I get that sometimes you have to be cautious about what you wish for. Will a second referendum actually give a different, decisive and authoritative result? Will the process cause strife and violence, as in the case of the physical bullying of Anna Soubry? Would it be seen as a betrayal – as May would like us to think – of the democratic process? Maybe it would be seen as the start of a neverendum, best of three or however many it takes to make everyone sick of the whole thing?
I’m not a fan of referenda in a parliamentary democracy, a referendum happens when Westminster is stuck on what to do next about an issue. It should be Parliament that approves decisions, and there has been a lot of controversy last week about the Speaker’s role in that. However, leaving the EU is a bigger step even than joining the European Economic Community as it then was. It’s a leap off a cliff without a parachute. Who knows, maybe we’ll have a soft landing, but there are no guarantees.
So does May have a point in saying that a second referendum would be a betrayal of democracy? The 2016 referendum was won by the Leave campaign on a margin of 52 to 48%. Let’s set aside speculation why the result fell out that way for the moment, let’s just consider whether that narrow margin, 17 to 16 million voters, justifies a leap off a cliff. It wasn’t overwhelming, it’s not like the vast majority of Britons rejected EU membership. What May just did was tell those 16 million in the minority to fuck off because our opinions don’t matter any more. The Decision is set in concrete.
Then there is the matter of whether the Leave campaign argued honestly. The £350 million to the NHS Brexit bus, for example, which was a total lie. There is also an ongoing investigation as to the involvement of the Kremlin, through now defunct outfits like Cambridge Analytica, in manipulating the vote by targeting individual voters based on harvesting their online data. So this adds the question: was the 2016 referendum legitimately won, or was it tampered with?
Another question is whether the public are entitled to change their minds, especially in the case where a referendum was won by a small majority of the vote to change the status quo? May’s position is that they are not. That they should not be asked to confirm or reverse their original decision. Given that we are in this mess through a referendum, and that Parliament can’t summon a majority to get us out of it, there is a good case for a second vote. If it confirms the first, we jump off the cliff.
However, as we draw closer to a second referendum because Westmonster can’t get its act together, the Remain campaign needs to review its tactics, focus and arguments. Project Fear, the view that there would be an economic disaster if we left, was not sufficient to convince those who felt they were already living in an economic disaster, and who wanted to poke the political establishment in the eye as a result.
The European Union is a striking, original, unprecedented and awesome achievement. It brought to an end centuries of wars between European nations. Never before has there been this much peace in Europe. The freedom of movement for European citizens across almost the entire continent, Russia and some other former Soviet states apart, is a boon to people, if maybe not to nationalistic politicians. It is an amazing accomplishment, and apparently, we want to be shot of it by a marginal majority.
Most members of the Tory party are exceptionally xenophobic. Members of the Labour party tend to be internationalist and supportive of Europe. Pity Corbyn supports the Tory view. More on that later. May appears to be out on a limb, unable to convince a parliamentary majority to support her botched deal to stay half in and half out of Europe, whatever that means which no-one has any clear idea about, and this is not surprising as so many Tories oppose membership of the EU in principle. It’s not quite clear what principle other than dislike of bloody foreigners.
It’s been debated that the vote to Leave was fuelled by people who were left behind economically, and saw no future. They wanted, it is said, to poke the establishment in the eye. If that’s the case, they succeeded beyond expectation. Perhaps a case can be made that staying in Europe and working towards improving living conditions is a path forward. Failing to acknowledge that British efforts to relieve poverty and homelessness have been non-existent under the Tories is not going to change a referendum result.