DOMINIC SANDBROOK: I voted Remain... but a second referendum would be a catastrophe for democracy

Daily Mail Online 0 month ago

Will it ever end? Three days after the parliamentary showdown that was supposed to settle Brexit once and for all, Labour now plans to back an amendment calling for a second referendum on Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU.

And so the soap opera continues, a stalemate that has become the greatest embarrassment in our modern political history.

But if MPs do vote for a second referendum — as seems disturbingly possible — then this inglorious tragicomedy could take a very dark turn indeed.

A second referendum campaign would stoke passions to fever pitch. The sense of betrayal among Leavers would almost certainly see such scenes repeated across the country — and just imagine their outrage if Remain scraped home!
A second referendum campaign would stoke passions to fever pitch. The sense of betrayal among Leavers would almost certainly see such scenes repeated across the country — and just imagine their outrage if Remain scraped home!

A second vote would be a catastrophe for British democracy — and I say that as someone who voted Remain the first time around.

Whatever the outcome, I think it would deepen the gulf between Leavers and Remainers, drive a wedge between generations, turn millions of people against the political system and inject a poison into our political culture that would persist for generations.

The practical objections alone are colossal. Referendums are expensive: The last one cost us £130 million.

Even if Parliament approved a second vote, a campaign would take several months to organise. In other words, British businesses would continue in limbo until the middle of 2020, with yet more uncertainty, paralysis and economic stagnation.

Some Remainers, it seems to me, are so fanatical about their devotion to Brussels, so cocooned in their self-indulgent bubbles and so maddened by the experience of defeat that they have given no serious thought to the consequences of their actions
Some Remainers, it seems to me, are so fanatical about their devotion to Brussels, so cocooned in their self-indulgent bubbles and so maddened by the experience of defeat that they have given no serious thought to the consequences of their actions

And what on earth would a second referendum be about? A simple Leave/ Remain re-run? Boris Johnson’s deal versus Remain? The deal versus No Deal? Or a messy, Byzantine combination of all of them?

Almost certainly, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party would urge their supporters to boycott a second vote unless No Deal was an option. 

That seems very unlikely, because the Electoral Commission justified the straightforward Leave or Remain option in the 2016 referendum on the grounds that the question had to be ‘written in a way that voters could easily understand and answer’.

That effectively rules out a complicated three-way question in any re-run. So, with No Deal off the table, there is a good chance that millions would stay at home, meaning that even if Remain did prevail, their victory would be disastrously tainted.

At the time, the Remain campaign argued that Brexit would be complicated, costly and extremely risky, which is precisely what Remainers still claim today. This was hardly a state secret. The then Prime Minister David Cameron is pictured meeting with German Chancellor Merkel
At the time, the Remain campaign argued that Brexit would be complicated, costly and extremely risky, which is precisely what Remainers still claim today. This was hardly a state secret. The then Prime Minister David Cameron is pictured meeting with German Chancellor Merkel

The Brexit Party would claim that the result had no legitimacy and might even campaign for a third vote. Can you imagine greater chaos?

And would the EU really welcome us with open arms? Isn’t it likely that Emmanuel Macron and his cronies would force us to prove our sincerity by embracing the principle of greater integration and perhaps even by signing up to the euro and the Schengen open-borders agreement?

But, quite apart from all this, I think the biggest objection is a basic point of principle. A second referendum would be wrong. It would look wrong, sound wrong, even smell wrong. It would simply not be the decent thing to do.

At the heart of democracy is the expectation that if you lose, you take defeat on the chin. You don’t call out the army, take to the streets or begin a guerrilla campaign to topple your adversaries. 

You dust yourself down, wish your opponents the best of luck and recharge your batteries for the next electoral campaign.

Referendums are, of course, slightly different, because they are once-in-a-generation occasions.

But that is the point: They are supposed to happen only once in a generation.

This was the explicit premise for the 2016 campaign. David Cameron made this absolutely clear at the time, telling the cameras that there would be no second chance, no re-run. 

A simple Leave/ Remain re-run? Boris Johnson’s deal versus Remain? The deal versus No Deal? Or a messy, Byzantine combination of all of them? Almost certainly, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party would urge their supporters to boycott a second vote unless No Deal was an option
A simple Leave/ Remain re-run? Boris Johnson’s deal versus Remain? The deal versus No Deal? Or a messy, Byzantine combination of all of them? Almost certainly, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party would urge their supporters to boycott a second vote unless No Deal was an option

‘The Government,’ promised the official leaflets, ‘will implement what you decide.’

A year later, in the snap election of 2017, both the Tories and Labour explicitly promised they would honour the referendum result. 

There was no talk then of ‘B******s to Brexit’, to quote the Lib Dems’ infantile and patronising slogan. So what has changed?

According to the dishonestly named People’s Vote campaign — for what was the original referendum but a people’s vote? — the circumstances now are completely different. 

Two million Leavers, they claim, have died since the last referendum, so we ought to have another one.

Quite apart from being unforgivably tasteless, this argument is almost risibly transparent. People die all the time. Does that mean that we have to re-run every referendum after a few years?

And, in any case, if so many Leavers have died, how come the polls haven’t radically changed? Why are they still so close?

Next, the Remainers claim we have lots of information now that we didn’t have in 2016. We know now, they say, how difficult Brexit will be, so we ought to have a chance to change our minds.

Three days after the parliamentary showdown that was supposed to settle Brexit once and for all, Labour now plans to back an amendment calling for a second referendum on Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU
Three days after the parliamentary showdown that was supposed to settle Brexit once and for all, Labour now plans to back an amendment calling for a second referendum on Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU

This argument strikes me as utterly dishonest. There is nothing we know now that we didn’t know three years ago.

At the time, the Remain campaign argued that Brexit would be complicated, costly and extremely risky, which is precisely what Remainers still claim today.

This was hardly a state secret. It was aired in the media every day for weeks by, among others, the then prime minister, chancellor, leader of the opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

But 17.4 million people chose to ignore that argument, preferring to prioritise the issues of identity and sovereignty.

I didn’t agree with them, but that doesn’t mean I think they were reactionaries, racists or xenophobes, as so many ultra-Remainers claim.

They have been bolstered by the fact that the economic apocalypse so many predicted at the time of the vote has not come to pass.

The Leave argument also has a distinguished historical pedigree. Labour’s greatest leader, 

Clement Attlee, believed we should stay out of what was then the Common Market. So did his successor, Hugh Gaitskell, as well as serious, erudite figures such as Michael Foot, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and Barbara Castle.

That more than 17 million Britons chose to agree with them does not strike me as outlandish.

I agree that the Leave campaign was economical with the truth and, even more important, lamentably vague about its strategy for leaving the EU and forging a new path afterwards.

But that is the nature of referendums. Binary questions encourage both sides to take simple, strident positions, which is a good reason to think twice before having another one.

Just think how bitter politics has become in the past few years, encapsulated by the horrifying scenes of People’s Vote demonstrators screaming abuse at Jacob Rees-Mogg and his young son as they walked through Westminster on Saturday afternoon. 

David Cameron made this absolutely clear at the time, telling the cameras that there would be no second chance, no re-run. ‘The Government,’ promised the official leaflets, ‘will implement what you decide'
David Cameron made this absolutely clear at the time, telling the cameras that there would be no second chance, no re-run. ‘The Government,’ promised the official leaflets, ‘will implement what you decide'

A second referendum campaign would stoke passions to fever pitch. The sense of betrayal among Leavers would almost certainly see such scenes repeated across the country — and just imagine their outrage if Remain scraped home!

Some Remainers, it seems to me, are so fanatical about their devotion to Brussels, so cocooned in their self-indulgent bubbles and so maddened by the experience of defeat that they have given no serious thought to the consequences of their actions.

They don’t care that another referendum would alienate millions of voters. And they are blind to the fact that if they prevail, they will destroy trust in Westminster, corrode the bonds of our national community and undermine the basic principle of democracy.

It is a sign of their arrogance that they think the rest of the population cannot see through their dishonest cant about wanting a ‘final say’.

But, as most of us know perfectly well, what they actually want is to reverse Brexit — and they will stop at nothing to achieve it.

The principle of national solidarity demands that when a majority of the British people speak, the rest of us listen, instead of trying to shout and shriek them down.

The biggest myth about Brexit is that it is terribly complicated. Some aspects are, indeed, immensely convoluted, although I can’t help noticing that the most fanatical Remainers claim to be experts on all of them.

But at its heart is a principle a child can understand, even if Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer can’t. The British people were given a choice and they voted to leave.

So we should leave: No ifs, no buts, no second referendum. It really is as simple as that.


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