Either Parliament, after a second Glorious Revolution, or the public, after a second referendum, will now have to decide about BREXIT. The meaningful vote was meaningful. The Labour confidence motion was duly tabled and lost. There is talk about negotiating a permanent customs union. And there are indications behind the scenes of a Parliamentary revolution against the Executive, cross-Party moves to take control of the BREXIT process. Due consideration of a second referendum option has drawn closer.
Hyperbole about the negative consequences of a second referendum has consequently been cranked up in the last week, and will doubtless be cranked up some more. “Catastrophic”, “Unforgiveable”, “Betrayal” “Damaging our Democracy”, “Divisive and Disappointing”, “Stimulating violent right-wing extremism”, and “Opening the doors to Populism”. Can Dominic Grieve, asking the British public in his QC’s-crystal voice to confirm their June 2016 decision in the light of new information, be talking about the same thing?
In this Orwellian world, every criticism of a future People’s Vote should be applied to the first 2016 referendum. It was unforgiveable of David Cameron to land us in this situation then walk away leaving Theresa May to mop up. BREXIT has tipped the country into a catastrophic constitutional crisis. What has been divisive and disappointing is the inept and inflexible conduct of negotiations, stymied by being a dual negotiation between the Tory back benches and the EU. The tone of the BREXIT debate not only fed into right wing extremism, it created a climate in which the tragic death of a Member of Parliament at extremist hands took place. Phrases such as “red, white and blue BREXIT” and repetition of “the will of the People”, referring to 52% of them, opened the doors to populism. Government felt obliged to adopt, over a long thirty months, a series of sanitized populist appeals to the electorate.
The first referendum was indeed damaging to our democracy. The Leave campaign involved an unprecedented level of calculated deception followed by a litany of mistakes, lies and half-truths that undermined trust. Channel 4’s drama-documentary BREXIT: The Uncivil War confirmed how the Leave Campaign’s new techniques and technology, deployed by Dominic Cummings, directed marginalized voters’ anger towards the EU. ‘Take back control’ was a brilliant appeal to the emotions. I had forgotten ‘Turkey’, the incredible lie that Turkey was going to join the EU so that Izmir and Istanbul were about to decant their Muslim populations into Britain.
Looking back, it was a bad mistake to have a simple majority plebiscite on an immensely complex issue, a betrayal of parliamentary responsibility, to rescue a divided Tory Party. It was a mistake to tell the public that in our representative democracy they should do more than advise their representatives in Parliament. Instructing their elected representatives on an uncharted course of action - which a majority of parliamentarians believed ill-advised - challenged the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. And, it was after all Parliamentary sovereignty which Leave proponents were keen to retrieve from the pooled sovereignty of the European Union.
The subsequent Brexiteer campaign against permitting the British public a genuine democratic choice in a second public vote has been relatively successful. It amounts to saying that the public should not be permitted to act on accumulated information about the salient features of the choice that they were asked to make. The Prime Minister and sundry Brexiteers pretend to know in telepathic detail what 17.4 million voters meant, and intended, when they voted Leave.
It is impossible to have a constructive conversation about a second referendum if you think an informed electorate is irrelevant to the conduct of democracy. Dominic Grieve’s reasoned argument is immediately, and successfully, twisted into “telling the people they got it wrong, making them vote again until they get it right.” In other words, playing one hundred percent into the story of the arrogant elite that doesn’t listen to the people. From another part of the same elite, we are daily given a dog-whistle reminding us that the public must not be allowed second thoughts on BREXIT lest it triggers right-wing violence. This amounts to Project Fear Mark Two: summoning a very dangerous genie out of the bottle. Are we really going to allow the contours of a future Britain to be determined by the blackmail threat of right-wing violence?
A second referendum is understandably presented as a betrayal by those strongly invested in Leave. But in reality Ireland, Denmark and France have adopted the expedient of a second referendum to resolve an EU choice, and in Britain we have done the same for issues involving devolution and the Welsh and Scottish assemblies. None of these second votes have resulted in civil war or fascist tyranny.
So what is Parliament going to do with its sovereignty if the second Glorious Revolution occurs? To wrest the driving wheel from the Tory Executive, Parliament in its present disarray is going to face a dangerous struggle; it may end up ingloriously in a ditch. As for the Executive, doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different outcome is usually taken as a sign of madness. Theresa May’s stubbornly held conviction that she can dictate her red lines to all and sundry while negotiating terms with the EU that go counter to the EU’s foundational principles fits that description.
It may also fit the description of a second referendum as a last resort to confirm democratic legitimacy of the first. But I doubt it. Second referendums statistically have a habit of reversing the outcome of the first. We won’t ever know unless we give it a try. Or unless we are obliged to go to the Electoral Commission as the only way of climbing out of the ditch. Which would mean that attempts to take control and direct events by Parliament had proved more inglorious than glorious.