The democratic case for resolving Brexit


Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a Remainer. I voted for the UK to remain in the European Union, and I think were much better off as a member. But leave that to one side for a moment. I’m also a democrat, and I care for the future of my country, and that requires a society that’s at peace with itself. At the moment, whichever way the Brexit impasse is resolved, society will not be at peace with itself.

I firmly believe that, had the matter not been put to a people’s vote in 2016, the government would have said some time in 2017 or 2018, ‘OK folks, Brexit was an interesting idea, but it’s clearly not going to work so let’s abandon it and stay in the EU.' But because the people got the vote, and they voted by a small but clear margin to leave, the whole principle of democracy appears to be undermined if Brexit is abandoned.

So how do I justify a new vote now? As a democrat I’ve thought long and hard about this, and also questioned whether it’s just a ruse to stay in the EU when the decision to leave has been taken. But I’ve concluded that the case against having a confirmatory people’s vote is the undemocratic one. This conclusion is based around three core arguments:

1. The vote in June 2016 was based on a Leave campaign that was a blank canvas. There was no vision for how we would leave or for which variation of leaving. If you go back to the referendum debate, you’ll find advocates of Leave ranged from the anti-everything-that-begins-with-‘Euro’ brigade to very mild Leavers who wanted the UK to stay in the internal market and the customs union but not to be members of the club. That’s why when a Leaver screams ‘This isn’t what we voted for in 2016,’ it’s founded on nothing but their own perception of what they were voting for. Given that the margin of victory was less than 52-48, the only plausible mandate from the 2016 referendum is for a Brexit that involves staying in the internal market and customs union.

2. The Leave campaign cheated. This has been proven, the campaign has been fined £70,000 (and Arron Banks’ company has been fined more than that for data abuses related to the Leave campaign), and it is not appealing. Moreover, a professor of psephology told the High Court that the extent of the advantage Leave gained by cheating could have affected the overall result. If you have a public vote and one side cheats significantly, the result cannot be considered reliable, certainly not reliable enough to provide a mandate for the UK to leave the economic and legal bloc it has been a member of for 46 years.

3. The culture of British society has rethinks embedded in it. I’m not talking about the fact that we have general elections at least every five years so if we don’t like a decision we make at one election, we can change it at the next (though that is relevant). I’m thinking of all sorts of situations in everyday life, such as:

  • if you put in an offer on a house and your surveyor or solicitor discovers something that affects the basis of your offer, you’re fully entitled to modify or withdraw your offer;

  • if members of a trade union vote to demand a specific pay increase but management only offers a smaller increase, the union members must by law have a second vote on whether the lower offer is acceptable;

  • if a company tries to take over another company, the shareholders of the company being taken over vote on whether its management should open talks with the predator, and if it does, the shareholders get a second vote on whether to accept the negotiated offer;

  • if a medic is treating a patient, he/she needs the patient’s consent, and if anything emerges in the course of treatment that alters the basis of that consent, the medic must go back to the patient (if possible) and reaffirm that consent.

In other words, the idea that we have a referendum based on a blank canvas for one side, that side wins, and we then don’t put the final outcome back to the people, is actually totally undemocratic. Therefore the argument that having a second vote would undermine democracy is illogical.

The most democratic thing now would be for the deal Theresa May has negotiated with the EU to be put to the British people alongside remaining in the EU. That would respect the 2016 referendum, because the May/EU deal – whatever Parliament thinks of it – is the direct outcome of the result of that referendum, but it needs to be confirmed as the will of the people. (One might stipulate that Remain has to poll 52% to win in order for it to overturn Leave's margin of victory from 2016 – that would add a level of complication to the result, but it would recognise the legitimacy, cheating or not, of the 2016 vote.)

Yes a new vote would be divisive, but everything in Brexit is. There will be Leavers who will cry ‘betrayal’, but actually if they really do want to leave the EU and feel this is the will of the people, let the people prove that (and they might – Remain is not a guaranteed winner). And if we want to have a society that’s at peace with itself, any decision to leave has to command a clear majority of the people, which the 2016 vote doesn’t give to anything more than the softest of soft Brexits.

A version of this piece first appeared in Lib Dem Voice (libdemvoice.org, 12 April 2019)

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Header photograph John Robert Young (c) 2016

Chris Bowers (c)  2019