Another vote is simply a democratic necessity, whichever side you are onby AC Grayling / September 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Even if I were a Leaver I would support a second referendum for the following reasons. The 2016 referendum on EU membership has left the country in a deeply unsettled state, with divisions as bitter as those that accompanied the Suez crisis of 1956, and uncertainties as bleak as the days following an outbreak of war. And it has done so because the referendum was inconclusive and flawed, and did not deliver a clear and genuine democratic mandate.
The facts, for so they are, which explain why the referendum was inconclusive and flawed, are these. Recall that the referendum was advisory. No referendum in our constitution can be otherwise, because of the doctrine of the sovereignty of parliament; but MPs were expressly reminded of this in advance of their debate on the referendum Bill, in a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper (number 07212, 3rd June 2015), and confirmed on the floor of the House of Commons by the Minister for Europe, David Lidington (Hansard 16th June 2015).
Parliament has never specifically debated the outcome of the referendum, nor specifically voted on whether or not to accept the advice of the advisory vote. Instead it has chosen, without discussion, to treat the outcome as politically mandating although constitutionally advisory only. Given that parliament and the government it supports exist constitutionally (see the UK parliament website and MPs’ code) to protect and foster the interests of the country and its people, and given that the most optimistic projections of the effect of the best possible Brexit indicates that damage will accrue to the economy and livelihoods, this privileging of the political over the constitutional raises profound questions.
The electorate enfranchised for the referendum excluded, after debate on the matter, 16 and 17 year olds (in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 this demographic was included because the vote crucially affected their future), citizens of other EU countries living, working and paying their taxes in the UK, and British expats of 15 or more years’ residence abroad. Of this electorate, 37 per cent voted in favour of leaving the EU. On the day of the vote this proportion was represented by 51.9 per cent of votes cast.
The 37 per cent figure requires context: by statute a trades union needs a vote of 40 per cent of its total membership to call a strike, otherwise the strike is illegal. There cannot be a general election outside the fixed parliamentary term unless 66 per cent of all sitting members vote for it. This high bar exists because a general election might bring about a change of government and therefore a change of national circumstances. Major and perhaps permanent constitutional change chosen by 37 per cent of a (restricted) electorate is by no standard a mandate, and this is a big reason why the referendum is far from conclusive.
Moreover, in the 2016 referendum the “Leave” side offered no plan, no roadmap, no costings, no impact assessments, no statement of what would need to be done to effect a separation from the EU that would minimise damage to the economy and therefore people’s livelihoods and prospects. To the contrary, it relied in significant part on misinformation (the Turkish claim), false promises (£350m a week for the NHS, the “easiest trade deals in history” etc), illegal overspending (as found by the Electoral Commission), press distortions about the EU (by the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Express and the Telegraph). It is claimed that there was interference and manipulation on social media platforms as well: in all, a deeply discouraging picture as to how 37 per cent of the electorate was persuaded to vote Leave without a single explanation of what would follow or how it would be achieved.
Since the referendum a great deal has been learned about possible outcomes of various kinds of Brexit—at time of writing, more than two years after the referendum, it is still unknown what form Brexit might take—and already businesses have moved abroad, inward investment has plummeted, jobs have been lost, and even leading Brexiters are moving their funds and commercial activities out of the UK. Warnings from car manufacturers, road hauliers, thousands of small and medium businesses with highly time-sensitive supply chains, the financial services sector, the science and education communities, and more, are ringing the alarm bells loudly and persistently.
In light of all this, a second referendum is an absolute necessity. It conforms to the common-sense principle that it is wise to consult second thoughts, a principle applied in parliament itself in relation to no confidence votes: if a government loses a no confidence vote, a second such vote must be held two weeks later to see whether anyone has changed his or her mind. If that principle (to protect a government against the momentary anger of its own backbenchers, mainly) is good enough in parliament, in the momentous matter of the UK’s EU membership it is a must.
If there is not a second referendum on EU membership—with Remain as an option—it will be the greatest ever travesty of British democracy, and both figuratively and literally the beginning of the end of the UK itself.