters should be able to – though ignore what they say about fish, nothing has really been agreed. It’s an issue both sides have fudged as it would be a step too far at this point. The issue is the backstop. The country voted to leave and take control. If we get stuck in the backstop we have no control, no say and are stuck there – the idea that a country could be bound in such a way is astonishing. It means a total loss of self-determination and sovereignty. It undermines the very idea of nationhood and what constitutes a country and state.
I know the idea is that we never end up having to use the backstop. But that’s the problem; every time you say ‘it will never happen’ it means there’s a pretty decent chance it will. And you should never agree to such a bad fall back given this. The idea that a trade deal can be struck with the EU in 21 months – even from the position of regulatory alignment we currently have – is absurd. It will be three years at best.
But the idea that this agreement can be renegotiated is bunkum. Had different choices been made at the start by the Prime Minister as to what to prioritise, or by the Hard Brexiteers not pushing for a legally binding leaving date, we may have ended up with a different deal. But ‘coulda woulda shoulda’ comes to mind. The fact is we are where we are and the deal cannot be reopened no matter what someone tells you. The legal date for leaving makes it impossible time wise, as does extending article 50. The EU doesn’t want to reopen it as it will make it harder to keep the 27 together. So no matter what Labour say, they couldn’t do better, and in fact they haven’t really got a different plan. It is certainly better than a Hard Brexit or a “World Trade Brexit”, when the WTO is in constant disarray, under attack from members – Donald Trump; it’s rulings take years to come and are often ignored, and still requires tariffs.
‘To have a second referendum would be undemocratic.’
Putting aside the fact that referenda are one of the most democratic processes of all, I will concede that the idea of asking people to vote again and again until they give you the result you want, is not especially democratic. What I do not accept is the notion that that is what would be happening here!
What we are talking about is a binary vote taken two years ago based on doomsday predictions from one side and predictions of smooth easily reached sunny uplands of £350m a week NHS funding, cutting immigration and more on the other. In other words, it was a binary choice where nothing was really known. Almost no one in politics, the media or the public truly comprehended what we were actually voting on given the complexity of it all. A second referendum is not a matter of asking people to change there mind, but one of asking them to vote to confirm their original vote based on the reality now in front of us, and one that can answer the ‘How’ question. It is a referendum on a different question, not a rerun.
A second referendum would not erode the very basis of democracy by suggesting that rule by the majority is an insufficient condition for democratic legitimacy, as some have tried to claim. It would not undermine all political decisions for the foreseeable future. Brexit is an issue of such impact and scale that nothing comes close to it. A social care bill and Brexit are both important but the importance of one is of a greater degree of magnitude than the other, and that one already has a precedent for consulting the people on, the other does not.
Brexit is a multi stage process that the people got a say on, so should they not continue to get a say on it if there is no clear way ahead and MPs can’t agree? Should we not be involved at salient and necessary stages in something we decided on? Is that not more democratic than saying yes to leaving but, on the bit that actually matters, ‘How’, we get no say. It’s like saying yes to a sandwich over a salad for lunch but getting no say in what sandwich you get; the chances are it’s something you don’t want or are even allergic to and, faced with this new knowledge, you would rather change and have a salad, but you are not allowed to.
Brexit was voted for by 17.4million people; it didn’t win by that many people despite the way people keep talking about the number. It won by 1.4million votes – swing votes. Just as it’s the swing votes that win elections, they win referenda and so to say everyone will vote the same or that it ignores their already expressed view is not the case. Many will vote the same, while some who voted remain have said they would vote Brexit, and vice versa. So now we know where we are re the promises and the scare tactics used last time, lets ask again and in a way that not only answers whether we should leave but how.
Does it also not betray the idea of the people taking back power and getting to decide their destiny once again, the idea that was central to the leave campaign’s argument? No, it doesn’t take away from the sovereignty of Parliament, just as the first referendum didn’t, as its Parliament that finally gets to say what happens. It is merely a matter of Parliament being informed by the second referendum just as it was by the first.
I would also argue that you can’t claim to have listened to the people when many now, and in some polls a majority, want a second referendum to try deal with the place in which we find ourselves. You are listening either only when you get the answer you want, or you think brought a settled position, or for the whole process. It’s like starting to listen and then putting your fingers in your ears and going ‘LA LA LA LA’.
‘What’s the point when Leave will clearly win?’
Not true, and if as a leaver you believe this then why not call for a second referendum? A leave victory can only act to strengthen your hand and will help put the matter of overturning the first referendum to bed – where it belongs.
What a two tiered vote would also, and most importantly, do, is answer the question of how we leave given the choices before us now. This in itself is reason enough for a referendum, but there is also the potential side effect of helping to bring stability to UK politics, allowing for the trade deal to be more easily dealt with (should the referendum send us that way) and the government and Parliament get back to dealing with the urgent issues that face the country domestically.
‘Or, what’s the point when Remain will clearly win?’
Also not true. While many members of the public that voted leave have said they would vote remain if they could again, many that voted leave have said they would vote leave this time.
But if you are a leaver and this, in your heart of hearts, is the reason you don’t want, or fear, a second referendum, then man, or woman, up and have the courage of your convictions and stand by your arguments for leaving. To not do so is not only cowardly but undemocratic and selfish. It is to do all that you accuse the EU of doing when you call it undemocratic for forcing decisions on nations that then can’t get out of them or don’t want them.
If you believe Remain would win, then you are knowingly and despotically seizing the democratic right of the people to change their minds, to force them down a road that you want to go for your own ideological and self-serving reasons, even if you hold them to be in the interests of the people.
‘But we can’t just keep on having referendum.’
Of course we can, though I’m certainly not suggesting we do. But Brexit is different and something of this magnitude should be given time and full consideration by all at important steps in the process when there isn’t a clear way a head in Parliament. It is only right and it’s democratic, something that the whole Brexit movement is meant to be about. It is unlikely that we will need a referendum to approve the trade deal; trade deals develop with time and can be renegotiated as needed. How we leave the EU can’t. Once you’re out your out, and on no terms or terms that are set in stone for a transition period.
‘A second referendum would undermine the negotiations.’
This argument was about undermining the draft Brexit negotiations, but these are now done so can’t be undermined anymore, and it would have little if no impact on trade deal discussions.
‘The first referendum was so painful we can’t go through it again.’
It was indeed painful. Not since the English Civil War has an issue so divided society and families. That said, it is a poor argument against a second and two-tiered referendum. The country is still divided; we are left with a gaping wound called Brexit that just isn’t healing and it wont until the fundamental argument we are having is sorted by us all taking some ownership of Brexit and how we proceed. The first referendum answered one question but raised far more, a second two tiered referendum would answer them.
The idea that we should just live with the result and the gaping oozing painful wound it has caused just so people don’t have to vote again is morally wrong. Especially when some of whom voted to leave won’t be around to see much of the outcome from leaving the EU and wont have to live with it or a divided society. We can see everywhere we look how dangerous a polarised society is.
Sometimes the first surgery doesn’t work or has unexpected consequences so a second is required to fix the matter properly.
‘It’s hard to have a referendum due to time and legislation’
This is sadly the only real argument that is hard to overcome. But laws can be changed and, if the May deal isn’t going to get through Parliament, it’s not impossible that the EU would agree to extend article 50 with MPs changing the leaving date to enable the second referendum. If this happens, then a two-tier referendum could draw this to a hopefully, harmonising close. It’s this, or MPs in a desperate effort to avoid a Hard Brexit will vote for the deal at the 11h hour.