As the clocks ticks on towards the 2019 Brexit deadline, Theresa May has rejected calls for a second referendum almost as many times as she ruled out an early General Election before last April.
Most voters agree with her: 60% of those who expressed a view in last weekend’s ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror said they would oppose one, while one in eight had either ‘had enough of Brexit and wouldn’t vote’ or would spoil their ballot papers in protest at being asked the same question again. The Leave vote can to a large extent be seen as a protest, driven by an electorate dealing with politicians who don’t keep their promises and who have seen real wages chipped away – this cannot simply be ignored and reversed. Notably, of those who last weekend said they would vote in a second referendum on membership, Leave were ahead by… 52% to 48%.
Attention now though is turning towards a different type of referendum – with the Liberal Democrats and Renew Britain (among others) arguing that it is in the interests of the British public to vote on the final Brexit deal. But how practical would that be? Some Remainers argue that those who voted Leave often did so with no thought to the consequences, but are those now pushing for a referendum on the deal guilty of the same crime?
One of the biggest challenges with any public vote is of course asking the right question. While HMG decides whether a referendum gets called, the Electoral Commission is tasked with consulting on its wording. In the case of the Brexit deal, the key decision would be whether the public are simply provided with a binary ‘yes’/’no’ question, or get asked their views on specific aspects of the deal.
The former is problematic – a ‘no’ vote tells us nothing about which parts of the deal need to change for it to be acceptable. Obviously it would also have massive ramifications for the UK’s bargaining position, particularly if EU Member States are overwhelmingly in favour, and could well result in a no-deal Brexit.
The latter option also raises a host of issues – what information will or can be given to the public on the deal? How granularly will the terms be described? Is it easily understandable in layman’s terms? Would the EU accept the result of a pick & mix referendum?
Beyond this there remain further practical problems. What happens if the referendum reveals deep division and no overall consensus? Would yet another referendum (a ‘neverendum’) be necessary in the event that the deal is renegotiated? Would this risk a potentially problematic precedent whereby the Government is forced into a corner, calling even further referendums on the same topic to legitimise its position?
Referendums by necessity tend to take what can be a very complex or controversial argument and reduce it to a simple yes/no question. As such, the case is often made on the basis of visceral appeal, such as Leave’s “£350 million for the NHS” and Remain’s prediction of post-referendum economic Armageddon. Referendums and ‘fake news’ seem to be close companions.
Further, the use of referendums to legitimise law inevitably disregards large swathes of minority opinion, irrespective of its strength, especially when turnout is low and the vote evenly split. This was evident in the original Brexit referendum, with turnout at 71%, critics point out that fewer than four in ten eligible voters brought about the Leave vote, while others argue that non-voters cannot complain about the result if they couldn’t be bothered to put a cross in a box.
David Cameron was lulled into a false sense of security by the 2011 AV Referendum while the Scottish 2014 Referendum was a squeakier escape. Now, though, unless forced to call one, any future government will tread incredibly carefully before seeking endorsement from a simple majority of registered voters. The Dutch have acknowledged this which is why its own parliament has voted to abolish advisory polls over “fears they undermine democracy” (perhaps because they fear a referendum on EU membership of their own).
Ultimately, politics make a second referendum of any sort unlikely. If Theresa May calls one willingly having ruled one out, then she reinforces her propensity to make promises she does not intend to keep. If she is forced into calling one, then she – and probably her Party – are sunk, and liable for re-opening Brexit’s societal wound.
There comes a point when even those waving EU flags outside the Palace of Westminster come rain, shine or blizzard may have to ask themselves: is Referendum 2.0 really in the interests of the British public?
The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect the view of ComRes