Yesterday, several hundred thousand people marched towards Parliament demanding a ‘People’s Vote’ on any deal the government concludes with the EU. For as long as any vote includes the option to remain, it will always be a second referendum. Taking the longer term view of a remainer, the idea of a second referendum is fundamentally flawed, because it will fail to achieve what its proponents are arguing for: securing the UK’s place in the EU.
The very idea of a second referendum is challenging to sustain. For some, it is based on the idea that the first referendum was somehow illegitimate: it was only advisory, and the result was due to lies that the leave argument made, with some leave campaigners breaching electoral law. However, Parliament has chosen to follow the advice of the referendum result in full knowledge of the tone of each campaign. Then, at last year’s general election, the electorate overwhelmingly voted for both main parties who accepted the result of the referendum. It is clear that the legislation on elections and referendums needs to be updated to take account of social media, but this is a difficult issue and needs careful attention.With the Article 50 clock ticking in the background, there is not the time to do this. It’s therefore likely that any second referendum will be held using the same rules that, in the eyes of its supporters, made the first referendum illegitimate.
The core political lesson to take from the first referendum is that someone should only call for a referendum when they are sure they can win it. Nicola Sturgeon has learned this lesson, suggesting that IndyRef2 will only happen when opinion polls show a consistent and strong lead in favour. Polling evidence on a second referendum shows that the remain argument is nowhere near close to this. The first EU referendum and last year’s general election were subject to volatile shifts in public opinion, why would a second referendum be any different?
One potential result is that remain narrowly wins. The question that has to be address is why should this prevail over the first referendum? Would it be a vote in favour of remain, or is it a vote against the deal that the UK has concluded with the EU? A likely outcome is a reborn UKIP or successor party, led by Nigel Farage or some other figure leading the campaign for a third referendum. The main parties, needing support from leave voters (who are spread more evenly across parliamentary constituencies than remainers), may have to follow suit to secure electoral success. The causes of the Brexit vote have not gone away. The second time around, the leave argument could draw on the experience of the current negotiations to package Brexit on a more coherent basis than in 2016.
Clearly, if remain loses, then the effect of the second referendum would be to assist, not stop, the Brexit process. In essence, this is the same dynamic the Millercase unleashed. Although there was a perfectly arguable legal issue, in practice Millerwas an attempt to ensure that by involving Parliament in triggering Article 50, it could either stop, or at least place conditions on Brexit. Instead, Parliament passed legislation granting the Prime Minister an unconditional power to trigger Article 50, leading some to describe Miller as ultimately ‘pointless‘. In removing any doubt about how to lawfully pursue Brexit, arguably the Millercase aided rather than hindered, the Brexit process. In a similar way, defeat at a second referendum would not only remove any doubt about the UK’s relationship with the EU, but would make it harder, at some point in the future, to argue that the UK could re-join. An extended transition period, the difficulties of the negotiations and Northern Ireland border issue could all from the basis of a post-Brexit case to rejoin the EU in the short-to-medium term.
EU flags and other such blue and yellow items dominated the march. These should only come out to play when it’s the Ryder Cup. This expression of a European identity, perfectly fine in and of itself, is unhelpful in attracting to the remain cause those who express other identities. A YouGov poll shows that in England only 9% identify themselves as ‘very strongly European’, by contrast, 46% consider themselves to be ‘very strongly British’, with 54% ‘very strongly English’. As John Denham, former Labour Cabinet Minister frequently states, at the 2016 referendum, in England, remain campaigned as ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’, but in Scotland as ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’. It seemed that for the remain campaign, the ‘English were not worth talking to’.Unsurprisingly, English identifiers were more likely to vote to leave in 2016, and the ‘leave’ vote was strongest in England outside of London where English identifiers tend to live. There’s little indication that the remain argument has learned anything from this.
It is generally understood that the vote for Brexit showed widespread dissatisfaction with prevailing economic conditions. Theresa May encapsulated this when she became Prime Minister in her speech on the steps of Downing Street. They are concerns that usually strike at the heart of liberalism, centrism, and social democratic politics. It’s housing, social care, education, healthcare, and so on. Parallel to this is the question of how an already overloaded Whitehall machine can effectively use the powers that will return from EU. Resolving these two issues require the creation of a more federal Britain, along the lines of a new Act of Union along the lines proposed by Lord Lisvane, the former Speaker of the House of Commons. Not only would this be one way to address the concerns that gave rise to Brexit but unclog both Whitehall and Westminster, creating the space to put the extra powers at their disposal to best use. This also requires looking at England, the part of the Union remainers have ignored. An English Parliament and/or greater devolution to local government, including combined authorities where there is demand, are all possible parts of the answer, and would give a real meaning to ‘taking back control’.
The irony is that empowering people through the decentralisation of power from Westminster have long been aims of the underlying political philosophy of many remainers. A federal UK has been the ultimate goal of Liberal Democrat constitutional policy for decades, and it was New Labour that first made moves towards giving local authorities more powers and created regional mayors. Arguably, a failure to go further and faster with this is one cause of Brexit. The other irony is that a more federal state with stronger local government would give the UK constitution a distinctly European hue. Surely that would be a good thing to a remainer? Going further, if remainers are correct and Britain’s destiny is to be in the EU, then a reformed constitution, allowing people to realise that decentralising power away from Whitehall and Westminster does not cause the sky to fall in, may well be the best springboard on which to re-join the EU. The UK’s membership would be on far sounder footing than it ever would be following any second referendum.
If remainers are ultimately concerned about UK’s membership in the EU, then a second referendum could unleash forces in UK politics that make re-joining the EU impossible. Even if remain wins a second referendum, Brexit would unlikely to be over. If remainers genuinely believe that EU membership is in the interests of the country then they need to take a longer-term and more sophisticated approach. Wearing blue and yellow berets, seeking to re-enact old battles, is not the way to achieve this.