A second EU referendum would bring a couple of months of hell—but Brexit would be incalculably worseby Jonathan Lis / January 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/DPA/PA Images If the arguments of deluded Brexiters ever seem repetitive or predictable, at least Nigel Farage is able to spring the occasional surprise. When he declared yesterday, to the delight of Remainers across the country, that “maybe we should have a second referendum on EU membership,” he also let one of the most vexed cats out of the Brexit bag: a viable way of stopping it. Numerous commentators have speculated about Farage’s motivations. He has since muddied the water by suggesting that Brexiters should prepare for a referendum but not actively seek one. His thesis that a second referendum could emphatically consolidate the 2016 result, settling the question for a generation or more, is plausible. But the headline here is that the prospect of a second referendum—for so long a niche cause among national politicians if not Remain campaigners—has found its first champion on the other side of the argument. Indeed, not just any champion, but the toxic patron saint of the entire Brexit movement. To gauge the significance, we can simply review the last 18 months of political discourse. Any political opposition to Brexit has been couched in the obligatory language of “respecting the referendum result” or “the will of the people”; failure to do so has invited full-throated tabloid denunciations as an anti-democrat or traitor. Following through on Brexit has become an unchallengeable orthodoxy amongst all but a minority of Remain MPs. With or without Farage’s tacit endorsement, the narrative around a new referendum has been laden with poison. Last month the prime minister herself delivered the Orwellian judgement to the Commons that a new vote “would be betraying the people,” as though the people might somehow betray themselves. A referendum carries political difficulties but is demonstrably not illegitimate or undemocratic. Democracies permit citizens to weigh up facts, evaluate altered circumstances, reaffirm initial decisions and, yes, change minds; it is the reason elections are held more than once every generation. Voters are perfectly entitled to compare the promises of Brexit from the halcyon days of the £350m-a-week NHS bonanza and near-instant global trade deals with the reality of joblessness, isolation and decline which awaits today. “Last month the PM said that a new vote would be betraying the people, as though the people might somehow betray themselves” A referendum would almost certainly be on the terms of a final deal, rather than a straight re-run of the 2016 vote. But will there be a new result? Anyone who tells you they know the answer is either foolish or dishonest. A number of the 2016 variables have changed: many Remainers believe the result should be honoured, many Leavers feel cheated and want to return to a more stable status quo ante, previous non-voters have been shocked out of complacency, and those too young to have voted the first time will want their voices to be heard now. Conversely, numerous factors are unchanged. True, voters may consider the reputational damage that Brexit is already doing, our new “vassal state” relationship and the global humiliation of cakeism, but on the issues which affect people’s everyday lives things will necessarily, in most cases, not yet have changed. We can moreover predict the tone of the campaign. The same projections of imminent reality—with perhaps three years’ worth of evidence to guarantee accuracy—will be met with the same insidious dismissals of “Project Fear.”Brexit leaders will encourage voters to overlook their instincts and focus on “independence.” The economy and immigration will likely dominate the debate. Indeed, the Remain campaign could be forced into the same talking points and electoral terrain as last time, with similar results. Even if polls start off favourably, the strict campaign rules will enable the Brexiters to chip away or reverse a lead—and once again, the Leave campaign will be legally permitted to lie with total impunity, on the sole condition, in accordance with British election law, that they do not libel individuals. Given the absence of complacency, the stakes will also be higher than in 2016, possibly with the fate of the government on the line. It could unleash Britain’s most bruising and divisive political episode in living memory. We must also consider the aftermath of the referendum. A victory for Leave would encase Brexit in concrete as though it were a radioactive grave. Rejoining the EU would be almost unthinkable for decades to come. Depending on the timing and circumstances, it might even presage the hardest of Brexits in the form of a cliff-edge no-deal, regardless of whether the public had knowingly voted for that uniquely disastrous outcome. A victory for Remain, while obviously the desired result for pro-Europeans, would bring its own difficulties. The writer Owen Jones has warned, justifiably, of the impression of an “Establishment stitch-up,” and many Leave voters, particularly from poorer backgrounds, could totally disengage from the democratic process. The gaping fissures in society could become permanent. And of course Leavers would not take the result lying down. While some would agitate for the dreaded “neverendum,” others would quietly relish their new status of democratic martyrs—heroes of British sovereignty denied their project by the liberal elites, and never forced to admit that it was an undeliverable pack of lies powering a post-colonial fever dream. The entire premise of another referendum also assumes a series of complicated legal and parliamentary mechanics which are far from assured. At the most basic level, the vote must take place before we exit the EU. After we have left, we cannot simply vote to stay in, but instead the government must apply to re-join it in line with any other country—a process which would take years and almost certainly cost us our current membership opt-outs. The EU must therefore agree, in principle, to revoke Article 50 if the government requests it. This is politically all but guaranteed, but will require delicate negotiation, a potential legal discussion and European Court of Justice ruling, and inevitably a significant length of time. “The entire premise of another referendum also assumes a series of complicated legal and parliamentary mechanics which are far from assured” That is however just the start. If talks collapsed in October or November, there would be no time to arrange a referendum at such short notice, given our exit date of March 2019. The relevant legislation would take several months to clear parliament, and electoral authorities would strictly determine periods of preparation and campaigning. In the meantime, the EU27 would have to agree not to revoke Article 50 but rather extend it—again, a likely proposition, but one which requires political capital the British government rarely seems to wield. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the referendum would require the government’s support. Without it, parliament’s ability to pass the required legislation would be effectively zero. Given that the prime minister has staked her premiership on Brexit meaning Brexit, and has so conclusively ruled out a new vote, it seems almost inconceivable that she might ever call one. If she did, it is even harder to imagine that, after three years of nationalist frenzy, she would put the government’s weight behind a Remain result. The government might have to fall, triggering a general election. But in effect we have no choice. To paraphrase Churchill, a new referendum is the worst solution except for all the others. There is nothing to stop the prime minister revoking Article 50 if she wishes, provided the EU consents, and parliament could feasibly force her into doing so—but the stain of illegitimacy could haunt us for decades. A government could also claim exceptional measures to resolve without popular consent the impending emergency of a no-deal scenario—but voters might, in that case, reasonably demand to make the final decision on such governmental advice. In short, Brexit can probably not be cancelled by fiat unless public opinion overwhelmingly endorses such a move. A new referendum would bring a couple of months of hell: exhausting, brutal and bitterly divisive. But Brexit would be incalculably worse. The time for pain-free solutions was 2015. If there is a way we can end this unprecedented calamity, we owe it to ourselves, our neighbours and future generations to try. Brexit Britain: the future of industry is a publication which examines the future of UK manufacturing through the prism of the recently released Industrial Strategy White Paper. The report features contributions from the likes of Greg Clark MP, Miriam Gonzalez, Richard Graham MP and Frances O’Grady. If you want to know all about where industry is headed in Brexit Britain, you can download the whole Brexit Britain: The future of industry reportas a fully designed PDF document. To do so, simply enter your email below. You’ll receive your copy completely free—within minutes.