EU and UK Flag - Brexit
Creative Commons: Alexas Fotos

The European Union. It’s always been there, gnawing away at British politics, but over the past 3 years our relationship with the EU has gone from a fringe issue to a full-blown crisis. Rightly or wrongly, it has divided, stymied and log-jammed the country like few things have managed to before it. The question of whether to hold a second referendum on the issue, however, shouldn’t.

We need, desperately, a fresh referendum on whether we endorse May’s deal, gun for no deal, or if we should Remain in the EU after all. Those should be the options, and no, it shouldn’t be advisory – it should be legally binding. I’m not interested here in quibbling about economic forecasts, co-opting the legacy of The Troubles or of world wars, or accusing anyone of being a traitor. My sole interest here is in communicating the clear and urgent need for a fresh referendum on what is a new set of circumstances, that should be embraced whichever way you did or would vote on the EU.

Why referendums aren’t bad for democracy

Firstly, we need to deal with the philosophy that has emerged from the trauma of the last referendum, namely that direct democracy is somehow a bad thing. The first strand of this philosophy suggests that the very idea of a referendum is inconsistent with parliamentary sovereignty and representative democracy. This is, in short, bollocks. Legally speaking parliament is sovereign but politically and morally it derives its legitimacy from us. We elect it, we hold it to account and it is ultimately there (in theory) to serve us. That means we should maintain the right, on key issues, to give it a clear direction on a specific issue, particularly if it appears unable to find one itself.

MP’s aren’t superheroes, geniuses or a different species – their sole source of legitimacy, their right to make decisions for us all, is our will, our approval – if we don’t like what they’re doing, or if they seem unable to make up their mind, we should have every right to step in and give them a course-correction. To refuse this and instead claim MP’s should make all decisions at all times leaves parliament severed from society and therefore their source of legitimacy – their authority undermined, bizarrely, by an attempt to defend it.

The second strand is a sense that in some way ordinary people are just too [insert insult of choice] to make important decisions of this nature. Rarely is the speaker including themselves in this description. Or their family, or their friends. The ill-equipped voter is almost always the mythical other – out of sight but always in mind, conjured in times of need. Needless to say, this argument, conjured in defence of our esteemed representatives, undermines their position once more – if we cannot be trusted to choose our future relationship with the EU, why trust us to elect parliament? And what, therefore, is the basis of the legitimacy of said parliament? Paradoxically, then, it is the denial of the legitimacy of direct democracy that undermines its milder representative forms, rather than the other way around.

Why we need a referendum on Brexit

So, maybe we can stomach referendums in theory, but what about this specific referendum being proposed? The first counter is that a general election is preferable. The sticking point here of course is that, fundamentally, a general election doesn’t answer the question. As the current policies stand, the two major parties support Leaving, and the election, whilst likely primarily fought on Brexit, would be fudged by all sorts of other issues, making it unclear if it was the party’s Brexit position that was winning an overall mandate. Surely its easier, if we really want to get a picture of what people want on Brexit, just to ask them about that first? For Labour supporters, as this argument often comes from, a general election in lieu of a new referendum forces Labour to mobilise around one of its weakest, least inspiring policy areas to boot – why deliberately hamstring your party?

A common argument emanating from Leave camps, and picked up by some Remainers too, is that a second vote on something is somehow undemocratic. This is often also accompanied with a fear of disillusioning or insulting those that voted Leave by going back and asking them to reconsider. It’s vital that this isn’t dismissed out of hand – disillusionment with British politics is deep and wide, and we should be extremely wary of exacerbating that. But it may also be unavoidable. Ramming through a deal, or tumbling into no deal, or changing tack and extending Article 50, or even Remaining, through elite processes, is a sure-fire way to disillusion millions. If we get it wrong, and it leads to worsening economic and/or political conditions, this too, will potentially disillusion millions more.

All of this, of course, would also entail supporting a position which not a single individual has voted for. Not one. Of course, we are told that ‘people voting Leave knew that X’ or that ‘voting Leave obviously meant Y’, but this is a set of assumptions, made by one person about what was in another person’s mind two and a half years ago, a far cry away from actually going back and asking that person. Cling to the belief if you wish but don’t pretend it’s democratic.

What should the referendum look like?

This isn’t a rehash of 2016 being proposed – a vote on May’s deal with the option to remain or to leave with no deal is very much a different vote. This becomes a vote that is much clearer, and more informed – we know, concretely, what the options are, options that weren’t there last time. The last vote didn’t tell us what Brexit should look like, which of the many paths we should take – this one will (and it’s only fair Remain is still an option).

Ultimately, what do we have to fear? If nothing has changed and Brexit is still ‘the will of the people’ then in a referendum they’ll vote for it again and we’ll leave. If, however, it isn’t any longer the will of the people then why on earth are we leaving?

If, as a Remainer, I wanted to derail Brexit, calling for a second referendum is a poor way of doing it. There’s no real evidence that Remain would definitely (let alone convincingly) win this time round – it’s a shot in the dark at best. A vote doesn’t give any side an advantage (for those worried about my options ‘splitting’ the Leave vote, some sort of preference ranking system could be used, whereby if your favoured option is knocked out your vote goes to your next favourite etc). The point of democracy is to take decisions out of the hands of elites with vested interests – a vote, whilst imperfect, is our best shot at doing that.

So many people with so many agendas are so busy telling everyone else what ‘the people’ want, but no one is actually bothering to ask them. Isn’t it about time we did?

Bradley Allsop

About Bradley Allsop

Bradley is currently studying for his PhD in youth political engagement at the University of Lincoln and writes on democracy, political engagement and political psychology.