Skip to main content

A Second Referendum?

Ian Caistor-Parker, University of Warwick

In my previous article, I addressed the social and political impact of Brexit for British citizens. I painted a bleak picture that has since worsened as the sole positive impact identified - a surge in youth participation, is being brought into question. Consequently, I have become increasingly aware of the possibility of a second Brexit referendum, a position being pushed for publicly by figures including Lord Adonis, and at the grassroots level by nascent organisations like ‘Our Future Our Choice’ which has formed a group here at Warwick University. The question of a second referendum is then politically pertinent. The arguments in favour are appealing yet I believe pragmatically unfeasible and incredibly ‘thin’ failing to address the causes of Brexit.

First, I will explore the three strongest arguments in favour of a second referendum before exposing their limitations: 1. Problems surrounding the original vote 2. Misinformation 3. Brexit being used as an opportunity to protest the status quo. By a ‘second referendum’ I mean a vote on whether to accept the deal negotiated between the British Government and the heads of the EU 27 or to reject it and remain the EU.

The first argument promulgated by supporters of a second referendum is that the original referendum was a meaningless vote that provided a meaningless mandate -an argument in two parts. One argues that the 52%-48% vote in favour of remain is far from representing the ‘will of the people’, instead, it represents a partial will - 52% only equates to around 17 million of an electorate of 46.5 million. Viewed this way the leave victory’s superficiality becomes evident despite Brexit’s ‘huge’ turnout. Nevertheless, in a democratic system a victory, even by one vote, is a victory nonetheless and sceptics can thus point to the 1.2 million more votes for ‘leave’.

However, the sceptic's arguments don’t hold up when the second part is incorporated. A belief that the question on ballot papers Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ was itself highly ambiguous. Leave voters were clearly not voting to ‘remain a member of the European Union’ but what did it mean to ‘leave’? We have subsequently learnt that the answer to this question depends on your perspective – leaving the European Union means nothing in itself. For Theresa May ‘Brexit’ was qualified first as ‘meaning Brexit’ and then as entailing a ‘red white and blue Brexit’. In short, for May, Brexit means nothing - it is realpolitik as usual. In the ideational power vacuum that has created two alternative visions of Brexit have emerged: ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’. Both are reductionist labels which should be used with caution but in short, a hard Brexit involves jumping off the cliff edge, ‘going it alone’ even at the cost of no deal. Whereas a soft Brexit can be conceived as hardly a Brexit at all due to the level of continuity including remaining within the customs union. This vision of Brexit is anathema to archetypal ‘brexiteers’ like Jacob Rees-Mogg who has stated that everything short of total separation will leave Britain ‘shackled to the EU.’ Brexit, therefore, has no innate meaning it can represent ‘visions’ of a future Britain so divergent they can barely be reconciled.

My emphasis has been on the ‘extreme’ readings of what Brexit may entail but it is clear that when the electorate voted to leave it was without a complete understanding of what this meant beyond meaningless rhetoric about restoking non-existent or irrelevant feelings of ‘Britain’ by reducing immigration and re-asserting national sovereignty. In this context, the majority of 1.2 million appears increasingly fragile and an opportunity to qualify the ‘will of the people’ through a second referendum appears increasingly appealing, particularly when a version of this argument was recently espoused by arch Brexiteer Nigel Farage.

The argument that a second referendum should be held as the original referendum campaign was marred by misinformation and lack of understanding is often the ‘trump card’ played by advocates. Evidence for this position is legion: ‘what is Brexit?’ was one of Google's most frequently searched questions in the wake of June 2016; an opinion poll claims 26% of Brexit voters acknowledge they were misled by claims during the campaign and, in a video spread virally, LBC’s James O’Brien found it impossible to gather accurate contributions from his listeners about what concrete EU laws people were unhappy with - they didn’t know but assumed the worst. Misinformation wasn’t limited to the leave side, the remain campaign were rebuked by the treasury select committees for ‘mistaken’ claims that families would be £4,300 a year worse off following Brexit.

Therefore, evidence exists that inaccurate reporting and campaigning played a role in the vote to leave the EU. Voters were unclear what they were voting for, and their ability to reach a decision effectively was eroded. Critics could point to the fact that distortion was on both sides - and so evens out - and suggest that despite it most claims were accurate. However, even taking this argument at its best there is something troubling about such a complex decision being influenced by misinformation.

The final major strand of arguments in favour of a second referendum revolves around the idea that those who voted Brexit did so to protest the status quo rather than due to a genuine desire to exit the EU. Such arguments can rely on empirical and qualitative data. For example, Zsolt Darvas of LSE has shown the ‘leave’ vote was higher in regions of high-income inequality and poverty. These factors Darvas argues ‘undermine personal wellbeing and social cohesion’ and make protest votes likely. Seemingly corroborating this thinking, a BSE poll in the wake of the referendum showed the number of leave voters ‘regretting’ their vote exceeded leave’s margin of victory. The Guardian meanwhile identified and interviewed numerous leave voters who have since had a change of heart, one directly stating ‘I thought I had put in a protest vote.’ These examples suggest decisions may have been made out of disillusionment rather than due to gripes with the ‘shady bureaucracy’ of Brussels.’

Therefore, there are strong arguments in favour of a second referendum, arguments made stronger by the UK’s hapless performance in negotiations thus far and our gloomy economic outlook seen through falling growth and an evaporation of jobs. However, while something may seem appealing in theory it does not mean it is practically a good political position. We should be cautious when calling for a second referendum for pragmatic and philosophical reasons. A second referendum is virtually inconceivable in our current political climate, could be devastating for the labour party (a significant normative concern personally) and would fail to address the structural causes which originally led to Brexit.

On a pragmatic level, the chances of a second referendum occurring are remote. The only party openly supporting it are the vestigial Liberal Democrats whose electoral fortunes seem unlikely to change in the short term. The conservatives are openly opposed to the idea May having stated, ‘there is no question of a second referendum.’ While it is wise to be sceptical of anything May says (her penchant is empty meaningless rhetoric), in this instance the evidence backs her up. Remain voices in the conservative party have been largely silenced and the few who dare to speak about a ‘mild’ Brexit with ‘minimal divergence’ from the EU, such as the Chancellor Phillip Hammond, have been accused of ‘undermining’ Britain’s attempts to leave the EU. Mogg, leader of the European research group has gone as far as to say the conservatives would require a new leader and a complete change of policy to even consider a second referendum.

Consequently, the only party who could realistically push for a second referendum would be the Labour party. To be successful they would have to wield a parliamentary majority and shift their internal policy away from support for a ‘jobs first’ Brexit. This again seems highly unlikely, 35% of labour voters opted to leave the European Union and Labour’s leader, Jeremey Corbyn, is at best ‘7/10’ in favour of remaining in the EU. It is true that there is significant discord within the party over Labour’s stance towards Brexit, figures including Chuka Ummunahave been sustained critics and organisations like ‘Best for Britain’and ‘Our Future Our Choice’ are exerting increasing grassroots pressure. However, the fact remains that it is in Labours best interest to maintain its current position. While their current stance does lead to division, the splits are less visible than those in the Conservative party and likely to be less electorally damaging. Few labour voters are likely to prefer the Conservative’s hard stance or the moribund liberal democrats – soft Brexit is, electorally speaking, good enough.

However, just because something is practically implausible does not necessarily preclude it being a worthy cause – remaining in the EU could be such a fundamental principle that is should overwrite all other concerns. But this is a very narrow position to adopt. Vocal advocates for remain have tended to be emanant largely from the educated middle class, being centred around university towns and major cities. It is these groups who are now pushing for a second referendum. These very same groups fail to interact with the other side and assume that because they have become even more opposed to Brexit since 2016 others will too. However, there is insufficient evidence to justify this conclusion, remainers are continuing to preach to the converted rather than engaging with the structural issues that lead to Brexit. I find it very hard to conceive of my Brexit supporting relatives being anything but further alienated from the political establishment when groups based amongst young university students like ‘Our Future Our Choice’ loudly push for a second referendum. I certainly agree Brexit is an unmitigated disaster, but I am not the person who needs persuading! Similarly attempts to change labour party policy ignores the fact that a significant number of Labour voters want to leave, if we want to build a more open and inclusive Britain we need to address their concerns rather than shouting the same ideas louder and more bluntly. Movements need to bridge gaps and create a sense of society rather than play into neo-liberal narratives – labour are in a unique position to be able to drive this change.

If we ask what really caused Brexit we need to look no further than the existence of a profoundly divided nation. We live in an age of ‘no society’, where naked self-interest and vast inequality rule supreme while public institutions including the NHS and schools are chronically underfunded. Add to this the growing educational divide and it becomes obvious why Brexit, which offered the opportunity to regain a sense of identity, provided such a visceral (and seemingly illogical) appeal. Calls for a second referendum completely fail to address this reality, they mask the real issues and play into tropes of Brexiteers being misguided idiots who need to think again. This narrative is one I sympathise with, but it is only a partial story. By focusing on a ‘thin’ debate that seems unlikely to ever move beyond the realm of the theoretical we overlook the deeper issues and may undermine the real change we could instigate through a socialist government which would enact wider reaching reforms which will hopefully lead to the reversal of Brexit through the changing of attitudes. We should not be so caught up in the now that we lose sight of this bigger picture.


Image: © Pro EU March, Wikimedia