It is not elections that define democracy; many tyrants have come to power by popular vote, many dictatorships have sort legitimacy from plebiscites. What defines democracy against tyranny is that elections are free, fair, and above all, frequent. In dictatorships, people fear the government, in a democracy, the government should always fear the people. All democratic governments, all policies, and all proposals are only for now. The people should always reserve the right to change their mind, to change the direction of the country. And changing course, making a different decision to that of the past is not resisting the will of the people, it is letting the people be the ultimate judge, both on the government and on their own decisions.
The constant flexibility of democracy is its greatest strength. Bad ideas can be discarded and good ideas allowed to flourish. It allows the electorate to change their mind when new information becomes apparent or the lies and delusions of politicians are exposed.
Britain, the world's oldest parliamentary democracy, has always changed and adapted. Many of these shifts have been for the better and made Britain a fairer and happier place. Less than a hundred years ago, the right to vote was denied to women, seventy years ago there was no public health provision, sixty years ago state executions were permitted, and fifty years ago homosexuality was still an illegal act.
Of course, many changes, and many elections have brought in bad governments to the detriment of the country. Also, popular opinion has often been wrong in retrospect, as the propaganda, and misinformation of the time lead to poor public judgment. The British public initially backed many disastrous events; The public supported the Boer War until the concentration camps and starving women and children; Public opinion supported the First World War until the blood and mud of Ypres, Verdun, and the Somme; And public opinion backed Neville Chamberlain's appeasement until Nazi Tanks rolled into Poland, Belgium, and France. In more recent times, the majority opinion was for both the Iraq War and further deregulation of banks and the financial sector that lead to the two greatest crises of the start of the century. In all cases, the public reserved the right to change their mind, and to elect leaders and governments who would hopefully not make the same mistakes of the past.
And so it is with the referendum to leave the EU. A campaign that was dominated by lies, misinformation, and half-truths by both sides fundamentally failed to give details on exactly what leaving the EU would mean for Britain. Even today, months after the triggering of article 50 to exit the union, and following rounds of negotiations between the UK and the EU, there is limited clarity of what a post-EU Britain will look like. It is often said that despite all the failings of the June 2016 campaign that people did know what leaving the EU meant. This assumption is not true. Today ask any leaver, remainer, or neutral to tell you the precise details of Britain's future deal with the EU and they would struggle to give anything other than vague details. The Prime Minister is unclear, the foreign secretary talks in optimistic hyperbole, and the opposition changes its policy on leaving the EU as regularly as the wind blows in a different direction. For all the hype surrounding the Prime Minister's speech in Florence last week, it did little more than delay the moment that Britain left the EU rather than offer any concrete proposals as to what a future relationship between the two parties should be.
And, therefore, it is far from unreasonable that when this Brexit mess is over to ask the British people for their judgment on the deal for leaving the EU. When cabinet splits finally heal, when the positions in the capitals of Europe become apparent, and when the future relationship between the UK and the EU is established, it is only right and proper that this is given democratic legitimacy. If the British people could be trusted to start the process of leaving the EU then it follows that they should be trusted to modify, delay or stop the process as should be their want.
The perfect time for a second vote would be following the agreement of a new deal between Britain and the EU. As the EU votes on the deal in its parliament and democratically elected European leaders decide whether to accept the terms so should the people, the British people, most affected by the deal's outcome, also have their say. The question of the second vote need not be complicated and should give a simple choice between continuing to leave the European Union under the agreed terms or remaining taking into account the details for a post-EU Britain.
There is nothing weak or wrong with changing your mind, collectively and individually we should always have that right. The Liberal economist and thinker John Maynard Keynes once remarked that when the facts changed, he changed his mind. The British people now, as has always been their right, should be given the same chance.