Many people, from across the political spectrum, are clamouring for a second EU referendum and, in particular, a referendum which includes a remain option on the ballot. They believe that holding a ‘People’s Vote’ is a way of doubling-down on democracy, as though more EU referenda equals more democracy.
They would ask not ‘we have voted to leave the EU, so what next after we have left?’ Rather, they would ask, ‘we voted to leave the EU, but are you sure you still want to?’.
By contrast, people who oppose holding a second EU referendum – or at least who oppose holding a second EU referendum which included a remain option – believe that this would not constitute ‘more democracy’ but would be deeply and profoundly anti-democratic, a gross violation of trust placed in the 2016 referendum process by the people. They believe that honouring the 2016 referendum is intrinsically important for democracy. They also think it is a matter of promoting public confidence and engagement in democratic processes in general.
But just as there were myths and half-truths, attempts to make people fearful, and a certain amount of guesswork back in 2016, so there are some quality control issues today with the debate around a second EU referendum.
Just as the Leave campaign promulgated and relied on certain myths to make its case back in 2016, what are the myths surrounding the campaign for a People’s Vote?
Many of the myths concern justifications for failing to enact the 2016 referendum, whilst others are about the People’s Vote itself.
‘Nobody asked for the 2016 referendum’
False. During the 2015 General Election the Conservative Party made it an important campaigning promise that it would hold an EU referendum. Labour and the Liberal Democrats did not. The Conservative Party won a majority in a surprise result, partly because of this promise. Parliament voted by a majority for the European Union Referendum Act 2015.
‘The 2016 Referendum was flawed’
This is almost certainly true, but why should we suppose a People’s Vote would be unflawed? In 2015–16 people contested what the referendum question should be, what the franchise should be, the funding regime for the campaigns, and so on. This led some to believe that the 2016 referendum was flawed. But does anyone seriously think that there will not be serious disagreements about these issues a second time around? Is it now any clearer whether EU denizens in the UK should be included in the franchise? Which of 50 different versions of the question would be the right one to ask? If anything, these issues are even more contested than in 2016.
‘People have changed their minds since 2016’
This could be true, but the logic is invalid. Yes, it is possible that some people have changed their minds. But this includes leavers changing their minds and also remainers changing their minds. It is also possible that the proportions of remainers and leavers is still roughly the same. In any event, people changing their minds after elections is quite normal. But the appropriate course of action is enacting the 2016 referendum first, and only after that enactment making a case for another referendum if it is very clear that there really has been a significant shift in the public mood.
‘If it was democratically acceptable to hold the 2017 General Election only two years after the 2015 General Election, then it must be democratically acceptable to hold a second EU referendum after only two years’
False. The difference is that the 2015 General Election was actually respected and the country had a Conservative government for a couple of years. The 2016 referendum has not been carried out yet. The UK has not actually left the EU as of now. People arguing for a People’s Vote want this to happen prior to the UK leaving the EU.
‘The 2016 referendum did not give a clear answer’
False. The 2016 referendum did provide a clear, if small, majority. What is more, the 2016 referendum provided a clear answer on the issue of leaving the EU, namely, that the UK should leave the EU (Brexit). The referendum question was not, ‘Do you want to start the process of testing the waters about leaving the EU?’. In fact, the question was this: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The responses to the question to be marked with a single (X) were: ‘Remain a member of the European Union’, ‘Leave the European Union’. 51.9% voted for Leave, and 48.1% voted for Remain.
‘People did not really know what they were voting for in the 2016 referendum in the sense of what sort of Brexit they would end up with’
Here again the logic is invalid. That people did not really know what they would get seems to be an argument against ever holding referenda or general elections since people never really know what they will get. Besides, people still do not know what sort of Brexit they will get. We have yet to actually secure a withdrawal agreement let alone a political and economic agreement on the future relationship with the EU. (Indeed, people do not really know what sort of EU they would be remaining in.) So the logic of the argument would suggest not holding a referendum now but later after the UK exits the EU when the picture of what this looks like becomes clearer.
‘A People’s Vote would settle the matter’
False. It is scarcely imaginable that it would settle the matter. Even if there is a consensus about the People’s Vote question should be, and even if people agree that remain should be an option on the ballot, and even if the majority votes for remain – and that’s an awful lot of ifs – this might still not settle the matter. For one thing, people may justifiably ask. ‘Why should the government enact this referendum result when it still has not enacted the 2016 referendum result?’ Or, ‘Okay, the People’s Vote said something new, let’s carry on with Brexit for now and hold a third EU referendum in a couple more years to see what that tells us.’
Moreover, in the 2016 referendum the voter turn out was a very healthy 72.2% of registered voters, with 33.6million people voting. Some 17.4million people voted Leave. What if there is a very significant drop in voter turnout for the People’s Vote? What if people don’t turn out because they think ‘Why bother, they didn’t do what we wanted last time?’, out of protest or from voting burnt out. And suppose this time around Leave actually wins by 51.9%, but because of the lower turnout this amounts to just 7.4million people. Why would that result have more legitimacy than the one in 2016 when 17.4million people voted Leave? Yes it is more recent, but at the same time it would reflect a much smaller turnout. Horses for courses.
In short, there is no clear sense in which the ideas being used to justify holding a People’s Vote can do the heavy lifting asked of them. Back to the drawing board – or maybe back to the 2016 referendum result.