It was, ironically, the now Brexit secretary David Davis who said that ‘ a democracy which cannot change its mind ceases to be a democracy, a line now frequently quoted by advocates of having a second referendum on membership of the European Union. Nevertheless, such people are quickly forgetting any lessons they may have taken from the original result. A second referendum now would be both damaging and counterproductive.
The central case for a second vote tends to be the argument that some degree of ‘regret’ exists among those who voted to leave the European Union. It tends to go hand in hand with some version of the patronising ‘didn’t know what they were voting for’ narrative. Be honest, all of you reading this will probably have heard somebody complain about ‘uninformed’ Brexit voters who were ‘misled’ by the evil media. The argument then goes that these mythical ‘uninformed’ people will now have had their eyes opened to the truth and are queueing up to vote remain in a second referendum. Put simply, it is nonsense. Firstly, in claiming that some people are ‘uninformed’ some remainers seem to endorse a chillingly archaic notion that elections should be decided by the ‘right’ people; the kind of logic which led to women and working-class men being denied the vote for so long. Secondly, despite the much-quoted poll by YouGov showing a rising desire for a vote there is little polling to suggest that many of the 52% who backed Brexit have changed their minds. There is, in short, no strong case that public opinion has shifted drastically enough to re-open a highly divisive political issue less than two years after the 2016 referendum.
Moreover, do any of the second referendum crowd recall the state of both campaigns? It was hardly an edifying few months for British democracy, with the leave sides now infamous £350 million a week for the NHS claim and remainer George Osbourne’s utterly discredited treasury predictions expecting an almost immediate recession. The low point for me was watching Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof hurl insults at each other from boats on the Thames. This spectacle, in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament which so many giants of history have graced, must rank as a low point for British democracy during a squalid campaign in which both sides deserved to lose. Why do so many want to go through this whole divisive process again? And worse, they risk opening the wounds of two years ago just as people begin to get over the bitter divisions we saw in the campaign. Surprising as it may seem in our student bubble, most remain voters do now believe we ought to respect the vote and leave the European Union. Finally, to return to the quote about a democracy needing the ability to change its mind, the 2017 election gave people a chance to express their view, and over 80% of them voted for parties committed to leaving the EU (which was both Labour and Conservative policy). The disappointing Liberal Democrat performance demonstrates the case for a second referendum does not have significant appeal.
(Image courtesy of Metro)